100: Les Rastas Dorés

100: Les Rastas Dorés

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Campus Chronicles

Les Rastas Dorés

There is a bit of insanity in dancing that does everybody a great deal of good.

~Edwin Denby

Still feeling the effects of seasickness combined with a stifling vomit-scented basement cabin, I abandoned my restless sleep and surfaced from the bowels of the ferry, relieved as the fresh air and salty breeze immediately invigorated my dulled senses. I perched on a bench with my travel companions, four girls also in my program, excited to witness our arrival in Ziguinchor, the capital of Casamance, the southern region of Senegal, Africa.

What was I doing, surveying a remote corner of Western Africa from a ferry, about to embark on a ten-day journey through Casamance? A year earlier, I had confidently decided that I would spend my year abroad in Paris. But somewhere in the process of sifting through various French programs and discovering West African history, culture, and literature in my classes at Georgetown, I realized that a) I couldn’t really afford a whole year in Paris, b) I wanted to focus on African and European studies, and c) I would probably gain far more by living in a country so vastly different and unfamiliar to me. I solidified my plans to study in Dakar for the fall of my junior year, followed by the spring semester in Paris.

Upon exiting the shelter of the guarded port, a trail of vendors and self-assigned guides followed us through the sleepy city, down wide, dusty avenues lined with over-sized trees and decrepit colonial buildings, bright colors peeking out from behind scratched paint and political graffiti. Gradually the parade of helpers dispersed and we began fielding invitations to various “spectacles.” Though wary of committing to anything, we did make tentative plans with Patrick, a fellow American we’d met earlier on the ferry, to meet in “Kola...” (the end was some mumble we couldn’t quite decipher). Patrick’s Senegalese friend, Souleyman, the incarnation of relaxation as he zipped through the streets on a moped with his bleached dreadlocks flying in the wind, promised an animated performance.

Settled in the standard Senegalese taxi — windshield cracked, rear view mirror missing, pictures of religious leaders taped on all surfaces — our driver didn’t get far based on “Kola...” and pulled over for directions, followed by a rapid slew of Wolof. “A spectacle?” the man on the street asked us. “What did these men look like?” After describing Patrick (the more memorable character, we assumed), he exclaimed, “Ah! Souleyman! Avec les rastas dorés, laissez moi vous le montrer, il est mon frère!” which meant “With the golden dreadlocks, let me bring you to him, he is my brother!”

Whether or not they were in any way related by blood or the veins of friendship, which often run deeper in Senegal, we put complete faith in this helpful man. He guided us through an increasingly crowded neighborhood, clay alleyways darting and dipping between houses — all to the sound of drums somewhere in the maze of cement.

Finally, we approached the source of the sound: a courtyard filled with five men drumming intensely and nearly thirty people of all ages dancing, clapping, and whistling, forming circles around toddlers and elderly women alike, displaying their skills. With our entrance, the crowd erupted into shouts, the drummers running towards us, drums still in hand, children grabbing our hems, twirling in our tracks, everyone ecstatic to share this ceremony with foreigners.

Bouncing subtly to the beat, I stood back and watched the dancing rage on, entranced by the involvement of everyone in the community. Suddenly out of a shed jumped what can only be described as a giant, brown furry mascot-like creature who started breaking it down as the beat grew faster and louder.... As if on cue, fat rain drops began to fall on our faces and arms and legs, in sync with the rhythm reverberating through the earth and the skies, falling faster and harder with each strike.

Determined to keep celebrating, the group of thirty people raced for the door of the one-room, tin-roofed house. Crammed in the stifling room, the drumming continued and this time Souleyman was intent on seeing us dance for everyone. My stomach dropped. I do not dance publicly. As much as I was loving this amazing display of animist culture, the rehearsal for a male circumcision ceremony to be performed the next day, I had yet to become even slightly comfortable with the dancing constantly expected of visitors. Not wanting to offend these welcoming people, but also seized with the fear of making a fool of myself, I attempted to appreciate the atmosphere while strategically avoiding Souleyman’s pushes into the circle. My three friends each took their turn in the center and I searched frantically for a way out.

The last push was inescapable. Thrust into the circle, thirty pairs of expectant eyes on me, I found some source of movement or rhythm to fill thirty seconds of dreadful dance. I wish I could say I suddenly burst into an impressive choreography and led the group in cheer, or at least found pleasure in my contribution to the ceremony, but the feelings of fear and extreme discomfort never really left me. Beyond the anxiety, I felt deeply disappointed in myself for not enjoying the opportunity to take part in a unique experience. With great relief, I rejoined the circle as an onlooker, my heart finding its regular beat again as the drumming continued.

The rain continued to pound on the tin roof, a staccato accompaniment to the music filling the room. As darkness began to creep in through the window, we realized it was time to leave and find our way back to the hotel before it was impossible to navigate the drenched streets of Ziguinchor. We entered the night under the persistent rain, skipping over and through muddy puddles, guided by our new friends. The main road was devoid of activity; the world had paused in the storm.

For the first time since my arrival in Senegal two months ago, I felt cold, the chill of freezing rain breaking the barrier of the perpetual heat. Shivering as the wet rain washed away the sweat and dirt from the day, surrounded by strangers who were suddenly family, the past three hours took on new meaning. The moment I had felt so extremely out of my comfort zone was painful, like an awkward high school dance magnified one hundred times — a moment I probably would have fled given the chance. I was suddenly relieved there had been no escape. Throughout my semester in Africa, my comfort zone would be stretched time and time again, but without these uncomfortable, sometimes painful moments, I never would have grown to appreciate and love the culture and people of Senegal the way I did.

~Kim Rochette

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