Skip to content
Join us on October 26 at 7PM EDT for the 2021 WWB Virtual Gala. Learn more and get your tickets today!
from the February 2005 issue

From “The Belly of the Atlantic”

Of course I remember him.

Monsieur Ndétare, my former teacher, who was already getting old at the time. With a hatchet face, hands like pitchforks, and legs like stilts to bear him on his mission of public schoolteacher to the remotest corners of the land, places where the state is happy to be cast in a secondary role. Ndétare stood out from the other inhabitants of the island because of his silhouette, his manners, his citified look, his European attire, his academic French, and his absolute faith in Karl Marx, whose work he could cite by the chapter. A staunch unionist, he had been principal of the elementary school in the village for nearly a quarter of a century, ever since the government—deeming him to be a dangerous agitator—sent him to the island and entrusted him with the task of educating the children of the proletariat.

Of course I remember him.

I owe to him Descartes, I owe to him Montesquieu, Victor Hugo, Molière, I owe to him Balzac, Marx, Dostoyevsky, I owe to him Hemingway, Leopold Sédar Senghor, I owe to him Aimé Césaire, Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Yourcenar, Mariama Bâ and all the rest. I owe to him the first love poem I penned in secret, I owe to him the first French song I ever murmured because I owe to him my first phoneme, my first morpheme, the first sentence read, heard, and understood in French. I owe to him the first letter scrawled across my broken piece of slate. I owe to him my schooling. I owe to him my education. In short, I owe to him my Ambiguous Adventure. Because I pestered him constantly, he gave me everything: the secret of letters, of numbers, the key to the world. And because he satisfied my first conscious desire—to go to school—I owe to him every little step of French cancan I took toward the light.

The door to Monsieur Ndétare's classroom was never closed. But I wasn't allowed to go in, I wasn't enrolled. Curious, but above all intrigued by the words on the pupils' lips when school got out—the melodious songs that weren't those of my language, but of another that I found just as sweet to the ear—I wanted to discover the genius that taught schoolchildren all of those mysterious words. And so, I cheated, I stole, I lied, I betrayed the person I love most in the world, my grandmother! Forgive me dear God, forgive me, but otherwise I would never have been able to read your name in the holy books. Thank you!

I cheated: my grandparents' house was across the street from the elementary school. I would accompany my grandmother to the vegetable garden and help her water the plants, then I waited until she was busy working on the tomatoes, cabbages, onions, and other vegetables; pretending to go lie down for a rest under the coconut tree in the front part of the garden, I would slip away. I dug up the broken slate I'd found in the garbage and my sticks of chalk—it was all hidden under a hedge in front of the garden—and sneaked off to school.

I stole: in order to buy chalk I just needed to take a few small coins from my grandmother. She kept her change purse, a tiny hand-sewn cotton pouch, under her pillow.

I lied: when I came home, hours later, I invented some obviously preposterous story, and the poor woman lectured me again, but I was so familiar with her threats, they no longer fazed me.

"Oh really! Well next time you'd best let me know young lady! Understand? If you get it into your mind to start this again you're going to regret it. Do you hear me?"

As I already told you, the door to Monsieur Ndétare's class at school was never closed. I went in; there was an empty seat at the back, I sat down quietly and listened. He wrote strange letters or numbers on the blackboard and instructed us to copy them. I copied them. Then he began to call the pupils up to the blackboard one at a time; when they had all gone up, I too decided to take my turn. Monsieur Ndétare frowned, opened the giant compass of his legs and strode toward me.

"Off with you right now! Go on, outside, you're not enrolled!"

I'd run out. As soon as he settled back down behind his desk, I came back and took my place in the last seat. That was back in the days of educational radio and the CLAD method of acquiring language skills. The teacher was supposed to make the pupils repeat the words and sentences coming from a radio/cassette player. When each pupil had finished, I too repeated spontaneously, and the whole scene began all over again. Having reached the end of his rope, Monsieur Ndétare finally penciled in my name at the bottom of his official list and from then on decided to have me do all of the same exercises as the other children. He no longer drove me away, on the contrary, he paid special attention to me.

One day, seeing that I was doing quite well, he took me by the hand, "Come along, we're going to see your grandmother."

"No, no! I don't want to, I can't! She doesn't know that I've been coming back here! Let go of me! Let go!"

"Well, she's going to learn about it today!"

She had just come home from the garden and was sitting on a bench emptying a basketful of vegetables.

"Now what have you done? I looked everywhere for you, where were you?"

"At school," answered Monsieur Ndétare.

"When in the world will you start listening to me? How many times do I have to tell you? That school is no place for you!"

"That is precisely what I've come to discuss with you, Madame Sarr."

"Yes I know, she just won't listen. This time I assure you, she won't come bothering you again."

"No, no, that's not what I'm here for. I think you should let her go; I've come to ask for her birth certificate so that I can enroll her if you will allow me to."

She stared at me, stupefied. People on the island are wary of civil servants. One never knows what they might say in high places. Contradicting a teacher, a state employee, especially at a time when the government was massively encouraging formal education, would never cross anyone's mind.

Ndétare knew he should strike while the iron was hot. "She really does well you know, and all things considered, it would be the best thing for her. In the near future, illiterate people will not be able to get by in this country without someone to assist them. You must admit it's not easy to have to ask someone to write letters and fill out papers for you, accompany you on appointments for the slightest administrative procedure. And also, as stubborn as she is, she just might obtain the elementary school certificate."

After a moment of silence the venerable old woman pronounced her verdict. "All right, she can attend. At least when she goes into town by herself later on, she'll be able to recognize the bus numbers and read the names of the streets. The capital Ndakarou has turned into a city of Toubab white folks. At least she won't get lost like I do sometimes."

That comment did not register in my mind. For me, it was obvious that the woman who taught me everything in life knew how to read and write. Little matter where they stem from, our firmest beliefs are always more poetic, more powerful and more reassuring than reality.

She went to her room, opened a trunk and came back with a pile of papers that she held out to the teacher. After thoroughly examining them, Ndétare glanced up at her with a perplexed look on his face.

"You have two granddaughters with the same name?"

"No, why?"

"I found two birth certificates with the same name, the same year of birth, but a different month. Was the girl born in March or June?"

"She was born in the month of the first rains, in the very beginning of the rainy season, the year the students ransacked the capital."

Monsieur Ndétare smiled and politely took leave of us.

I continued going to school, without being officially enrolled. In the beginning of the next school year, one of the parents who intended to enroll his own daughter—being of the same opinion as the teacher—helped my grandmother properly enroll me at the school. Off the cuff, they decided to opt for the first month of the rainy season.

Gradually, my grandmother became obsessed with my education. She followed my evening revisions by the lantern light so closely that I still believed she knew how to read and write. I sat with my elbows leaning on the coffee table and read my lessons out loud and then I closed my eyes and tried to recite them.

As soon as she suspected the slightest hesitation on my part, she would say firmly, "Read that again, several times over, and do a better job of reciting it this time!"

So I started over, again and again, until she was satisfied with the fluidity of my reading and reciting. For a long time we spent our evenings repeating this same scene. One day as I was coming home from school, I ran up to her with my notebook opened to an essay. "Look mama! Look at the grade I got on the essay!"

She took a quick glance and without warning gave me a sharp smack.

"Why did you slap me? I got the best grade in the class and you're not happy?"

"Stop lying!" she shouted, "I'm not blind, there are red marks all over it, that means you got a bad grade!"

I went back to school to find Monsieur Ndétare, who was busy straightening up his state-provided lodging in back of the building. He came with me and explained my grades to my grandmother, showering me with praise.

Undoubtedly feeling ashamed at having struck me unjustly, she kept her eyes on the ground and said with an imploring note in her voice, "Oh go on now, you two just leave me alone with all this school business of yours! I don't understand anything about it. I don't know how to read or write, so just leave me alone."

Her face was sad, I started crying. I wanted to go on sharing my journey through school with her, or quite simply my journey through life with her. She once said to me, "People who have a good guide don't get lost in the jungle," and ever since then, I never wanted anyone but her by my side. I wanted to place my footsteps in hers. It was she who had opened the door to the world, she who had hummed my first lullaby to me.

It was in the very beginning of the rainy season, as she was so fond of telling me. The sun was just as stifling as Virtue was weary of torturing people and ran to drown itself in the Atlantic. Heavy clouds veiled the grief-stricken sky that no longer wished to hold back its tears. Rain was threatening and its smell already filled the air. In hastily covered holes, seeds of hope were waiting to sprout and spread a smile over the face of the earth. The silos were almost empty and the men stayed out at sea longer to stave off hunger, the sound of their children's cries, and the plaintive looks of their wives. Between seeding time and harvest, fishing meant killing in order to survive, more than at any other time. That day, while the women haggled over the fishermen's catch on the shore, my grandmother was busily grinding medicinal plants in the back courtyard of the house, which was surprisingly quiet. Her worried eyes stirred the old pot in which she was boiling the roots she had gathered at dawn in the heart of the forest. She was sifting other dried and ground roots when a sharp gasp made her start, even though she had been expecting it for several days. She ran to her room to get several large cotton cloths with which she covered the ground of the enclosed plot of land she used as a bathroom.

Off in the distance, the first howls of wolves brought prayers jumping to shepherds' lips and sent calves running to their mothers' sides. A torch went from one hand to another. In the enclosure, the key to the greatest of all mysteries passed from the mother to the daughter. As for the daughter, she had just come of age and finally discovered how grand and courageous her mother was. People on the island say that the ordeal of childbearing bridges the generation gap between women, and it is not until they have passed this test that girls truly respect their mothers.

Inside the enclosure, the breath of the coconut trees could no longer dry the sweat covering the young woman who squatted on the white cotton cloth. My grandmother lifted the steaming decoction of roots to her lips repeatedly. A half-blind sky probed the Atlantic with its red eye, beckoning it to show the world the mystery it held in its belly. The first shadows of night had begun to thicken the manes of the coconut trees and slip along the fences when a cry rang out. The only midwife in the village was away on a trip. Unpredictable, I had chosen that precise moment to be born. My grandmother relied upon her own experience, medicinal plants, and shea butter; only her youngest child had been born with the help of a midwife.

The island had slipped into the dark mantle of twilight and a heavy rain had begun to fall when my grandmother plunged me into a tubful of her decoction. "Born with the rain," she murmured, "you'll never fear being wet by the saliva whipped up by wagging tongues as you pass; the dolphin's young are not afraid of drowning; but you'll also have to face the day." As I lay in my cotton swaddling, my roots grew in the filth of the world, unbeknownst to me, the rainwater—diluting my mother's blood and the rivulet of my discarded bathwater—seeped into the ground, down to the depths at which the Atlantic changes into a life-giving spring. On that night my grandmother watched over her daughter and her illegitimate child. The merciless sun melted the cover of night and exposed us to the eyes of morality. Having been betrayed by my grandmother, tradition—in whose name I should have been smothered and declared as a stillborn child—forced my mother to marry a cousin who had been lusting after her for ages. Since they could not be rid of me, the guardians of moral values wished to name me after the man who had been imposed upon my mother.

My grandmother firmly refused. "She will be named after her real father, she's not a piece of seaweed you pick up on the beach, that's not water running in her veins, it's blood, and that blood bears its own name," she stubbornly repeated to the numerous delegations sent to besiege her. The substitute husband was vexed by her refusal, but only for the sake of appearances, for he already had one fertile wife at his disposal and had no intention of weighing himself down with someone else's child. In taking my mother for his second wife, he hoped to be able to compete with his friends, give his virility a new boost and multiply his own descendants without having to pay a dowry, since unwed mothers were not entitled to one.

Paris had already been transformed by the barricades and now they were filling the streets of Dakar, the roar of rebellious youth was deafening, John Lennon had not yet imagined another world; in Niodior it was the height of the rainy season, and it wasn't only rain that streamed down my mother's cheeks as she silenced her sorrow. Every time she locked up her heart, my stepfather threw me out of the house, with or without her, regardless of the weather. When she set out at dawn to cut wood or fetch water from the well, he wrapped me up in a pagne and lay me down in the courtyard amid the puddles. Sometimes my mother would find me covered with dust from the sandstorms. I constantly swung from bronchitis to conjunctivitis and back. My stepfather was counting on my frequent illnesses to rid him of the incarnation of sin, the devil's daughter—that's what he called me. One of the neighbor women advised my mother to keep me on her back at all times. It seems that the poor unhappy woman wasn't all that keen on protecting me. Increasingly worried, the neighbor ended up alerting my grandmother, who came prowling around her son-in-law's house one night. It was late when she saw her daughter go into the house crying, carrying me on her back. My grandmother decided to come to my rescue and took me away with her. To nurse me back to health, she repeatedly gave me decoctions and massages with shea butter. Since she'd only recently weaned her youngest child, she began nursing again; her milk returned in plenty and soon turned me into a plump baby full of vitality. Because love cannot be measured, my grandmother fixed no limits or deadlines and continued to breastfeed me until the day, well past the age of three, I stopped asking for the breast of my own accord. As for my mother, she had just given birth to a boy, Madické, whom she considered to be her first child. So what about mater? My grandmother, the infinitely maternal mother: madre, mother, mamma mia, yaye bye, nénam, nakony, sweet mommy, my granny-mama, my mother for all time!

The same soft hands that cut my umbilical cord, that caressed my head when I lay sucking the sap from her breast as a baby and fell asleep with a full stomach in her arms, have never ceased braiding the rope that is my lifeline.

What do they think they can teach me by explaining that E = MC2, since throughout my entire life I experienced the theory of relativity first hand with respect to the guelwaar warrior who, with her almond eyes, led me through the tenebrous shadows of tradition? What does it matter that she doesn't know how to read or write, since I could never find my way without the light of her smile?

The same thing held true when it came to going to school. We were navigating as a team, she couldn't abandon the ship. After the incident with the essay, she continued filling the oil lamp assiduously and observing my revisions in silence. She questioned Ndétare—whom she now treated as her son—concerning my progress. The teacher was not averse to the human warmth, or the profusion of eggs and vegetables that my granny-mama brought him whenever she came to ask how things were going. It was either her way of not bothering him gratuitously, or perhaps she'd taken pity on the poor exiled man, who probably reminded her of one of her sons living in France at the time.

As soon as he arrived on the island, the rootless Ndétare was able to make the most of the Serer adage according to which one's eyes and ears are the best ambassadors. He studied, observed for long hours; listened closely, heard a lot and put forth the necessary effort to adapt. But he was only partially integrated. This insular society, even when it allows someone to approach, remains an impenetrable monolithic structure that never digests foreign bodies. Everyone here looks alike. The same genes have been running in this village for centuries, meeting back up at every union, linking together and bringing out the relief of the island, producing the different generations which, one after another, split up the land according to immutable rules. The way that family names—which vary quite little—are distributed maps the layout of the land precisely. That's why Ndétare, the Senegalese man from another land, was a foreigner. He knew that this micro-society would always puke him up and leave him on its margins. He had remarked that some of the inhabitants on the island barely had the IQ of a crustacean, but it was he, the intellectual, who was looked down upon, who ended up feeling like the rubbish strewn about the outskirts of the village and that the Atlantic refuses to swallow

Of course I remember Monsieur Ndétare. At the bottom of the attendance list, he marked down a last name that was as foreign as his own; there was only one person in the village with that name. He noticed how contemptuous the students acted when he called out that name. Because he knew how to listen, he had overheard things, deciphered murmurs during the parent-teacher meetings. People said that because she carried her head held up so high on her shoulders, that woman—instead of looking around nearby and being satisfied with a boy from a good family in the village—went looking for some prince charming, who rewarded her with a bastard. Not only were they geographically insular, some villagers were mentally so as well and they held it against my mother for having brought a foreign name into the village: none of the founding fathers had borne that name.

The most moderate of the lot took consolation in declaring with a sarcastic laugh, "We're lucky she's a girl and won't go spreading her name around the village." Those who were irritated by my success in school answered, "Yes, but in the meantime she's undermining our children's chances. That foreign girl must have supernatural powers. After all, what do we know about her father?" At school the children defended their parents' ideas. The playground often turned into a battlefield and Monsieur Ndétare soon discovered whom the scapegoat was.

Dragging me out of yet another scuffle, he whispered: "You, like myself, will always remain a stranger in this village, and you can't pick a fight every time someone makes fun of your name. Besides, it's a very handsome name, it means dignity; so be dignified and stop fighting. You should stay in the classroom and learn your lessons during recess; with a little effort, you'll get out of this crab pot one day."

For the first time in my life I felt proud of my name. That very day I asked my grandmother about it. She confirmed Ndétare's version and, in her own special way, told me a story about my father's side of the family that made me hold my head up good and high. I repeated that story word for word to my stepfather under the palaver tree the day he ventured to call me by his own name. I was ten years old at the time, and he hasn't looked me straight in the eyes since. My grandmother taught me that if words can declare a war, they are also powerful enough to win one.

Perhaps it was out of solidarity that Ndétare took particular care with my education. He had been awaiting in vain an improbable transfer to one of the large cities where he hoped to continue his union activities. Then, seeing the years go by, he ended up resigning himself to plowing our fallow minds. When loneliness gnawed away at his sanity, he went to sit on the wharf and study the horizon of his Marxist ideas that the sea washed back to rot at his feet. Sometimes, feeling starved for affection, he thought he saw, amid the dancing twilight shadows, the lithe shape of Sankèle, his lost love. It was the only love story that existed on Niodior, the kind of story that makes your eyes red every now and again. He had been left with the taste of island sand in his throat and the heart of a lyrical poet bereft of his muse. It all happened a few years after his arrival; since then he'd remained a bachelor and his sheets were about as mussed as a prior's. To avoid confronting his tormented soul, he attended all of the traditional ceremonies, jumped at every opportunity that might lead him into the whirlwind of village life. But he finally came to the realization that in our village the palaver tree is a parliament, and the family tree is an ID card. As far as a national constitution is concerned, it is still only a virtual concept, and the villagers don't put any more store in it than they do in the last pair of boots of some foolhardy colonist with fossilized dreams in the depths of the Atlantic. Monsieur Ndétare was a foreigner, and remained one for many years after he arrived in the village.


From Le Ventre de l'Atlantique. Published 2003 by Editions Anne Carrière. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2005 by C. Dickson. All rights reserved.

Read more from the February 2005 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.