Filijee turned out to be my driver. He was a tall Wolof man who spoke French fluently and worked for UNICEF. My day off in Dakar was made possible by the fact he had to go into the capital to pick up supplies for our mobile, make-shift medical station out here in the village—and the fact that Astrid, the team’s lead midwife, said I needed it.
We were taking the Jeep. He took the wheel as I slid into the passenger side. I pulled my dark hair up into a pony-tail, rolled my sleeves up, and took my sandals off. It was already hot. I felt Filijee watching me as I did these things, things modest Muslim women did not do but which Americans and Europeans in Sénégal did all the time. Surely he was used to it since he worked for UNICEF.
As soon as we were on the road, Filijee started asking me questions.
“As-tu un marié, Gia?” he asked me, using my nickname, short for Giovanna—the Italian name I inherited from my grandmother on the day I was born in Chicago twenty-four years ago.
I looked at him guardedly. He could see I wasn’t married. I wore no ring.
“No,” I said.
“As-tu un ami?” He wanted to know if I had a boyfriend. He was smiling, and his dark eyes were bright—flirtatious.
I was tempted to say yes. Inventing an ami might put an end to the direction of this conversation. Then again, it might not. Truth?
“No,” I said, and then, struck with sudden inspiration, I added, “Je suis Catholique.” My religion sometimes stopped further inquiry. Most Wolof men I knew were devout Muslims. Muslims could marry Christians, and sometimes did in the larger Islamic world, usually with the expectation that they convert. But Christianity was not popular in Sénégal. Only five percent of the population was Christian, most of them Catholic, and they tended to live in the coastal region near Dakar where the French presence had been the strongest during the colonial era.
“Catholique?” Filijee repeated. He nodded, and then he said something I did not expect. “Je voudrais te dire quelquechose—un secret.”
“Je suis chrétien,” he said firmly.
I stared at him. Was he being serious? He considered himself a Christian? I briefly considered the possibility that he was trying by saying this to make himself look, in my eyes, like a man I could marry. But I discarded that idea quickly. For I had learned that a Muslim who converts to Christianity in Sénégal is not like someone whose family has been Christian there for generations—conversion could lead to rejection by family and friends, sometimes violent forms of retribution, even death.
The Jeep rolled through a shallow ditch in the road, and Filijee gripped the steering wheel more tightly, saying as he did, “Priez pour moi . . . parce que je veux dire ma famille, mais j’ai puer.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I wasn’t praying much these days. I had just said I was Catholic. The concept of “Catholic, non-practicing,” so prevalent in the States, meant nothing in Sénégal. So, half-heartedly, I nodded and said, “Okay.”
Then he changed the subject and asked me about the birth I attended the night before.
“Qu’est-que ce passé pendant la accouchement de Kurukemeh?”
I didn’t know what to say, so I looked away from him and out at the landscape. We were passing another village. Girls were carrying water jars on their heads as they walked along the side of the road.
His question forced me to remember every painful detail of the night before.
I was supporting the mother on her right side as she squatted to give birth when I saw the baby’s dark little head emerge with the cord wrapped around his neck. I had seen that many times, so it didn’t worry me. I watched Astrid get her long, white, gloved fingers under the cord to begin to unwrap it as she always did. But it was tight.
“Short cord,” she murmured to me in English. When she said it, its significance didn’t really register with me. The mother had been in labor for twenty-four hours, and I was tired. In another thirty seconds, I knew Astrid would ask me to take the baby’s one minute APGAR.
Since I’d arrived in Sénégal as a UNICEF intern, she’d deputized me to do work only a labor and delivery nurse or another midwife would do in the States. I knew I could do it: I was a trained childbirth doula. I’d worked for families that gave birth in hospitals, homes, and birth centers for two years after I graduated from college.
I glanced at the exhausted mother, her brown brow covered in sweat, as she pushed hard with the next contraction. The baby’s shoulders and body slid the rest of the way out and into Astrid’s arms. The cord tore, but Astrid immediately clamped close to the baby’s umbilicus to keep the newborn from bleeding out. Gently, I helped his mother come to rest on the sheet laid down over the dirt floor. Then I listened as Awa and Alamuta, the traditional birth attendants—now UNICEF-trained lay midwives—reassured her in Wolof. I wished I knew the language. My college French worked all right to communicate the basics, but when a woman was in labor, she wanted to hear comfort in her mother tongue.
For a moment, my eyes rested on the two African women, crouched together on the mother’s other side, wiping the sweat from her face. They were dressed like other Sénégalese Sufi Muslims I had seen since arriving—not in the burkas of Afghani women that flashed across TV screens in news stories back home, but still modestly: colorful head scarves that showed only their faces while long dresses covered their bodies from neck to foot and shoulder to wrist. The dresses were made of cotton, but I knew they had to be warm in this small, round hut on this humid, summer night.
A mosquito buzzed in my ear, and angrily, I snatched at it. I was happy to see it crushed between my fingers. The last thing I wanted was for an infected mosquito to bite this newborn baby and give him malaria before he even took his first breath. I wiped the bloody bit of insect body on my pants. I hate mosquitos.
APGAR, I thought to myself.
I immediately turned my attention back to the baby. Astrid was rubbing the baby down vigorously with a towel. My brow immediately crinkled with concern. Usually she put the baby skin-to-skin with the mother to initiate breastfeeding.
Unlike most babies immediately after birth, this baby wasn’t still getting oxygen through the blood in his cord. He needed to breathe. Now. Was he going to? Mentally, I started his one minute evaluation.
Using the AGPAR system, I assigned points—0, 1 or 2—for the baby’s appearance, pulse, grimace, activity and respiration. As I did so for this baby on this night, I felt my heartbeat slowing, and my head getting light.
Appearance: 0. The baby was limp as a rag doll in Astrid’s hands. Not moving. She was flicking his feet, then checking his femoral pulses in his thighs. She shook her head. No pulse? Pulse: 0.
I checked the baby’s face for some kind of grimace. Nothing. Another zero. Was there a flicker of movement anywhere in his body? I assessed the baby’s lack of activity in a daze. Not good. Activity: 0.
What about respiration? He wasn’t crying. A gasp, a cough, a sneeze—anything would be good. If there were amniotic fluid or meconium in his lungs, he should be struggling to get it out.The mother’s amniotic fluid had been clear when her water broke, but there was terminal meconium—I could see it—that came out behind the baby’s body. That meant the baby had become stressed inside, deprived of oxygen, and made a bowel movement before birth. Now this baby wasn’t breathing. Respiration: 0.
Astrid was already beginning neonatal resuscitation. She leaned the baby’s body over her downwardly-extending forearm and vigorously rubbed the baby on the back to stimulate him while clearing the airway. Using the delee I handed her, she cleared out mucus and amniotic fluid from his mouth. Then she put the baby on a clean towel on the flat, hard, plastic board we had for neonatal resuscitation, and she moved his head into the so-called sniffing position. “Ambu bag,” she said calmly to me, and I grabbed it from our emergency kit. Fitting it to the baby’s face, checking the seal to make sure no air would escape, I began to gently squeeze the bag to force air into the baby’s lungs—while Astrid listened to his heart with a stethoscope. I could tell from the look on her face that something was wrong with this baby’s heart. She began chest compressions. We alternated: air, chest compressions, air, chest compressions. We paused to assess with the steth: still no heartbeat, no chest movement. No change. We resumed. We paused to assess. No change. Minutes passed. The baby wasn’t breathing. He had never taken his first breath—never cried at all.
This baby was stillborn.
“Astrid,” I said softly, nearly choking.
Astrid glanced at me with her young face and old eyes, blond hair matted against her forehead.
“I know,” she said and stopped chest compressions, looking up at the mother and the African midwives.
Alamuta looked at the baby in Astrid’s hands. Her expression was resigned. She turned away from Astrid and back to the mother, whispering to her in Wolof. In another minute, the woman lying on the floor began weeping.
The baby had been born dead, and nothing we did changed that.
So now here I was, on the road to Dakar with Filijee, who was repeating his question: What happened at the birth? How did the baby die? Of course he knew. Everyone in the village knew by now.
“Je ne sais pas,” I said, and that was the truth. I didn’t know.
I’d seen the short cord, and when I went over the birth afterward with Astrid, we both agreed it had been compressed in utero and oxygen had stopped flowing to the baby. We’d heard heart decelerations with the Doppler during labor, but we had no access to an operating room for a cesarean out here in the village. Then the Doppler battery went dead, and by the time we got the fetoscope, we couldn’t find heart tones. Dilation was complete, however, so we urged Kurukemeh to push harder to facilitate a faster birth. Like so many West African women, this mother was infibulated—badly scarred from what the Wolof call “cutting” and what most people in the west call “female genital mutilation.” Astrid cut an episiotomy to help deliver the baby’s head quickly, but it was already too late.
So I understood, at some level, what had happened. But at the most fundamental level imaginable, at the level of being a tiny human in a universe of enormous suffering, I didn’t know why the baby died—and I certainly couldn’t explain it in French if I did.
“I don’t know,” I said again. Then I added—who knows why?—“Dieu sait.”
“Dieu sait tout,” Filijee agreed.
Yes, God certainly does know everything, but he rarely explains it.
Then Filijee started to tell a story—and I was glad—because I didn’t want to think about the night before. My eyes were as dry as desert sand. I hadn’t cried about what I’d seen, but I didn’t want to start now.
Filijee told me that he was his mother’s third-born child. Before him, there were two others: a boy and a girl. Both died. So when he was born, his mother named him Filijee, which literally means “leave it there”: a warning to evil spirits to stay away from him and let him grow up with his mother. I wondered if his mother was one of many Wolof who mixed a bit of animist religious practice in with her Muslim faith, but I didn’t say what I was thinking.
Then Filijee said an odd thing, and I wasn’t sure I understood him perfectly. French spoken with a Wolof accent, in a Jeep on an open African road, isn’t always the easiest thing to interpret—especially when the listener is tired. And I was tired.
But I thought he said his mother wouldn’t want to lose a third child, wouldn’t want to lose him just because he had become a Christian, so maybe she would accept him when he told her he had converted. He said something else, something about Yesu, but I don’t know what it was.
I decided to change the subject and asked him what Kurukemeh meant. I’d noticed that every African name I heard had a meaning, and I tried to learn those meanings because each name was a step that led more deeply into the Wolof language and culture. But when I asked about this name, Filijee laughed.
“One hundred kola nuts!” he shouted—in English!
I stared at him. What was his problem? He was smiling again as if I had asked him a delightful question.
“So what?” I asked, startled into speaking English myself and puzzled by his use of my native tongue. I hadn’t thought he spoke English, but maybe he knew a few phrases. Maybe he didn’t let on that he knew so that he could listen in on conversations among UNICEF workers that switched from Wolof to French to English, depending on the subject.
Filijee explained in French. Traditionally, in Sénégal, a bridegroom’s family brings kola nuts to the bride’s family when he wants to marry her. He brings many other gifts, too, for a woman is valuable, and her family must be compensated for losing her. Filijee smiled at me with his dark-bright eyes as he said this, and I realized we were right back where we had begun our conversation in the first place. Flirting. But he was not finished.
Kola nuts are also given when a baby is born, he said, when the baby is a week old and the imam whispers the baby’s name into the baby’s ear for the first time. Then a family member declares the name aloud to all the people present to celebrate the new life. Filijee was smiling broadly now.
The Wolof, I thought as he said this, are so careful about their babies. The little ones die so often that the parents try to protect them from evil spirits by rarely saying aloud that they are pregnant—which had made providing pre-natal care quite difficult for Astrid, as I had learned. But not to name the baby until the baby was a week old? Perhaps it was another magical way of protecting the baby. If the spirits didn’t know the baby’s name, maybe they couldn’t call the baby’s spirit out of his body as easily. Who knows? Maybe it was a way of trying to protect the hearts of the family members. If he died without a name, had he ever been fully human, fully a part of his Wolof family? So many Sénégalese babies died. Then it occurred to me that the baby I had left behind with Kurukemeh would be buried without a name.
But Filijee was still not finished. He said that when someone dies, the body is washed and perfumed and wrapped in a percale cloth. It is usually buried within six hours. Then, at the funeral, kola nuts are distributed by the bereaved family to all the mourners.
I wondered if the life of a Wolof baby who died nameless was honored by the giving of kola nuts or not, but I did not get the chance to ask Filijee, who was suddenly yelling at a young herder who had blocked our way with a hardened little flock of sheep stumbling along the dirt road toward Dakar.
I wanted to see the Cathedral de Notre Dame des Victoires, so after collecting supplies from our headquarters in Dakar, Filijee took us there. I did not expect him go in with me, but he did. He parked the Jeep and walked toward the church right by my side. I didn’t complain.
Growing up in Chicago, I had always been interested in architecture. I had learned from African friends in UNICEF that the foundation for this church was laid in 1922, and the cathedral was completed in 1936. It was made of white stone, and the main entrance consisted of two tall towers and a cupola nested behind them like a woman’s breast facing up toward the sky with a cross placed upright on it. Four carytids, four stone angels carved in gray—two looking distinctly like African women, two like French women—looked down on us from the tops off our pillars at the entrance. Words above their heads written in French dedicated the church to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, but Filijee told me that before the church was restored the words at the entrance used to be: “À ses morts d’Afrique la France reconnaissante.” To her dead in Africa, France is grateful . . .
We went in. Once in the sanctuary, I automatically dipped my fingers in holy water and crossed myself. I sat down in one of the pews facing the altar, and Filijee sat beside me.
“Sais-tu que il y a les obséques pour le president de Sénégal, Léopold Sédar Senghor, ici en 2001?” he asked me.
I shook my head. I knew the Cathedral was the seat of the Archbishop, and thus the foremost Catholic church in the country, but I hadn’t known that President Senghor had been honored here after his death. Always something new to learn in Sénégal, I thought to myself, things that are obvious to everyone—but not to me.
“Oui, c’est vrai,” Filijee said. “Il n’etait pas seulement le president mais un poete aussi.”
Yes, I knew that the past President had been a poet. That much I did know. Then Filijee surprised me again by reciting a poem, a poem the president wrote. These are some of the words he said:
Femme nue, femme obscure
Fruit mûr à la chair ferme,
Sombres extases du vin noir,
bouche qui fais lyrique ma bouche
Savane aux horizons purs, savane qui frémis
aux caresses ferventes du Vent d’Est
Tamtam sculpté, tamtam tendu qui gronde
sous les doigts du vainqueur
Ta voix grave de contralto
est le chant spirituel de l’Aimée.
I stared at him. His voice was low, and he was looking into my eyes, but we weren’t alone in the sanctuary. Other people could certainly see us. Could they hear him? I thought it was bold of him to recite a love poem to me in a Catholic cathedral—so bold, in fact, that it might even be crazy. And the words! Naked woman . . . black wine . . . ardent caresses . . . your voice . . . is the spiritual song of the Beloved. Part of me wanted to tell him to stop. I hadn’t come here for this. Another part of me wondered, distracted, if the gray angels on the wall outside at the entrance were listening, too.
Then Filijee said an odd thing, softly. He said, “La vie et la mort sont la langue de Dieu.”
I didn’t say anything in reply. Instead, I got up to go light a candle and pray for Filijee like he asked me to in the Jeep. Then I prayed for the baby without a name, and I felt the tears I hadn’t cried the night before finally fall down my face.
Driving back, the wind blowing through my hair, I watched the light fade from the sky as the sun went down. I was looking forward to seeing the stars because they are so bright here, far from city lights, and they shine like diamonds spilled extravagantly across the night. As I was waiting for them to come out, Filijee reached over and took my hand. Life and death are the language of God. I turned and looked at him, not certain at first why he was touching me, but I did not withdraw my fingers from his as they intertwined. His hand was warm and comforting. At that moment, I felt like his hand rooted me deeper into myself and deeper into Africa.
He did not let go until we were entering the village. But even after he did, I could still feel him—as if he had not let go at all.
Jane Beal, Ph.D. is a writer, educator, and midwife. Her fiction appears in Crux Literary Journal, Pacific Review and Literature Today, in Main Street Rag’s Law & Disorder anthology, and in her book, Short Stories from Undiscovered Countries (Lulu Press, 2009). She also writes poetry, creative non-fiction, and academic studies of literature and culture. To learn more, visit sanctuarypoet.net.