Residency: Emmanuel Iduma  |  In his words

My Time in Sinthian

Last October I left Dakar for Sinthian, where I spent four weeks at the Thread Residency. Months earlier I was in Morocco, Kenya, and Nigeria, for varying lengths of time. Coming to Sinthian I was travel-weary, distressed by constant movement and the end of a love affair. In Dakar, looking forward to my time there—in a village most Senegalese were unfamiliar with—and considering the narrative arc of my manuscript-in-progress, I decided to think of Sinthian as home.

Home: but not to me. I knew it was a village of about a thousand inhabitants, who lived there mostly as a result of their ancestry—their fathers and mothers before them had settled there. I was going to be a stranger. But not the kind of stranger I had been in cosmopolitan Dakar, or Rabat, or Tangier, or Nairobi. My guiding words were Yvonne Owuor’s: “I imagine as only a stranger, not even that, a mere pilgrim might.” I was in Sinthian, I imagined, on a pilgrimage.

In practical terms I intended to complete a manuscript, titled A Stranger’s Pose. The writing had taken off a year earlier, but it was a culmination of four years of travel with Invisible Borders on road trips across African countries. I was writing about those experiences, from both memory and imagination: interspersing fiction between facts, inventing new protagonists, and making the stories inseparable from my meditations about place and non-place.

Two weeks into my stay Yelimane Fall, a Senegalese calligrapher and devout Mouride, came to the residency with his friend and assistant, the Chicago-born Saliou Mbacke. In the first mornings after his arrival, Yelimane walked around the Center counting prayer beads. I watched him from afar. When he walked for several minutes he’d sit on one of the bamboo chairs, shaped as a V, unmoving and meditative.

Soon Yelimane’s aslant image became the image of my father, pictured in a sway in 1975.

Travel teaches us the generosity of the human spirit, when it enlarges to make space for others. In Sinthian I was almost tongue-tied, unable to converse in French or Wolof, and surely not in Serer. But the gift I received was the freedom to come to terms with my estrangement. Once, towards the end, Saliou began to teach me how to ride a bicycle. He steadied me from the Center towards the large tree at the entrance to the village. A small crowd gathered to give instructions. Left unguided I pedaled anxiously into the bush. There were shrieks of delight and mild mockery by the boys. In Sinthian almost everyone old enough rode one.

I knew I wasn’t, and wouldn’t become, one of them. Yet for the first time in my travels I was unimpeded.  

Author's father, 1975. Photographer unknown.

Emmanuel (center) with Nicholas (Saliou) Pelafas, and Yelimane Fall

Emmanuel (center) with Nicholas (Saliou) Pelafas, and Yelimane Fall