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Stories from Senegal: Toilet Paper Smuggler

The next morning, Saturday, I wake up to my goat-bleating alarm clock and forget where I am for a moment. It’s a feeling that all of us new international students would experience over the coming weeks, but the first few can really daze you.


Gaining my bearings, I sit up and blearily swing my feet off the twin bed onto the tile floor.


I look at the closed door of my bedroom and think, now what?


Do I need to get dressed completely before I leave my bedroom? Will I disrespect my new host family if I come out in my pajamas? What happens when I run into someone in the dining area, the room that connects all rooms? What do I say? What if they smell my morning breath? Should I be practicing Wolof with them or speaking French?


Too many questions, not enough instant coffee.


Also, the most important question remained: how can I most effectively hide my private stash of toilet paper each time I need to use the bathroom? (and second and third most important questions: how do I gauge just exactly how much I’ll need, and what happens if I run out?)


You see, though my family *very thankfully* did not have what I lovingly refer to as a “squatty potty” (a hole in the ground that you do your business in), they did have that psychedelically-colored teapot next to the toilet for cleansing purposes.


I legit had no idea idea how the hell that was supposed to work, wasn’t interested in experimenting, and I sure wasn’t asking Mama G about it after how well last night went over.


It was decision time.


I opted to change into some casual workout clothes - it seemed like a good balance between the PJs and a school outfit, which wouldn’t start for a couple more days. I attempted to brush out my morning rat nest and rub the sleep out of my eyes the best I could before rummaging through my stuff for the roll of TP I learned to carry with me everywhere.


I un- and re-rolled a wad and decided to just stick it in between my hip and yoga pants. I gave it a little wiggle to make sure it wouldn’t break free in the 10 steps to the bathroom, and it passed the test.


I took in a deep breath, put my hand on the door, and pulled.


It creaked a bit as it opened and revealed nobody in the dining area. I could hear movement in the bedrooms and see Fatimah in the small kitchen, but I was otherwise alone.


I tried to tread as lightly as possible across the floor when Fatimah noticed me. She looked up and we made eye contact. Now I had to engage in the greeting process before I could move on to anything else.


“Salam Alaikum,” I greeted in Arabic.


“Ma alaykumu as-salam,” she replied.


“Nanga def?” I asked in Wolof.


“Alhamdulihah, yow nak?” she replied in Arabic and Wolof.


“Mangi fi, alhamdulilah,” I said in Wolof then Arabic.


“You sleep good?” she surprised me in English. “Do you want some breakfast?” she asked in French.


I blinked at her a few times. My brain had just short-circuited. It didn’t know which language to produce, which question to answer, so I just gave her my best goldfish impression. I waited for a language and its words to arrive, possibly scaring her, possibly amusing her. I couldn’t read her at all.


After a moment, my bladder ultimately chose for me.


“I have to go pee.”


Real smooth.


I made my graceful way to the bathroom, feeling for the wad of toilet paper at my side to make sure it hadn’t fallen through my pants. I wondered if Fatimah had noticed it and was now judging me. I was always wondering if someone was judging me.


Feeling foolish, I opened the door and headed in. It was a small space with a white porcelain flush toilet, and the “shower” area was a couple of extra feet of open space to the left of it. There was no separate shower or wall or curtain - I’d soon learn that everything basically just gets wet and you use the long squeegee broom-thing to push the water toward the drain. But for now, I just hoped that I wouldn’t need more toilet paper than I had accommodated for.


I lucked out and didn’t. Finally, a win!


Except that when I tried to flush the toilet, it made a weak swirling noise but didn’t move.


I tried again.


And again.


Nothing.


Great, I thought, fucking fantastic.


I stand in the bathroom a while hoping for a solution to magically appear, and keep pushing the button in the meantime, but it doesn’t even move - it’s pressed in and stuck.


I just cannot bear the thought of having to go ask for help with this to anyone in the house on my first full day here. THEY’RE GOING TO SEE MY TOILET PAPER! They’re going to think I judge their ways! I don’t! I just really don’t want to use a teapot to clean *any* part of my body!


This is just too much to handle before coffee. It really is.


I take some deep breaths, close my eyes, and ask myself if I know how to say clogged toilet in French (I don’t) and open the door anyway (what choice do I have?), thinking of alternative phrases and word choices to explain and beg for help.


As I walk out, I almost run over little Paul, who was waiting on the other side of the door.


Tu fais quoi Kah-tee?” he asks, looking up at me.


“Just using the bathroom,” I answer cheerfully, trying not to convey what a stressful experience it has been.


Before he can continue asking me a hundred questions like I knew he was waiting there to do, I rush over to Fatimah in the kitchen, hoping my host parents don’t come out while I sort out this disaster.


“Fatimah, can you help me with something?” I ask in English, interrupting her breakfast preparations. “Do you know how I can get the toilet unclogged, or how to make it flush?”


She looks at me, blinks, and asks, “What means “unclogged? What is “flush?”


Good start.


“Um… like, do you know how to make the water go… out? The water is still there.” I was wringing my hands, looking constantly behind me at my host parents’ bedroom door.


Fatimah puts down the knife she was using to cut up a baguette and says, “You show me.”


“Ah…” I stutter. “No, no… really, that’s OK… I’ll figure it out.”


“Let us see,” she says, all business, and walks to the bathroom.


Before I have time to agonize over how embarrassing this is, she comes out and says, “You just have to put water. Use bucket - there,” and gestures to the two large buckets filled with water in the bathroom. There is one much smaller bucket that has a handle floating in one, and she makes gestures with her hands for what to do in case I wasn’t getting the message - which I finally did.


“Aha… thank you, got it, will do, right…” and then I enclose myself in the bathroom once more, grateful for the privacy, hopeful for a swift resolution.


I hadn't known what the buckets were for, but now that I knew they were up for grabs, I scooped the smaller one full of water and poured it into the toilet. I basically just had to manually move what I left in the toilet down by adding a few bucketfuls of water on top. It felt really weird, but in the end - sweet, blessed, empty toilet bowl.


I tried to refill what I had used from the bucket by turning on the tap that was just above one of the buckets, but I turned and turned and turned it - to no effect, not even a drip. I replaced the small bucket within the larger one and hoped I didn’t use someone’s water supply that they had allocated for something else. It felt like I really couldn’t do anything right, or even know what right was in most situations.


As I opened the bathroom door once more, I saw that I had gained another audience member - Thomas was now standing next to his brother, both looking expectantly at the door with big eyes, full of curiosity at the newest member of their family.


Mama and Papa G were both coming out of their bedrooms as I closed the door behind me - I guess everyone was just getting up and dressed while I was narrowly escaping a catastrophe - and we all greeted each other politely in French and they asked me how I slept, which they would do every morning for the next 5 months.


I was worried about the water situation though. I had really wanted to shower today, but there was no water coming out of the tap, as I had just learned, so I asked my host parents about it.


“Ah, yes, that’s important,” Papa G said. “You see, the water only runs until about 7:00am and then again after around 7:00pm. That’s why we fill up the buckets every day and night so that we have enough to use for the rest of the day while it’s not running. So, you’ll need to bathe before or after each of those times.”


“Also,” Mama G added, “If you want warm water like the students who stayed with us before you did, you’ll need to fill one of the buckets, bring it into the kitchen, and boil some in a pot on the stove. Then, add that boiling water to the larger bucket, which will make it just the right temperature. Finally, you’ll take it back to the bathroom, where you’ll use it and the small bucket to bathe.”


Well, there you have it.


So, either a cold stand-up shower before 7am or after 7pm, or a warm, bucket bath any time I choose. Got it.


This should be interesting.


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PS: no photo this week.


You're welcome.


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Well okay, here's the best I can do.



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