Despite the darkness of the early morning, I could tell that they were all sparkles and perfume, headwraps and shawls, when I jumped into the car. But they were rather quiet, which was not the nature of most of these ladies. They were more nervous than they’d ever been, I’d imagine, even though they have certainly been through quite a bit in their already remarkable lifetimes.
I had the pleasure of accompanying these seven ladies, all over forty years old, from six different regions of Senegal, to the airport this early Saturday morning, to help them catch their flight to Delhi, India, where they would spend the next six months in training at the Barefoot College learning the skills necessary to become solar engineers. I had met the oldest woman, Doussou, about a year ago. Just looking at her, you know that she will be the leader of this group. She embodies confidence and poise, bustles along with grace – but a grace that clearly tells those who wish to stop her that they should kindly back away. She smiles constantly, and even frowning, her lips turn up at the ends. I’ve heard only snippets of her life story, beginning always with how she accompanied a founder of Tostan when he started his famous walks through regions to sensitize communities to abandon harmful practices. She’s had a life a bit tougher than most, but I can’t imagine that she was ever too discouraged or unhappy. That’s not part of her; she’s a fighter. Today, this fighter was shining with perfume, makeup, a pressed buubu, a sequined shawl, and a small suitcase. She was ready.
We got to the airport and slowly left the car. Each woman waited patiently for her bag to be taken off the roof, shuffling around to get it, pick it up, and then rejoin the huddle. We started walking as a group, the pace accelerating at each step, for no reason other than sheer anticipation. Once at the terminal, the ladies proudly showed their shiny new passports and walked through, sans problème.
Then it was time for the check-in counter. We found the right one, and Doussou stepped up first. After I had answered some questions from the curious ticketing agent, Doussou gave the agent her passport and tickets, and then waited, glancing at me every so often, as if to say Why is it taking too long? What if there’s a problem? I nodded and smiled my assurance a few times, and she seemed to settle down.
The agent called up the next woman, and then the next, and then the next, each taking their turn lifting their bags onto the belt, handing over their passports and tickets, and waiting impatiently, just as they had seen Doussou do. Then came a woman from Dimboli, a village in the far southeast corner of Senegal, not far from the border with Guinea Conakry. I signaled to her to give the agent her passport, and then looked around for her bags. Amuloo bagas, xanaa?, I asked, trying to sound casual. She patted the flat, oversized purse on her arm in response. Just this.
Of course, a thousand things went through my head. Maybe she just didn’t know what to pack, and decided to go with the bare essentials (probably a bottle of perfume and some peanuts). Maybe she had decided to leave all of her earthly belongings with her family, uncertain of what the future might hold. Or maybe, quite simply, she did not own anything to pack, nothing but an outfit or two and the bed and pots that she had left in the village. No matter the reasoning, when the agent asked me about bags, I responded a brief “none” and tried to think of another topic to discuss with the woman about to travel to India, for half a year, with nothing but her purse.
The last woman to check in, from a region called the Fouta, was a Pulaar, an extremely conservative ethnic group. Pulaar women wear their personal wealth on their ears, in the form of crescents of gold earrings, wrapped in red string, tying the weight up around the top of their ears so as not to tear through the piercings. The agent at the counter stared at her for a minute, and then asked for confirmation that this Pulaar woman was part of our group, this group of women who were leaving their husbands, their families, and everything familiar to them. I nodded. She nodded. The Pulaar woman smiled timidly.
All checked in, I got to work, writing out the seven embarkation cards for these women, most of whom were completely illiterate. As I asked them some questions that were not included on their passport pages, I realized that only one of the seven lived in a village other than the village where she was born; the one woman had moved to a village a few kilometers away, most likely as a result of a marriage. Destination of disembarkation? Delhi, India, over 6,000 miles (10,000 kilometers) away.
Once the cards were finished, I sat down with Doussou to explain everything one more time. I told her about the cards and that they might be asked to fill them out again before landing in Delhi. This made her panic; the group leader was extremely dynamic and intelligent, but she could not read and write enough to fill out these cards by herself. I assured her that all of the information necessary was written in their passports and that they could ask a flight attendant for help in filling out the cards.
I then pulled out the two boarding tickets, re-explaining that they would have to get off the plane in Addis Ababa and take another plane to Delhi. Right, Doussou nodded, the 405. I looked at their itinerary and confirmed; Ethiopian flight 405 was taking them to Delhi, correct. And for right now? What number flight?, Doussou asked. Ummm…the 908, I think, I said, pretty sure after writing it on seven cards numerous times. I don’t want you to “think;” I want you to be sure, Doussou replied firmly. She was stressed, all the more so because she felt responsible for the entire group. I opened the itinerary again, and carefully, deliberately followed the text with my finger. Yes, 908 this morning. And then she was satisfied.
Just as I was about to explain a little more about boarding tickets, another agent from the Ethiopian counter came over and shouted at us that the flight was leaving. I glanced at the time; we still had fifty minutes until take-off, but we hadn’t made it through customs yet. Time to go, ladies!
I continued the ticket discussion with Doussou while walking, and then had to stop to navigate the roped maze that was the line to the customs counters. I pulled a bit ahead of the group, just to make sure I was not leading them to a dead end, when I felt a light tugging from behind. Doussou had sent up a younger woman to catch me, to tell me that I could NOT leave them alone yet, could not do that to them. I reassured them, waiting for the last woman to catch up before continuing to wind through the rest of the maze.
And then an announcement was made over the loudspeakers, a crackly, soft, fuzzy, mumbled announcement where the only clear word was “Bamako.” All eyes turned toward me; they had been told a thousand times that their flight was going through Bamako. Shouldn’t they hurry up? I assured them that we had more than enough time, but was actually starting to worry slightly myself. I ducked through the lines, and interrupted the customs officer in his glass cage, smiling incessantly and repeating my pleas, to ask him if my group to Bamako needed to be processed immediately. He assured me that they would have more than enough time to wait in line and still board the flight. I went back to my smiling women with a face of confidence and told them there was nothing to worry about, a message that, when refuted by a few, was backed firmly by Doussou’s assurance.
Nothing like a reminder of your responsibilities to get you to step into more action! I asked the people in front of me where they were headed: Paris. There was yet another group in front of them, of about six people, so I went to the very front and asked again: Paris. Their flight was in another hour and a half. I asked the friendliest traveler at the front if my group of elderly women could go in front of them, seeing as their flight leaves very soon and they’re very nervous about missing it. He guaranteed me that there was no problem, and the women could go right ahead in front of his group. I started thanking him, waving the group toward the front, when I got interrupted by his fellow traveler. You should have come on time if you wanted to be at the head of the line, he growled, and then you wouldn’t have to –
And, just at that same moment, a customs counter opened up. I’d like to thank you anyway, I said, smiling at his friendly counterpart and ushering the women quickly toward the counter. Almost in!
I handed the stack of passports to the customs officer, and then was taken into the booth for questioning. I explained everything proudly, even giving names and numbers when demanded, and then made my case to be able to follow the women through the next obstacle, the metal detectors. But the officer wouldn’t let me go, citing airport rules about controlling the security of fellow Senegalese leaving the country. I smiled and then slipped away toward the women, who had made it through the metal detectors without a hitch. Now, it was they who were waving me forward. Incredible.
I ran through the metal detectors, quickly answering questions from other security guards so I could keep up with the group. We went directly to the boarding gate, and I hugged each woman and shook their left hands, a long-time departure rite. I watched from the window as they took some of their last steps on Senegalese soil, saw them help each other get up the flight of stairs to board the plane and then disappear into the unknown.
Assured that they were on their way, I turned around and headed out. I encountered yet another customs officer on my way. He stopped me to ask why the husbands of these women would ever let them leave on such a crazy mission, far away, for so many months. I responded by asking him what his wife does; She cooks was the simple answer. The husbands of those women, I told him, in another six months, will be able to respond that their wives are solar engineers, who bring light, electricity, and development to their villages. He only threw up his hands, not quite understanding the heavy importance of the task given to these courageous women. You’ll see, I assured him, they’ll light up all of Senegal.
The following feature article was written by Tostan Volunteer Coordinator Sarah Nehrling, who accompanied the Solar Power! program participants from the Tostan Dakar office to the Léopold Sédar Senghor International Airport.
University of Wisconsin graduate, Sarah Nehrling joined the Tostan International team in 2007 as the coordinator of the Africa volunteer program. In this role, Sarah has had the pleasure of supporting the dynamic efforts of dedicated volunteers, staff, and community members from the office to the field.