November 2, 2015
It was a beautiful Monday afternoon, I walked along with the artist back to the ship. While we were near the ship, I hesitated. He didn’t ask for any money, but I felt an urge to help him.
“Look, I can’t give you any money, not because I’m not able to, but because I think it won’t help you.” I tried to express something I still hadn’t fully understood. “Whatever I buy from you, it may feed you and your family for today, but it won’t help you for tomorrow. It’s not good for you, so I won’t do that.”
That’s my moral, a way that I felt rational while I was traveling. However, it seemed that the artist had not understood it. His face suddenly looked confused, with the friendliness and the peacefulness disappeared.
I met him after a long and tiresome Sunday, travelling with the totally uninformative bus system in Dakar, fighting with the sun, and getting lost.
“I am an artist.” At least that’s how he introduced himself. He’s a merchant.
“Take a look at those beautiful pieces.”
Just as all other people who tried to sell me things, he showed me some wooden paintings with natural scenery.
I met a lot of merchants while walking around Dakar. Usually the conversation was started because of a gaze of eye contact. From my looking, they immediately recognized that I was probably from some parts of eastern Asia, so a random guess would then begin. “Japan! Korea! China!” They would do it until they saw my expression had changed, knowing that they had made the right guess, or otherwise, if they found it didn’t work, they would start a safer strategy. “Where are you from?” They would say. If again, that didn’t work, they would try to find another topic since nationality is probably a sensitive topic in some area. “Are you a traveler here?” or “How do you come to Dakar?” or “Where are you going?” If then, that still didn’t work, they would just try to be helpful and provide some information of local attractions. “You must go to the market. Nobody traveling missed that.”
If ever, any of those strategies worked, if ever, you responded to any of these questions, you ran into a “conversation black hole”. There would be so many topics they could talk with you, that would make you wonder why your friends were silent being with you all the time. And of course, in the end, as a ritual, hopefully you would buy something from them.
And here, just like all the other merchants I had met, the artist standing in front of me, showing me some wooden paintings.
“Take a look at those beautiful pieces. It’s made by hand.”
He said again, with his smiling face that seemed never to be tired. He had short hairs, middle height, and a totally white cloth that directly went down to his feet. His face looked friendly and handsome, that you would feel perfectly normal if someone introduced him as a hard-working student, or a local engineer, but you would not expect to find him on a street selling wooden pieces.
He looked at me, still smiling, trying to look friendly, but just like all the other merchants I had met, I decided to refuse him and walk away. However, I suddenly realized that I wanted some hand-made postcards to send back to my friends.
“Do you have any hand-made postcard?” I asked.
“Postcards? Oh, postcards!”
From his words, I concluded that not many traveler here bought postcards, or at least not from them. However, he was still trying to be helpful, saying that he would lead me to a store that sold them. I quickly nodded, because of my experiences of getting lost in this huge city.
I quickly learned a lot from them. He was married with two children. He was originally a Christian, but later converted to a Muslim. His wife and him made a living by making those art pieces and selling them to travelers. I then asked how many pieces he could sell every day. “3 for mine, 2 for my wife, and 2 for my brother.” He said, not proud, of course, but confident and peaceful. But that 7 pieces would only earn him around 10 to 15 dollars per day, below the minimal wage of many countries.
We stopped in a corner of the street, finding the shop the artist planned to go closed on Sunday. He felt sorry, and went out to ask another local people for another shop. While I was waiting, another merchant came to me, introducing himself as the artist’s brother, and trying to sell me some other hand-made things. I told him that I would not be able to buy anything from him, since those hand-made things contains animal skins, and it was forbidden for me to bring them back to the ship. However, he insisted and gave me a small gift.
While we walked back to the ship, there were a long time of silence, because everyone was disappointed – I didn’t get the postcards, the artist didn’t find the shop, and the artist’s brother didn’t sell anything to me.
“Come tomorrow. On Monday every shop should be open.” The artist said. I felt specious of whether I could successfully find him, but still I nodded.
The artist’s brother certainly didn’t think that we would be able to meet the next day. He insisted on my buying something from him. It ultimately ran into a conflict, with both of us started shouting. I still didn’t buy anything from him, sending a clear message that it’s difficult to overcharge me.
As a result, I didn’t expect it when I met the artist the next day.
“I was waiting for you for a long time!” The artist said.
As we walked to the shop, we crossed the busy market in Dakar. Cars, people and animals were everywhere, going as they pleased, ignoring all other creations of the world. It was just a miracle that I didn’t get hit. While I felt the situation dangerous, the artist started joking.
“I think you are old enough. Do you want a wife in Senegal?”
When we arrived at the shop, another merchant showed me many beautiful hand-made postcards. Since I only had a few friends to send them, I only brought two after a long time of careful selecting and choosing. The shop was a little bit quieter when I paid for them, and the merchant even seemed a little angry – they certainly expected me to buy more.
However, two postcards were all I need.
The artist insisted on leading me back to the ship. He didn’t seem to be a man who would be able to afford to guide someone for free who only wanted two postcards. He only sold two art pieces that day – not even enough to buy food for his family in an expensive city like Dakar.
His brother finally got angry at him. Although they were speaking French, I could still gasp the meaning a little bit. “You can’t get any money from him any more. Why are you still guiding him?” His brother said.
“I led him out, so I need to guide him back.” The artist said.
I was a beautiful sunset while we walked back. The light went down in a huge angle, leaving the shadows behind us covering a large space. Everywhere was yellowish, and if I was not in that hesitation, I would have been enjoying the scenery.
“Giving money to you would do no good. So I can’t do that.” I still feel an urge to explain what I meant, hoping the artist would understand that what he really needed was not only tonight’s food, but also a long-term mindset, finding a better job, seeking a better education, or probably a less corrupted government and a fair environment.
However, the artist was still confused. Now, instead, he showed me snakes and sugars that other people had given him, saying that he would be grateful if I could buy him some food, and that was what I did.
I questioned whether that was a right decision, but history had already been made, and now my only hope is that at that night, when the man eating together with his wife and two children, he found his wife so beautiful and his children so lovely, that he decided to provide them with better lives. “Well,” I hope he was saying, “Maybe now is the time to educate myself and to find a better job.”