Saturday, July 18, 2015

Marie-Hélène Sambou

I have been under the weather all week, feeling rotten and physically broken, and trying my best to keep it all together under a polished veneer. It worked out splendidly, well...aside from the weeping on Monday night, and then again on Wednesday night.

I don't mind a little sadness every now and then. Especially when it's for no particular reason (other than simply being a psychic sponge and a hypersensitive organism navigating through an extroverted planet). It's moments like these when I reflect on my past and the people I have lost, some for the better, others, at great expense.

Do you have friends or acquaintances, people you have known and who have either brought sunshine or drastic change in your life, people that you often wonder about after many years of not having seen them? How difficulty would it be, you ask, in this age of social media, to not find someone you were looking for. You would be surprised.

I talked myself into making a list of these fascinating people. There are two that I would love to describe to you. I would also love to see them again but I know it would be a difficult quest. One of them, I will speak of now.

Marie-Hélène Sambou

That is her real name. I knew this lady for the first 10 years of my life when I lived in Dakar and in Nantes.  And then I moved to Australia with my parents and never saw her again.

Who was she?

In common parlance, Marie-Hélène was our 'bonne', which is what we French-speaking expats living in Senegal called our 'help'.

But she was more than that.

From what I remember, my grandmother appointed her from the time I was born, or perhaps earlier. She was a young woman from the southern region of Casamance, a region I wrote about here. She could not read nor write. She was a Christian minority in a country that was and is still predominantly Muslim and she was, to me, absolutely fascinating.

Marie-Hélène took care of me from the time I was a baby. When I was separated from my mum aged 10 months, until the age of 3, Marie-Hélène came with me to France and continued to care for me at my grandparents' home.

Oh these were pretty cool days.
Here I am running alongside her in my grandmother's garden in Nantes. I was her star, I reckon.

She braided my hair into rastas. She liked that.

She played with me.

You could probably say she was like a mum to me.

Later when we lived in Dakar, at my grandparents' home. She and another lady (her cousin, Therese Sambou) did everything for us - that is to say they catered for a family of 7: my grandparents, my parents, my sister, my brother and I.

They rose with the sun. They washed all laundry by hand, waited on us at meal times, they scrubbed, mopped, tidied our rooms, cooked most meals, washed dishes by hand, made errands at the market daily, and prepared all ingredients.

When I say they prepared all ingredients, you probably wonder what I am talking about. Don't we all prepare ingredients?

Not really. In Senegal, well back in those days, preparation is time consuming. There is no packaging at the market, aside from rolled newspaper sheets and canvas bags.  The only packaging you can expect is from imported products purchased in a Lebanese or French deli. It goes without saying that most food arrives home in its raw form.

So you bought a chicken? Good for you.  Now go home, kill the chicken, pluck it's feathers, disembowel it. You can ask someone to chop off its head for you at the marketplace but you still have to prepare it when you get home.

Same story for the fish that my dad would bring back from his fishing trips and that would lay in a pool of blood on the concrete kitchen floor - Marie-Hélène would gasp at its size (much to my dad's pride) then haul it up upon the sink, scrub off its scales with a metal brush, and proceed to chop it into large pieces.

The rice we bought was crawling with vermin, mostly dead from the pesticides.  Marie-Hélène had to sift through the rice manually to remove all insects. She did this every time we ate rice. And I can tell you that we ate rice almost every day.

I wrote about Marie-Hélène a few years back. I regularly miss her and wonder what she is up to. I feel sad knowing that I never got to have an adult conversation with her. I feel regret for all my brat behavior and for dobbing her in whenever I felt indignant or bullied by the authority she had to show to get me to shower, sleep, behave or just obey my parents.

Truth is she was just an angel and she worked so hard, so damn hard. I remember that when I was eight, and we were living in France before coming to Australia, I would often sleep with her. One reason was that I loved the way she smelled and I felt comforted by her.  But the other reason is that she was so entertaining. I pestered her non-stop to tell me stories of magic and sorcery from her native Casamance and she begged me to let her sleep but I loved her stories so much, loved the way she told them so much, that I couldn't resist asking for more. Sadly the next day, after having had little sleep, she was up at four working at her chores, while I curled up in bed without a care in the world. All this makes me sad and I miss her terribly.

Marie-Hélène always gave of herself, despite the volume of chores she had to carry through. She was also always there for me. When she left us to return to Senegal before we emigrated to Australia, I remember how much she cried. She had been in our family for years and it would have hurt her enormously to leave. Leave where? Back in Dakar, somewhere. Or maybe in her village, in Casamance...

Where? I have no idea where. And that is what hurts so much. I feel as though a part of me is gone.

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