That evening found my siblings and me in the family room before dinner. I could smell it; I was hungrier than I’d been in a long time. I’d walked further than I had in days—it wasn’t much but it felt good. Earning things felt good, in any small way I could earn them.
Mamadou stepped inside. Instead of watching TV on his feet awhile and then sitting down, as he usually did, he addressed me immediately.
I looked up. So did several of my siblings. Then I looked around: Binta wasn’t there. Neither was Hangout Girl. Khady, however, looked nervous again.
“Can I show you some things now?” he asked.
I glanced at Khady. She looked quickly down to the mat beneath her, picking bits of stuffing out of a hole in its casing.
“I think we’re going to eat soon,” I told him.
“It’s not ready yet,” he said. “I saw them. The rice has only started to cook. I will not take long,” he added.
“Alright.” I stood. I didn’t look to see who was looking at me, or not, as I followed Mamadou out of the room.
His room was right next door. There was a mat on the ground, a few trunks of his belongings, and three or four folding chairs. He must have had company relatively often.
He gestured toward one of the chairs, and took a seat himself on the trunk beside it. From beneath his mattress, within an arm’s reach, he pulled a ratty folder full of papers. He opened it and began to show me what was inside. Documents, forms: a visa application; passport-sized photos; an old school report. The picture of him photocopied on the report looked much like him now.
“I went back to school later,” he said. “I went when I was little, but then I had my siblings, and they needed school. So I went back after, to finish high school.”
We looked through teachers’ comments. He read them to me, slowly. The handwriting was almost illegible. Either he knew his teachers’ writing very well, or he’d read and reread these hundreds of times. I’m sure he could have told them to me off the top of his head. Mamadou is a very good student and wants very much to learn. Mr. Bah is slowly learning the language, but he has a lot of patience for the work. Mamadou is a good student who deserves not to be so timid in the classroom.
At the back of the folder was a slim notebook, like French cahiers brouillon: soft-cover booklets with exceptionally thin paper and faded grid markings. Every page was filled with Mamadou’s handwriting. His letters were round and small, but the stems reached high and low, tangling with the lines above and below.
“These are songs that I wrote,” he told me. “I know I can’t – I know I must work and do this—” he gestured out the window, vaguely toward the onion fields—“but I would really like to sing. I think singers are the most good people.”
He began to read me his songs. They were all titled in a self-explanatory fashion: “The Hussling Life,” “I Love You Baby,” “It Is For My Family.” After the titles, though, the lyrics startled me: they were frank, and they were true. I couldn’t help but smile a little every time he used “hustling”—on the page, “hussling”—to refer to work.
He paused before reading “It Is For My Family.”
“I have not seen them in many years,” he said. “It’s for them that I’m here. Yes I want to go to Europe, England, America, but more important is that they are there.” I caught the slip of Wolof into English. The way to say that you’re fine, or that your family is well, is maangi fi rekk, or nungi fi rekk: I am here only, or they are here only. That they are in existence in the world is, perhaps, enough.
I read along as he read aloud. The lyrics weren’t spaced traditionally with short four-line verses: all the sentences ran together, every line full. He didn’t heed the margin, either. The page was brimming with ink.
He wrote the song to his father, his mother, his sister, his brother. There was nothing really singular about what he wrote—nothing about the song was specific to him at all. All the song really said, very plainly, was that he missed them.
“I really like that one,” I said.
He was silent. We both looked at the words on the page.
Mamadou shuffled things around again and returned to the front of the folder, to some photographs we’d skipped initially. He flipped through them, and introduced me to the people in each.
“I want to give you one,” he said. “You pick one picture.”
“I couldn’t take that from you,” I said. There were none of him alone, and I didn’t want to deprive him of seeing his own friends or family.
“I want to give one to you,” he insisted. “I want you to think of me.”
He let me flip through the pictures again, slowly. I paused at one of him and some friends. He and three men occupied most of the photograph, one of them crouching in front of the others standing, in a field of green. Definitely onion fields. I’d never seen anything so lush.
“These are my friends where I worked somewhere else,” he said. Mamadou was definitely the coolest of the crew, standing shirtless in the sun, shades on his face, pointing one hand toward the camera in a gotcha gesture or like a thumb-and-forefinger gun. In the other hand he held up a leaf from the fields where he worked, where the four of them stood. The crouching man, though—“my best friend in that place”—had the best smile.
I made my choice. He was about to put everything away when I asked, “Could you write that song—the one about family—on the back of this picture?”
He paused. “Give you this song?”
“No, not the book—I mean can you copy it, write it again, on this photo?”
He thought a minute, then nodded. I watched those small round letters appear by his hand on the sleek back of the picture. He murmured the words as he went, correcting mistakes from the first copy, making new ones on this second.
“Thank you,” I said when he was done. “This is really—” I was going to say nice of you, generous of you, thoughtful of you—something equally inane. I’m almost glad Binta’s entrance cut me off.
She stood still in the doorway for a second before she said, “Mama. On mange.” We’re eating.
When I returned to the family room, everyone was indeed already eating. I held my spoon and reached reluctantly, guiltily. I probably didn’t deserve dinner, for having disobeyed orders. I was ready to pay my dues—but then, as usual, my siblings collectively noticed I was being timid and all began insisting, “Mange, Mama! Mange!”
I said goodbye to as many siblings as I could the following morning. All the students had to leave their families, wherever they were living, and meet in the town square at eleven. When the time came I couldn’t find a lot of the little ones. Some were at school, I was told; others were off somewhere playing with friends.
Khady clung to my waist and kissed it. She said she couldn’t promise to text me because she didn’t have her own cell phone, but maybe Binta would let her use hers. Over Khady’s head I looked at Binta, who shrugged. Khady released me and at first I didn’t make a move. But Binta came and wrapped me in a tight hug.
“Be good,” she told me. “Be careful.” She squeezed my shoulders, then let me go with a smile. I hadn’t seen that soft a smile on her before.
Hangout Girl had been hanging behind Binta. Now she came and held my arms at my sides to give me a clumsy bise, one kiss on either cheek, the way the French do. She snickered as she and Binta turned and went back inside the family room.
I said goodbye to my parents and held their hands while I thanked them. Before I left the place I looked toward Mamadou’s room, and I thought of asking where he was. But I knew, and we’d had enough of a goodbye. I had his name, address, and photograph. And his song.
He wasn’t there, but leaving my family felt more like leaving him. I wished I were going for his sake—were going to Saint Louis to find things to send back to him. Not necessarily money, but postcards, pictures, books. Music, certainly. Maybe a world map.
Khady helped me carry my bags to the town square. It was in part a parting, and in part a homecoming. I was relieved to see the friends I’d come to know so well in Dakar, to speak English, to joke around without explanation. We were all exhausted and ready to go.
Khady got quiet around all of the reunion noise. I reached for her hand and squeezed it.
“Don’t take out the braids,” she said.
“I’m going to have to, later,” I said. “But I won’t ever be as pretty again as I am now.”
She smiled. First it was tender, and then it was just smug. Another student’s host sister was watching our exchange. Khady stuck her tongue out at the scrawny girl and squeezed my hand back.
On the bus to Saint Louis we were chattering like children with new words. A few other students had seen the onion fields.
“They didn’t let me do anything,” said my friend Arielle. “The men just laughed when I asked if I could help.”
I thought of Mamadou and his perfect willingness to let me be a part of his work, a part of things. I could see sweating Mamadou, buckets in hand, sprinting (as well as he could) across my father’s field. I thought of him hustling his way up the coast of Africa, edging slowly, stoically and slowly edging up and out of his continent for mine, either of them.
“They wanted to let me. They tried,” I said, “but I don’t think I did much.”