Delightful West Africa 8 – Alphonsine, My Young Senegalese Bride
On a hot afternoon in the beach resort of Saly, Senegal (see previous submissions), I step into a midrange hotel's spa for "massage relaxant" for 15 Euros. In the course of the hour I find out that a "massage relaxant" is basically an oil-massage. A rather uninspired one at that, but I like the view of the masseuse's oily, black fingers on my white skin.
Aminata, my relaxed masseuse, looks like 27 years old. In fact she is 40 and a mother of six. At the civil wedding she and her Muslim husband had opted for "polygamy". So far her husband hasn't brought in another wife. "But he could", says Aminata. "He goes about his business, I go about my business, that doesn't trouble me."
Aminata wants to see me attached too and, according to her, a Senegalese wife would be an excellent choice. We discuss the religious problems and I say a Muslim wife couldn't slaughter a mutton in a German front yard for Tabaski (see my Saint-Louis submission for more on bloody Tabaski rituals). Aminata agrees; she had heard previously that also in France you can't slaughter your Tabaski mutton in the front yard. "But I know you can cut throat in the bathroom", says Aminata, "so what's the problem."
Still another obstacle remains: conservative daughter's parents wouldn't accept a Christian husband. Aminata suggests that overall a Christian Senegalese lady might be best for me. "And you know what", says Aminata, kneading my arms, "have you seen my young colleague in the waiting room, she is Christian and she seeks a Christian husband, because she dreams of a church marriage."
Aminata: "I think she is perfect for you."
She calls out something in Wolof and suddenly the door to our darkened massage room opens. "This is Alphonsine, my Christian colleague who seeks a Christian husband", announces Aminata proudly.
Against the light from the waiting room, I see a tall, slim female silhouette with short dread-locks. I cannot make out the face.
Aminata: "Now, Hans, introduce yourself to Alphonsine!"
There I lie on my back, just in slip, with an oily body, and am inspected by two Senegalese ladies. I feel like a butcher's display. Am I a filet?
"Everything fine", I ask? That is default style, and I've learnt to use it.
"Really fine?" They talk like that here.
"Hm, hm, let's discuss more after the massage is finished." They love the word "discuss" in Senegal (Fr. "discuter").
"Ok, see you." The door closes. Finally.
After the massage I go to the shower. I have already paid. After showering, I will slip out immediately.
In the waiting room, I find three ladies in white coats draped on the couchscape with very expectant eyes. Among them Alphonsine, my prospective bride, looking at me curiously. I say good-bye and make it to the door.
"But we wanted to discuss!" That's the third masseuse, called Khady. A black arm lands on my white arm. Another great contrast, but unwelcome this time. With soft female mercilessness, Khady guides me back to the couchscape and makes me sit down.
Obviously I have to lead the conversation. I ask Alphonsine a bit about her family, she has eleven siblings. They ask a few questions about my job and family; the small number of family members seems a serious disappointment.
Alphonsine, my bride-to-be, has a shy, yet self-confident demeanour and looks at me openly across the couch table. She appears to be an honest, down-to-earth girl with an innocent air and a nice smile that might light up more once she gets to know you. She is certainly subtle and leaves something to discover – different from many people you meet out in the open. Her unobtrusive dreadlocks – not the usual pompous wig or hair attachment – could be interpreted in a way that she is not interested in western fashion extravagances and wouldn't demand lots of gold, 4WDs and high maintenance. (Because of her dreadlocks, instead of a western-style wig, the top Senegalese Mbalax singer Ma Sané is rated as "very natural" and not superficial, hi-so; see part 7.)
Aminata, my masseuse, had had a slightly indifferent attitude through the first hour of our encounter. Now she wears a benevolent, motherly smile when looking at Alphonsine and me. She'd definitely like to see us linked, "her" couple.
"How is it in Le Sénégal", I ask, "do you decide marriage after ten minutes talk?"
"Oh no!" Three black index fingers pierce the waiting room air.
Aminata: "You'll meet your candidate for coffee…"
Hans: "…and discuss… ?"
Three ladies: (nod and beam)
Hans: "…and then you meet for a sunset walk on the beautiful Saly beach…?"
Three ladies: (nod and beam)
Hans: "…and discuss…?"
Three ladies nod and beam: "Exactement, comme ça."
I ask for Alphonsine's age. She is 23.Wonderful, that's an excuse:
"I'm much too old for her." Finally, I found a decent way out of the situation.
"Why, you aren't too old!"
"But I'm 50. I could be her father!"
Aminata: "That's very natural. We have much bigger age differences here. Don't worry. Only love counts."
Khady: "Only love counts."
Alphonsine nods affirmatively: "Only love counts. Our age difference is not too much."
Alphonsine leaves the room. I ask Aminata and Khady another question about her, but instead of "Alphonsine" I say "Oulimata" by mistake, a popular Senegalese name. They seem slightly shocked that I quote the wrong name. As Alphonsine hasn't returned so far, I put a finger across my mouth to signal they shouldn't tell her of my names confusion. Aminata and Khady laugh out loud.
Alphonsine returns and walks up and down the room – in a bathing suit. I learn that she has a customer waiting in the steam sauna for body scrub. Look at that tall, athletic girl: She is no choc-and-awwwe disco stunner, but with her flat tummy, muscular legs and pleasant face she could be a Cuban beach volleyball champion. Definitely a great body. Like with those topless village belles doing the laundry on Senegalese wells and riversides, again I think that some people in Afrique de l'Ouest simply can't calculate the havoc a pretty female wreaks on the male retina.
Alphonsine is off. I feel jealous that my innocent future wife now shares the bath with another person, likely a man. I want to storm the steam sauna. Aminata: "Just come back for steam sauna and body scrub with Alphonsine. She will do a great service for you. She's always here except for Sundays; that's her free day so that she can go to church."
I agree: "Then we could discuss more, too."
They nod and beam: "Exactly."
They write Alphonsine's phone number on a paper.
I remember that I have torn trousers in my bag, ask for a good tailor and get a recommendation nearby.
"Great", I say: "I just came for a bit of relaxation, but now I've got a good massage, a good wife and a good tailor – you've changed my life in one afternoon."
Aminata and Khady laugh out loud.
Of course it could be a set-up: They present a young, delightful, Christian would-be bride to a single western male and get the male back for an extended massage session. On the day after the first massage I call Alphonsine to say that I would like to test her services the next afternoon.
On the phone, Alphonsine at first sounds quite reserved. But I can almost hear her smile when I say that I want to return for a big massage session. Of course she might only smile because she gets a big job from me.
There are a few awkward moments, as Alphonsine doesn't explain the steam sauna etiquette at all (I only know the very differing etiquettes of Germany and the US).
Then we move to the massage room and Alphonsine begins with the oil. She massages even worse than Aminata. Time to "discuss more".
I ask: "Now you've got eleven brothers and sisters; for your own family, would you like that many children too?"
Alphonsine bursts with indignation and amusement: "No, twelve children, that's completely stupid!"
I: "So, what do you think?"
Alphonsine: "Why, four to six children is a good number, right? Anything from four up."
After the massage, the ladies have planned another interview session with me on the couchscape. Fortunately a car arrives and picks up Alphonsine, who'll visit her parents upcountry for the weekend and a church visit. Our bye-bye is mercifully short and without implications.
Later I call her and tell her I can't see a marriage. She sounds friendly and positive on the phone.
So we won't be reading any more about the adventures of Hans and Alphonsine?!