Dear Aissatou: I have received your letter. By way of reply, I am beginning this diary, my prop in my distress. After reading these opening lines translated from its original French from Mariama Ba's poignant Senegalese novel So Long A later (Heinemann, June 1989), Jeannette Harunah felt an emotional connection. A selection of her monthly reading group, the Ebony Book Club, the novel is in the form of correspondence between Senegalese school-teacher Ramatoulaye and her old friend Aissatou written during the mourning period following the death of Ramatoulaye's husband, Modou Fall.
"Reading the book brought back powerful memories," says Harunah, whose ex-husband came from Ghana in West Africa. "I knew this was going to be interesting reading because I could reflect on my past experience of being married to a West African man."
Dressing The Part
Harunah arrived at her book club meeting wearing a headdress and traditional African attire. "I wanted the members to get a sense of the culture through a hands-on approach," says Harunah.
Harunah also presented the group with the outfit her sou wore during his African naming ceremony almost 25 years ago. During this "outdooring" ceremony, Harunah's son was introduced to the world and given the name Ants, which means leader.
"The outfits were beautiful," says dub co-founder Phyllis Ceruti. "Jeannette looked regal in her vibrant, flowing caftan."
Harunah turned to Keur N' Deye, a Senegalese restaurant in Brooklyn, to cater a traditional West African meal of Tiebou Dieun, which is a combination of fish and rice with vegetables, and Yassa Guinaar, a lemon chicken dish with rice and vegetables. The women compared their meal to the one depicted in this passage where mourners gather following Modou Fall's death:
The smell of the 'lakh' [Senegalese food prepared from roughly kneaded millet flour, which is cooked in water and eaten with curds] cooling in the calabashes pervades the air. Also passed around are large bowls of red or white rice, cooked here or in neighboring houses. Iced fruit juices, water and curds are served in plastic cups.
"Food is such an integral part of our book dub experience," says Ceruti. "It was wonderful sampling cuisine from another culture."
To provide information on West African funerals, Harunah wrote a letter to her ex-husband and read this typed response to her impressed group members:
Dear Jeannette: Funerals play such a big part in Ghanaian life because it is our way of...