When the humid Senegalese summer reached its peak, and the family began sleeping on the roof, I initially resisted. I had, to some extent, begun to overcome the anxiety I felt about being a stranger in their home for three months. Mainly I was self-conscious, as an American woman old enough (in their eyes) to be married, about staying with an African family. How would I fit in, given our cultural differences, and that we were communicating in French, a second language for all of us?
But they treated me like one of their own, giving me a Senegalese name (Fatou, after the matriarch of the family who bore that same name), teaching me to eat fish and rice with my hands as they did, and offering me helpful advice such as to avoid Nigerians whenever possible.
And I tried my best to fit in, following what Clifford Geertz called the “established anthropological principle”: when in Rome. I went to the market and bought some Dutch wax fabric and had a local tailor fashion me some skirts and blouses. When the water supply would run dry in the house from time to time, I would accompany the girls in the family to the mosque on the beach that held a supply of purified water, deemed sacred by local worshippers, which we would carry back to the house in 10-gallon jugs on our heads (it hurt). I learned to speak Wolof so that I could fluently greet guests in the home while shaking their hand.
But I still resisted sleeping on the roof. Frankly I was too lazy to drag my mattress up the stairs. And I wasn’t sure if it would fit amongst the mats that Mama Fatou, Papa Libasse, and the two girls had already placed there. Most of all, I relished the privacy of my bedroom, where I could let down my guard for a minute and just be alone with myself.
So I stayed in my bedroom. And I suffered. Night after night, I suffered the constant, interminable, keep-you-up-for-hours-cursing-and-swatting, onslaught of West African mosquitos.
Like the 19th-century jihadists who brought Islam to sub-Saharan Africa through conquests and raids, these mosquitos could not be fended off by any power that I could muster. After you thought you’d killed them all, there was one more, buzzing next to your ear, taunting you (“Will I bite? Or will I just stay here all night, taunting you with my voice so that you can’t rest in peace?”).
In the mornings I would rise late, grumpy, deprived of my much-needed rest. The family would look at my sullen eyes and Mama Fatou would say, accusingly, as if her words could frighten the blood-suckers into leaving me alone, “Les mosquites!” And I would nod, sheepishly, as if I were guilty, somehow, of my foreign blood, a special treat for the feasters, like an imported wine.
Finally I could not take it any longer. I grabbed my bedsheet and headed up the stairs to the roof. Mama Fatou and Papa Libasse were sleeping next to each other on a mattress, and on another one next to them were the two girls, their slim young bodies heaving with breath as they slumbered. In between the girls and Mama Fatou on a narrow slice of unoccupied mattress, I wedged myself and pulled the sheet up to my neck.
The night sky hanging over Dakar was freckled with bright stars such that can only be seen away from the polluted skies of the urbanized West. A coastal wind whispered over our bodies, acting as a barrier to any crusading mosquitos who might try to invade my flesh and profit from my exotic fluids. Only the persistent, blaring snores of Mama Fatou next to me, like the thundering reverberations of a djembe, punctuated the soft voice of the wind singing lullabies in my ear.
Instantly I was reminded of sharing hotel rooms with my mother while on road trips, lying awake and pressing a pillow over the side of my head to drown out her nocturnal symphonies. I felt at home. I slept.