“…The harmattan blows across the Sahara filled with red dust, dust as fire, as flour… Mariners called this red wind ‘the sea of darkness.’ Red sand fogs out of the Sahara were deposited as far north as Cornwall and Devon, producing showers of mud so great this was mistaken for blood. ‘Blood rains’ were widely reported in Portugal and Spain in 1901.

                                       from The English Patient (Michael Ondaatji)

The dust in Dakar permeates everything, enters every breath, coats every tea cup. It settles on the books, on perfume bottles and door frames, on the floors, the windows. It gathers under eyelids, in nose and ears, and stiffens hair. It settles on the vase and the flowers in the vase, which are frail petals of bougainvillea, imported and tended to with great care—-moistened with eye drops of diluted water, pruned with nail scissors—because no delicate flower could ever root or survive here naturally.

Sandy dust inhabits the car, along the creases in the car seat, the dash board, everywhere. Opening the windows only allows more sand to billow in off the scorching highways and crazy intersections. Dust fills the window screens until it blocks the sun from the rooms. It ruins the laundry as it dries on the line. Every house, no matter how humble, has one or two people who dust all day, from morning to night, because the moment you finish the last room the first room is covered in dust again.

They tell me it hasn’t rained a drop in nine months. I believe it. I have dreams that during the night the sand creeps in and buries the edges and boundaries of everything and we wake up surrounded by dunes; that we have to dig out the swimming pool and the cats, and that the children must slide down the dunes to school where they build castles made of sand instead of studying their math.

And yet—a most curious phenomenon. It took weeks to see this although it’s right before me. It took weeks to believe because it was too unbelievable to fathom: men in blue uniforms sweeping up the sand along the streets. Sweeping the store fronts, sweeping the sand from the cracks in the sidewalk, sweeping the empty lots. Amid a landscape of dirt and dead trees, for a few fleeting hours a street curb becomes defined and clean-edged. I feel almost majestic driving down one of these freshly, hand-swept roads.

Soon, I began to see women in glorious fabrics everywhere bent over, one arm behind their back, sweeping with rough-hewn brooms. In the mornings, they kneel by the front doors up and down the sandy streets, washing away the sand from the previous night. Before dawn, boys wash the cars windshields for a few pennies. All day, the fruit men polish the mangoes. There is an entire industry happening around me—a million gestures a day that make survival possible here. I witness it all with incredulity, however. How foolish, I think. Who will ever succeed in holding back the Sahara? What embarrassing acts of futility.

Or maybe—-I wonder on my better days—I am witness to a million gestures of hope. Acts of devotion, gestures of faith.

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