Senegal is a small dusty country on the west coast of Africa. It first appears in history when the Ghana Empire came over the sandy hills on their camels, pulling gold and salt from the earth to ship east. Islam came west across the desert later, and one third of the people became slaves. The French put children in chains and shipped them across the dark ocean, never to feel the heat of Africa again. Fifty years ago the French left and Senegal was, to a greater or lesser degree, free.
Our friend Tate spent a year living in Senegal, a modern western intellectual evangelist, serving in the Peace Corps. PicantePants spent a week, admiring the spices and the colors, and melting like an ice sculpture under a blowtorch. So when we found out that one of the best Senegalese restaurants in America was just minutes away, we had to check it out. Below is the story of how we ate, drank, and were merry, and why I owe Phil Raintree a cheeseburger.
Chez Aunty Libe is way up Georgia Avenue, almost to Takoma. We trooped up from Arlington on a cold Sunday in early December. Libe herself, that is, owner Liberte Ehemba, was the only staff in the front of the house, and greeted us warmly. She explained the different types of dishes, and recommended the fish Yassa or the lamb Maafe. The food was earthy, aromomatic, bursting with flavor and spice, and filling. Think Inidan food without as much spice-heat. The atmosphere was rather spartan, but Libe herself was very friendly. She’s been in America for twenty-six years, and founded this transplanted West African eatery a decade ago.
While we waited, the Senegalese television station was broadcasting some kind of massive outdoor event. At first I took it to be a prayer meeting. An ancient man in blue robes stood on a stage surrounded by musicians in white, Islamic-style garb. He was shrieking into a microphone, and parts of the crowd did a call-and-response. I couldn’t hear very well, but the language was a mixture of Wolof and French. Various other speakers, screamers, and exhorters came and went, varying in age from merely old to sequoia-ancient.
Then two giants entered the frame. Both towering black men, in white athletic warm-ups, with impassive expressions. They stood facing each other, eyeballing each other, measuring each other, for a long time as other ubiquitous old men shouted and prayed and flitted around them, as frail and insubstantial as mosquitoes against their bulk.
According to Tate, there is an African proverb which the Senegalese take to heart: If a bird lands on a branch and does not speak, he may as well have never landed at all. To speak is to be, to matter, to have importance. He says:
Senegalese meetings are modeled on that proverb: if you don’t speak at a meeting, regardless of whether what you are saying is coherent, germane, or even actual words, then you are obviously not a man nor are you important. Ergo, attending a Senegalese meeting is like having to listen to that stuttering spelling bee girl try to spell words for two hours straight.
Gradually, we realized that the two giants were Senegalese wrestlers, the famous Yekini and Bombardier. What we were seeing was the pre-match build-up for the veritable Yankee-Red Sox of Senegal. So, being total degenerates, Phil Raintree and I immediately hashed a bet. He wagered on the hulking Yekini, and I placed my reputation behind the dapper Bombardier, who sported with an Orange-brand hat. This was, for our intents and purposes, the only distinguishing characteristic about them; one was wearing a hat. The terms; winner gets a cheeseburger from Five Guys.
The chanting and pageantry built slowly, and finally … the channel cut away to a parliamentary debate. Aunte Libe explained to us that this was just one of many pre-fight events. The actual fight wouldn’t be until January. There was over two months of build-up. This was the third time the wrestlers would face off, and to my chagrin Yekini had won both prior matches convincingly. But earlier this week, we had the chance to watch the payoff! Our lingering bet was about to be satisfied! Bombardier! Yekini! THERE COULD ONLY BE ONE! AARON VS. PHIL! FIVE GUYS! And then this happened:
Months of buildup, yelling, chanting, praying, black magic, and anticipation, for two minutes of pattycake, and an unfortunate amount of what look like jorts. So congratulations Phil, you’re going to get a burger. I hope you don’t eat it as fast as that match was over.