Travelling can be overwhelming and exhausting. It can also reward with experiences that are stranger than fiction, if only for a moment. Travelling can elicit questions that may otherwise never even have occurred to us.
Afternoons in Saint Louis are a languid affair: with stomachs packed tightly with theiboudienne and the heat making movement too much to bear, mothers sit in their cotton boubous on plastic chairs on their open porches, brewing tea or potent bissap over mobile cookers by their feet, leaning down to prod occasionally and exposing many a heaving cleavage in the process.
For a traveller with places to go despite the punishing time of day, I might be heckled and called a ‘toubab’ or (more favourably,) beckoned for conversation by one of these mamas though the hissing call. It’s directed with precision, successfully turning the head of the intended recipient every time, even in a busy market or from the opposite side of Pont Faiderbhe.
On this particular day though, nobody could have distracted me. I’d heard a sabar drum from a distance and I only needed to turn a corner to reach the source. The rhythm was like a livid child: incessant, stubborn and unreasonably shrill. I turned the corner. The neighbourhood’s kids formed a wall with their backs to me, a block away. Then I saw it. What they were all crowding around. He rose in front of them, surreally tall, blonde mane alarming against his black skin and his painted red and yellow face. His dreadfully sculpted body was dressed with feathers and animal hide. His eyes flashed as he moved in a fearful choreography. He lifted his arm and issued a guttural roar over the bursting drum beat. As he struck at the children they pulsed away, screaming and running in my direction now like a shoal of fish. At once terrified and mesmerised by what I saw, I was fixed to the spot.
I watched as the children slowed down, laughed in delight and headed back towards him. ‘C’est le simb’ a patient voice at my side uttered. He was a baker, he’d seen my alarm. I nodded, listening quietly, grateful for his words of explanation and reassurance until an excitable girl in a stained dress hauled me in, hysterical at the prospect of a toubab joining the circus.