Saved by the Sandstorm

by Verneva Ziga (United States of America)

Making a local connection Senegal


I was working in Senegal. I say “working” to flatter my ego, but in reality I was an incompetent volunteer. As a 22-year-old progressive, that didn’t matter much. Delusion had convinced me that money was a capitalist tool of the rich that couldn’t bring me authentic joy. Instead, I was choosing a path of true purpose and enlightenment—saving poor Africans. I worked in villages each day bringing the arrogance that could only be produced by a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts. I spent scorching hot days affirming my Orientalist beliefs that Senegalese cultures needed updating, never stopping to reflect on my own. One day, as the heat blazed into our office, my boss Cheikh instructed me to visit a remote village hours away from our base of Ourossogui. Ourossogui is a town in Northern Senegal blanketed in fine brown sand. To most Senegalese I encountered, Ourossogui was in the middle of nowhere. They gasped when I informed them that I was living there. But compared to the village I was travelling to, it might as well have been Tokyo. My boss, Cheikh*, informed me that the journey to the village would take three hours. It had to be completed before the rainy season when the community would be inaccessible for months. The challenge excited me and I probably even humble bragged about it on Facebook. My excitement sharply turned into shock when he informed me that this journey would be made by horse carriage, donkey carriage, and canoe. With Senegal being in the Sahel, and the temperature often surpassing 115° Fahrenheit, I suddenly realized why Cheikh preferred to push this responsibility onto his toubab, or western volunteer. Apprehensively, I made the long, hot, bumpy trek with my co-worker Moussa. Moussa was kind and had a great sense of humor, but he had proposed to me on several occasions. Fortunately, the journey to the village went well. When we arrived, we interviewed the beneficiaries of our program, snapped some photos, and headed back to Ourossogui early the next day. Moussa and I had been riding back through the sea of dust for about an hour, when something strange happened. It was the middle of the day, but the sky suddenly began to fade from a vivid blue to a deeper hue. Moussa started yelling and frantically pointing at the sky. But with my dismal French I couldn’t make out what he was shouting. Without warning, he whipped the horse carriage around. In that moment, it dawned on me that I was a 22-year-old woman, in the middle of the Sahel, with a guy in his 40s who had asked me to marry him about 30 times. My mind raced as I feared the worst. I had seen Taken and knew I was in danger. Just when I gave up on Moussa, I noticed what he was exasperatingly trying to convey to me. Miles ahead, I watched the sand rise hundreds of feet in the air as it raced directly towards us. Moussa rushed us to the nearest village as quickly as our horse could carry us. By the time we had arrived in the nearest village, the sky had deepened to a navy blue. The tourist in me stopped to take a video, but an invisible protecting figure rushed me into his home for shelter. I was a complete stranger to him, but he felt compelled to pull me to safety in his house, with his family, his children, his possessions. Everything. By now, the sky morphed to a juicy orange, then fire engine red, and finally an ominous black as the storm raged over our heads. The sound of sand and wind battered the roof and walls with intense fury. We all cowered in a corner, fearing the storm’s temper. After only a couple of minutes, I could hear the storm abating. So I peaked out as the sky slowly faded back to a bright blue. That was when I noticed the damage that had been done. The sand storm yanked off roofs, knocked over carriages, and covered everything in dust. After reflecting on just how cool that experience was, I wondered if someone would save me in a snowstorm back home in Ohio. Or, would they just peek through the blinds, call the police, and film as the elements had their way with me? I knew from past experiences that the answer would usually be no. Senegal prides itself on teranga, or hospitality. Adventures like this one have highlighted how we poor western toubabs are in need of saving. * Names have been changed.