Published: April 2007
James McBride
Interview by Cassandra Franklin-Barbajosa

What was your best experience during this assignment?

Being a black American in Senegal is a bit like going to a family reunion: Every fifth person looks just like your Cousin Bob.

What was your worst experience during this assignment?

On the other hand, he's not your Cousin Bob. It took at least 160 American greenbacks for photographer David Harvey and I to get out of Dakar airport, and that was just the keep-your-hands-off-me money. The cab ride cost an extra $40. I never did get the driver's name. And he wasn't driving a cab, either. As we were pulling out of the airport, David pointed out the window to a row of cabs lined up at the curb and said, "Why are we riding in this car?" I can't remember my response. I was working my French at the time. It kept my mind off the fact that we had enough greenbacks stuffed in our socks to get us killed.

What was the oddest experience you encountered during this assignment?

But I loved Senegal. There is a deep sense of musicality there unlike anywhere else in the world. In an abandoned motorcycle repair shop in Dakar, I watched noted Senegalese writer Issa Samb Joe Ouakam, 60, talk and sing through more music in five minutes than seemed possible. "Tassou. Baku. Cannou," he said, naming several forms of the indigenous West African musical sounds. "There is music here for wrestling, for cooking, for peeling the meal." In short, for everything.