Sunday in June
A young girl, fifteen, takes my hand and leads me to her house. “Baila” she says. Baila means dance in Spanish, a language I do understand. She is, however, speaking Wolof. She hands me a broom made out of sticks, with no handle and I understand that Baila means sweep in Wolof. She motions to me in a gesture saying, “Sweep my house.” Then I imagine the translation of the stream of words in Wolof: “I live here with my parents and seven or eight brothers. You came to help. We need the house to be cleaned so get started. I will show you how.” She has the smooth skin of youth, the color of bittersweet chocolate. She is wearing an orange nylon tee-shirt and a long cotton skirt with swirling lines of green and blue. It is tied at her waist. No shoes.
I take the broom and start to sweep. She frowns and shows me again. “Use the side of the twigs,” she says in Wolof as far as I know. She is moderately impatient with me. I smile weakly and try again.
The floor is dirt plastered over. There are a lot of holes and cracks where sand collects. It is Senegal, the Sahel. The soil is dry. Dust is everywhere. The desert is encroaching daily. “Baila” Somehow I understand the young girl’s name is Hilda or Hulda. She is insistent, directive but not mean with me. I am older than her grandmother by a few years I judge. I am ok with it all.
I think of Estelle. How do I remember her name after all these years? She was very dark with shiny long limbs also. I don’t remember ever having a conversation with her. I might have been shy or afraid or maybe she was. I was a little kid in the Bronx. Estelle would come and clean our apartment. She would hang our clothes to dry on this weird wooden contraption that my mother had. There was a stand with holes in it and wooden sticks that fit in the holes and stuck straight out into the air so you could hang small pieces of laundry. I wonder where she did the laundry. My mother used to call it the wash. Earlier in the day I see the women of the village doing their wash. They are crouching in a row, each in front of a plastic tub. Others are carrying water in buckets, from the well, on their heads. They are chatting and laughing.
After Estelle stopped coming to clean the house a man named John came. He was with us for many years until I grew up and he even came to clean my apartment when I was first married. He was dark too and quiet. My mother really trusted him. I don’t know what ever happened to Estelle.
So Hulda kept me going. I sweep every room and the dirt and the sand, bits of paper and plastic, small stones; it all goes on the porch. In the biggest room there is some furniture. I clean it with a special cloth. Hulda makes the beds with clean sheets and picks up things from the floor. Then she leads me out in the courtyard. Women are sitting in a circle and dividing up the food from the market. There is a bit of fish and some root vegetables. A very young boy is sucking a mango.
Hulda leads me to a room off the courtyard. A woman is lying on the bed moaning softly. She is heavy and looks much older than most of the women outside. She points to her belly. She seems to be in pain. I have no idea what to do. I am thinking maybe she is dying but she doesn’t look that bad. I have no idea what I am supposed to do. The woman on the bed points to an end table and Hilda reaches over for a silver card with white pills sealed in their respective plastic pockets. Hulda gives the pills to the woman who gestures with them at me. I shrug. I reach a hand out to the woman in blessing – an offering of my hope that she will heal and a complete surrender of comprehension and control. Hulda and I leave and resume cleaning the first house. It is dark inside even though the sun is bright. There is no electricity although there is a generator and a TV. I adjust the cloth covering over the TV and Hulda readjusts it. She seems to trust my sweeping more now, however. I feel happy about that. Somehow it is important to me to please her. I am sweating. My bruised knee is hurting ( I fell on it two weeks before leaving for this trip and have been limping around). I can’t get on both knees – only the left one. I am trying to attend to my posture as I stretch down with a flat back to mop the floor after it is swept. I use a wet rag to mop with my hands. The water in the bucket gets filthy very fast. Finally it is time to sweep the porch and mop it too. The entire house is restored to temporary order.
Hulda motions outside to a plastic chair and bids me sit down. She is speaking Wolof but I get the gesture and sit. Before long the older woman who was in bed is calling me from her porch. She is up and about now and seems more energized. She wants me to clean her room. I get up and go over. She has her own broom, pail and rag. I skirt the various bowls and piles that crowd the corners of her room. She is on the porch observing me while I clean. I am thinking of Estelle again and all the black women who have cleaned all the kitchens and bathrooms and bedrooms of all the white women and men. I am thinking of Estelle. I am thinking of how hard this is. I can’t begin to imagine what this woman is thinking. There is no mathematics for this. Life has brought me here to feel this now, so I feel it – the sweat soaking my back, my burning knee, the fear that it won’t be clean enough.
I am here as a teacher with a group of rabbinical students and other young leaders. It is a service project of the American Jewish World Service. We are really here to learn with our bodies and our minds so that we can enter into a new level of relationship with the world. We are here to see inequity, exploitation, deprivation, joy, harmony, courage and love. We are here to get confused enough so that we will continue to study and mostly continue to care about the global south, about Africa about human rights and about our responsibility as the “haves” on this globe.
Later in the week we visit Goree Island and tour the slave house with Cherif. He is a Senegalese tour guide who speaks great English. He has a very soft, kind face. He tells us about slavery – how twenty million of the strongest and most able Africans were stolen by the traders. His voice is steely. Of those, 6 million died. A familiar number for the Jews. This house served as a storage pen for the slaves, treated worse than animals, viewed as non-human, property, and expendable. On the first floor were the holding pens, punishment cells, and the weighing room. The slave cargo was sorted, stamped and numbered, weighed and priced. The slave traders lived upstairs. I couldn’t help thinking that we in our privilege and wealth living upstairs now without regard to what goes on beneath us.
Goree reminded me of the first time I visited Auschwitz in 1994. As we left the slave house I thanked Cherif. His eyes filled with tears and so did mine. He told us how Nelson Mandela had visited this spot in 1992 and had cried. He told us how Pope John Paul II had visited as well and apologized. This and that. Everything together. Hilda/Hulda, Estelle, Cherif, the glory and desecration of the Divine image. Just like in Auschwitz I wanted to say kaddish. These are the words that hold all the meaning that can never be spoken. We gathered together. Young Jews who care and want to make a difference. We stood together and all together said “Yitgadal v’yitkadash shmey rabah “ May the great name – the name we cannot say but the name that intertwines us with all who have ever breathed or will breathe- May that unspoken Name, that great name, grow larger. May that Name – spoken and unspoken in every language on earth – grow truly sacred…” Then noisy crowds of school children arrive for their visit. (This is a major site in all of Africa to remember the slave trade.) The children are boisterous and filled with life. We go on our way.
Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg served as a congregational rabbi for seventeen years. She has published widely on such topics as feminism, spiritual direction, parenting, social justice and mindfulness from a Jewish perspective and has contributed commentaries to Kol HaNeshama, the Reconstructionist prayer book. She is the author of Surprisingly Happy: An Atypical Religious Memoir and has released the CD, Preparing the Heart: Meditations for Jewish Spiritual Practice.
Rabbi Weinberg teaches mindfulness meditation and yoga to rabbis, Jewish professionals and lay people and serves as faculty for Institute for Jewish Spirituality. She is creator and co-leader of the Jewish Mindfulness Teacher Training Program.