Much of my time in Senegal has felt lucky, perhaps blessed (even if only in retrospect). Here I want to revisit an episode from earlier in the trip, because it is emblematic in certain ways of the field experience as a whole.
Based on information from a regular research contact in the market, I was looking for Binetou Wagué, a senior woman from an old family of cloth dyers, but with no more information than her name and her neighborhood.
So, knowing that knowledge in Dakar is deep but distributed, networked among people rather than assembled for publication—see also bus routes, for which there are no maps, so you ask the fellow-waiters or the fare-takers as they lean out the window of the passing bus—we set out to canvass Grand Dakar.
A large quartier (around 70,000 residents), Grand Dakar was one of the early ‘suburban’ neighborhoods, though in today’s Dakar it is pretty central. Densely built with narrow streets around an impressive central market, Grand Dakar has a lively, homey atmosphere. We began asking in tailor shops, clothing stands, corner stores: Salam Aleikum (Aleikum salam). How are you? Excuse me, do you know of a family called Wagué, longtime dyers? No, I don’t have their phone number (laughter).
We appreciated how thoughtfully these strangers approached our question, frequently pointing us to someone else they thought would know the answer, the next links in a chain of relationships and information. Several pointed us to a woman named Penda, clearly a node in this network, and we found her preparing food outside her home. An interested passer-by helped translate between French and Wolof so I could speak with Penda, a bold middle-aged woman with a penetrating gaze. The same passer-by then drew a map for us in the sand of the street, sketched quickly with a key, and just as quickly erased.
This map, and the direction to look for a home decorated with wavy lines in its concrete façade, took us to the family home of the Badianes, who also known as longtime dyers. The older women of the family were not sure about the Wagués, but a young man remembered some Wagués on the other side of the quartier. It’s a large family, he explained. They should be able to figure this out among themselves. He escorted us there.
The next day, returning to the quartier, we finally reached the Wagués themselves, and three older women invited us in and agreed to chat with me a bit about their work, though they are now retired.
Remember, we are strangers showing up at their door without any connection or introduction.
In our first conversation, a younger male relative helped to communicate between me and the senior women–not necessary for translation as such, since they all spoke at least a little French, but conventional (male authority and speaking a go-between) and helpful (getting across my purpose of writing a book). Eventually I spent more time with the Wagué ladies alone, sitting in their comfortable living room, watching and greeting as neighbors and other members of the family passed by. They chatted quite a bit in Soninke, which I don’t understand, but generously were willing to answer my questions. (The three women wished to be identified by their family name alone, which is not uncommon.)
Months later, completely by chance, I met another member of this very great extended family from “the village,” in the region of Matam in Northeastern Senegal, who was exhibiting her works at the International Fair in Dakar. “Au village” (in the village) has been a common refrain in conversations, including with the Wagués. As in, “we don’t know about that [indigo or other traditional method], but in the village they still do.” It seems that both individual small towns and a kind of archetypal village are imagined as repositories of practices and knowledge that urbanites no longer carry out. Serendipitously I came across Fatoumata acting as this living village-city connection, at an event–the Fair–that deliberately brings the regions together and represents the nation of Senegal to itself.
And I had the chance to see (and buy) the Wagué family’s incredible handiwork.