Pictures from Senegal

Wednesday, December 8


According to my African mother, older women cover their feet in henna designs for 3 reasons. The first is that it is believed to hold medicinal properties. As in, the elderly who suffer from arthritis find a certain relief in the henna that soaks into the skin. The second is that the henna helps undo the damage done to the heels from years of trudging through the sand in flip flops. You wouldn’t believe the calluses I have after a year and a half… so imagine what a life time looks like: cracked heals, surfaces of stone, and a permanent flip flop tan line (that last one I only imagine in my case). The third reason henna is so popular is more basic: It looks pretty.

I know when I say henna most of you imagine the really pretty rose or brown colored designs found on Indian women. Like everything else here, the practice of henna is completely different. First up, we use black henna. It comes from a base of who knows what and is actually packaged as black hair die from China. It is sold in the pharmacy (how CVS of them, right?) I couldn’t tell you want they use in India but it’s obviously different. In addition, the designs are much more basic, more African. There are no little dots forming flowery designs. Senegalese women use athletic tape to form their patterns and cover the whole area in the henna mixture… leaving the taped area is the break in the color. The parts of the body decorated are typically the bottoms of the feet, and the inside of the palm and the fingers (but usually only the left hand- because it’s already dirty).

I’ve attempted henna twice. The first time was over a year ago when I spent the day at a women’s house and told her I was interested. She enlisted her daughter to commence in my first experience. They attempted a red version (I’m nearly certain we can call it a botched Indian knock off) that involved taping my hands off, putting a creepy green paste over nearly every surface, and covering my hands in plastic to protect them. I was to spend the better part of half a day attempting to not use my hands. It was tedious. And I gave up early, 4 hours later. After voiding my hands of all objects, a barely yellow tint was visible. It left a few days later.

The second attempt occurred just recently and coincided with the visit of my sister. Granted I’d been asking my mom for a year to do henna with me, but apparently a visitor warranted the activity. This is probably because of the 3rd utilization of henna, it’s pretty. Semi-permanent tattoo sightings are much more prevalent in Mboro in and around holidays, because these beautiful works of art make things more festive. Another reason could be that a week is taken off for every holiday, thus leaving the peoples with plenty of extra time to kill. Or maybe they take a week off for all the preparation. It’s a ‘chicken or the egg’ conundrum, if you ask me.

Anyway, I digress. The week of Tabaski, my mom mentioned doing henna together. Our plan was to do it Friday (the holiday having been on Wednesday). My sister was to arrive Saturday morning. My suspicions lay with my Senegalese mom always trying to get me to dress better (read: more Senegalese) and her not wanting me to fall short of proving to my actual family that I have indeed spent too much time integrating into my current lifestyle. We started by calling a women who performs the art as a side business in another neighborhood. My mom got a quote and I agreed. Later, my mom talked to some friends, and decided we could do the whole thing ourselves with the help of a neighbor in our area of town. Hmm; this should have been a sign. So should’ve the fact that I’ve been asking my mom to do this with me for a year now… only to learn that she’d “never done it before.” Odd as I’d seen her with it…

So, like any other task, we sent one of the children out in search of the necessary ingredients. For two days, the boy came back empty handed. By Friday night, I suggested we attempt to do it with my sister upon arrival the next day. It wasn’t until just before my sister, her boyfriend, and I were scheduled to leave Mboro did the items miraculously appear. And then, as in most instances with my host mom, I got bullied into doing something I was not actually willing to do at that point in time. Drinks with a friend were postponed and my sister and I were seated in the foyer of our house. The neighbor girl arrived and the Chinese hair dye was mixed.

At this point it’s time to revisit something my mom said: that she’d never done this before. Apparently this meant that she’d never a) used the black Chinese hair dye version and b) been in charge of actually forming the designs on skin. I’d told her from the beginning that she was in charge of the African design that needed to appear on my significantly paler skin. And since this artwork was scheduled to last for weeks at a time, putting all that in someone else’s hands is kind of a big deal for me; a trust issue if you will. I did give her one single restriction: in no way shape or size did I want a heart to appear on my body. I’ve always felt this was tacky, and I just can’t live with tacky for weeks on end.

So we got started. The neighbor showed my mom how to use a small stick or match to dab the henna onto the skin. From there a design already mapped out on paper was used. I mentioned a number of times that my drawing could be much simpler than 20 or plus shapes that lay out… but no one was listening. I guess they still weren’t listening when I said I wanted the design on the top of my foot, because the actual one started about 3 inches up my leg and worked its way across the top of my foot. After an initial line was drawn, my mom left me in the hands of the neighbor girl to be finished and started working on my sister. Squiggly lines, diamonds, dots, flowers, and swirls began to take form in black. I distracted myself from its ridiculousness by translating conversation between my mom and sister.

I should have been paying attention because when I finally turned back a heart was smiling smugly back at me from the center of the design. Unbelievable. This “artist” of a neighbor had gone too far. It’s finished, I tell her. My mom bullies me once more into putting a tattoo bracelet on my left arm. Fine, but NO hearts! I end up with two (what were aimed at) straight lines around my wrist with dots in the middle. In the end my sister ended up with basically the same things both on her foot and her wrist. We were instructed not touch them until the mixture dried. The neighbor girl bumped my wrist while attempting to design it… so from the get-go it was messed up. I made it worse by grazing a wall. And I guess wrists are difficult for everyone because sister did the same thing with hers.

We eventually left for our drinks at the local watering hole so that making jokes about the whole debacle would go down easier. I started to refer to it as the time “a 3 year old drew on me with a marker,” because that’s what I believe it looked like. I spent the next week using my sister’s make up removing face wipes to diminish my works of art as quickly as possible. I also had to shave my arm hairs (which were dyed black- it is hair dye of course). It didn’t take long. In the end, I’ve learned the following lessons (although it’s not been the first time): my host mom is great at bullying and I’m great at getting bullied, if you want something done right (or without hearts) do it yourself, and finally that nothing- absolutely nothing- is going to get done when I first imagine or plan it to.

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