My third fall in Senegal has arrived and we’re celebrating in Yacine Lakke with long, sandy days of sorghum harvesting. This year we had 700 mm of rain and the harvest of both cowpeas and sorghum have been incredible. Also, given the final rainfall amount for the season, I’ve come to the realization that last year was a major drought for our village. To be honest, I was worried about a lot of things after my first rainy season last year. Who can live sustainably in a place with 300 mm of rain a year? Even the drought resistant crops suffered at times and I couldn’t imagine trying to grow rain fed vegetables. The few times our water tower broke down and we had to take carts to the river to fill containers of water I thought our dehydrated donkeys wouldn’t even make it the initial two miles. This year’s more than double amount of rainfall went a long way in reassuring me that even if it was a freak season, meeting somewhere in the middle of last year’s rains and this one’s will keep the village producing.
I have been busy the last five weeks with seed saving trainings, helping harvest the improved varieties of corn, beans, and sorghum we extend through our Peace Corps seed extension program, and splitting up the women’s garden into individual plots in preparation for cold season gardening. With just a week and a half left in Yacine Lakke before spending time in Dakar at close of service interviews and medical appointments, I’m taking time with family and friends in village drinking attaya, talking about the harvest, and reminding everyone I’ll still have a phone to call them with in America.
The best thing that happened in the last month were the horse races my village hosted to celebrate the Islamic new year, or ‘haraan’ as we call it in Pulaar. It was late afternoon on a Friday and I was lazily drinking attaya with my family under the neem tree in our courtyard. My host brother, Missoudou, came in with our cousin Jiby, who lives in another compound, and told me to saddle up the horse. It was still the hot part of the day and I was less than enthused about having to move out of the shade, let alone get on a restless stallion I dubbed ‘Dragon’ due to his bad habit of biting anyone who tried to get in his personal space. Don’t misunderstand me – I love Dragon. He’s a fast, beautiful horse, but he’s a handful on the ground and it’s always a boxing match that has me ducking and weaving to avoid his large teeth and unpredictable head throws. Despite all this, I still got his tack as requested, rare since I usually ride bareback here, and the three of us saddled up Dragon and I got up to follow them to some mysterious event that Missoudou still wouldn’t give me any details on.
On the other side of the village, just past the last compound, I was greeted with a beautiful sight: fast horses and crowds of cheering people. ‘It’s a horse race!’ I shouted to Missoudou. He grinned at me and said I was in the fourth race. Excellent, I thought. I’ve raced plenty of my brothers’ friends here but always casually and never in an official event. I saw some of those friends now and got some weird looks and a lot of laughter but I was used to that, being the token white girl riding horses in a place where most women don’t even ride a bike because it’s considered inappropriate. So as Jiby and Missoudou told me the course I got more and more excited and planned my and Dragon’s win. It was about a mile long out and back on a hard sand track, more than doable for Dragon, who is a natural speed horse and can also gallop easily for at least two miles.
Well, we didn’t win but we were a close third out of seven horses and I’m not trying to make excuses but I think we could have won if we had been saddle-less. I rarely ride Dragon in the ornamental Mauritanian saddle Missoudou had us dress up in that day, and the girth doesn’t fit quite right so it’s a balancing act just to keep it from slipping too far to one side. Anyway, the best part of this story actually isn’t the race itself, although Dragon was wonderfully fast and competitive (he bit one of the other horses about 200 yards from the finish line) and it was my favorite two minutes EVER in Senegal. No, the best part of this story is what happened next.
After crossing the finish line and fighting to rein Dragon in for a minute, I felt a pair of hands on my left leg and Jiby’s mom, my Aunt Aminata, desperately whispering at me to get down and go with her. She kept saying something about it being a men’s race and that I shouldn’t be there. Having fought stereotypes like this my whole service, I smiled at her and said every girl could and should do the same if she wanted. Horses were fun! Why can’t girls enjoy them too? But she kept gesturing around and repeating herself and it dawned on me that in the cheering crowd of hundreds around us there wasn’t a single woman. Not even a small child of the female variety in a sea of men of every age. Even Aminata had her face covered more than usual and kept looking at the ground.
I looked around, a little wildly, for Missoudou and found him hysterically laughing a few feet away with a group of guys his age. He told Aminata it was fine and she could go home and I would be there soon. He explained to me that the horse races were a right of passage for engaged young men, and that only engaged young men could enter the races. In fact, only men were allowed to watch the races. Hilarious, I thought. Here I am trying to make strides for women at an event I am banned from even attending because it’s really some young, engaged man bonding time. All of which my brother knew when he entered me… under my cousin Jiby’s name, I later learned. My only satisfaction came from the fact that Missoudou never expected me to do better than last place and some of the guys I raced were mad at him for messing up their placing.
It was still a great race and I was happy to have been there despite the initial misleading information. I tied a scarf securely over my head for the rest of the evening while I sat on Dragon and watched the rest of the horse races until sunset.