And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time.
And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time.
Well, imagine my surprise when I went to pick up my shorts from the tailor and they were made to go down to my knees. I told the tailor in frustration that he didn’t make them the right length and he said, “I figured they would shrink in the wash.” Yeah, okay. After bullying him a bit more, I finally got him to make them the way I wanted, although I think it practically broke him to do so.
On a more general note, this whole last-week-in-Senegal thing has been just jumping from one crazy emotional high to another. It started when I stopped by to chat with that homeless family I mentioned in a previous post and they had a newborn baby with them. They handed it to me and informed me that its name was Caroline. I was shocked, a little honored, and very much overwhelmed. They’re part of the Serer ethnic group, which apparently means that they’re not supposed to get pictures taken of them, but they wanted me to snap a couple pictures of them with the new baby, which is what you see right above this post.
Next came the CIEE farewell dinner, where I realized that our whole group wouldn’t formally be all together ever again. Just reminiscing about what we have all been through together, what Wolof-related jokes I’ll never be able to make with any other group of people, and how spread out across the world we are soon to be made me more sad to leave than I had anticipated.
Skip ahead to yesterday, my last Friday at Colombin. Our internships have formally ended, so I figured I’d probably just stop by for a bit to say goodbye, but once I got there I simply could not make myself leave. I ended up staying the whole afternoon, just making pottery as normal and secretly storing away memories of each of the boys’ faces to keep with me once I’m back in America. When it was finally time to say goodbye, the boys presented me with a necklace and earrings set they had made themselves out of clay beads. After many hugs and well-wishes, they ended up walking me all the way back to the bus station. I’ve never tried to walk so slowly in my life.
Now I’m finally at the finish line, the point that I’ve imagined for 4 months, just wondering how I would feel, and to be honest I have no idea. Despite all the frustrations that this semester has included, the current cut-up state of my feet, and the fact that I haven’t felt properly clean in 4 months, I think I love Senegal. I don’t really like Senegal that much, but I love it. I will miss being able to fluidly shift between 3 languages when talking to people, I’ll miss people on the street stopping to ask how my family is and actually being interested in the answer (I will not miss roadside marriage proposals, however), and I will really miss Biskrem, the Turkish imported packaged cookie of choice in Senegal (and a staple of my diet).
Although throughout the past 4 months I probably would have assured anyone who would listen that I would never return to Senegal after this semester, I get the feeling that maybe I will just have to come back (if only to hug my boys at Colombin, because, come on, they are so precious.) So, I mean, you never know. This blog may live on to tell more hilarious cockroach stories. We’ll just have to wait and see…
The other morning, one of the maids, Abi, knocked on my door and held out a piece of paper with someone’s name, phone number, etc., on it and handed me a shoddy-looking cell phone. Because her French is worse than my Wolof, it took kind of a while for me to figure out that she wanted me to dial the number for her. When I entered the digits and the call didn’t go through, she pointed to the person’s name and said to try that phone number instead.
Then it hit me: The reason she was having me make the call was because she 1) does not know the difference between numbers and letters and 2) does not even know how to match the numbers on her phone keypad to what is written on the paper.
Now, at home I work as a literacy tutor for kindergardeners, and when one of them cannot distinguish numbers from letters, they are pulled for testing and a lot of extra tutoring. Abi, my maid, is probably in her late twenties at least, and nobody has bothered to sit her down and even teach her what letters look like. It blew my mind that a woman who owns a cell phone and lives in the same house as I do is not only illiterate, but doesn’t know the difference between numbers and letters. I have my complaints about the American education system, but at least I can say that a basic level of primary education is guaranteed (and obligatory) for all children. Just goes to show that we live in a very lucky country if we can take universal literacy for granted.
On a happier note, yesterday some friends and I took a rickety pirogue to Île de la Madelaine, a former nature preserve that has since been abandoned, left an uninhabited island. The roundtrip cost $10, and, as one of my friends put it, “It’s like we just rented an island for ten bucks.” It’s true—we were literally the only people on the island.
In a lot of ways it was like everyone’s childhood daydreams of a world without adults and rules, where the rocks are pink and yellow and the trees are humongous and perfect for climbing, the ocean is bright green and blue and perfect for swimming, and you can yell and sing and gallivant as much as you want, without anyone to tell you otherwise.
We played in a natural baobab jungle gym, went swimming in the inlet, searched for seashells, and fell asleep on rocks in the sun. It was quite seriously the most magical place I’ve ever visited. It was so reminiscent of all the things I imagined as a kid that in a way it felt like this island had been waiting for me to visit there my whole life. All I could do was consider how lucky I was to see such a magical place with my own eyes; no pictures could do it justice, although I tried my best.
Finally, because I know everyone loves a Hilarious White Girl story: Today I went to the tailor to get some shorts made in a crazy African print, and when the tailor was taking my measurements, he pointed to right above my knee and said, “this is how long you want the shorts?” I said no and pointed way higher, the length of normal/maybe even conservative shorts in America, and he made a noise something along the lines of, “Ehhhaeeehehe?!” He verified the length with me like three times and then tut-tutted at me, even after I assured him that I would never wear them in Senegal. As I left, he informed me that he would be double-lining the shorts so that if they were going to be heinously short, at least they wouldn’t be see-through. There’s that Senegalese hospitality that I love.
This week has been full of hilarious encounters of the type I’m convinced can only take place in Senegal (particularly if you have a penchant for walking around the city alone, as I do…sorry, Mom).
First, I made a (kind of) Senegalese friend the other day! By which I mean, he didn’t ask me to marry him right away…
So there I was, reading a book at the beachfill, when a ridiculously ripped Senegalese man came up to me and asked if he could leave his shirt by me so that it didn’t get stolen while he worked out. I agreed, well, okay, I guess I could do such a thing. After he brought over his shirt, though, he sat down next to me and started asking about my book. He then embarked on a very long rant (clearly his exercise regimen was not a priority today) about how important it is to elevate the mind and spirit through literature and deep thought, and that everything else in life was “just the details.” We actually ended up having a really interesting conversation about Senegal’s government, the problem of talibé (Koranic school kids that are forced to beg for money in the streets), and the importance of higher education. I spent the whole conversation in complete fascination—partially because the whole thing was happening in French and I was keeping up, partially because this is the first time a random Senegalese guy has approached me with something other than a marriage proposal. He ended up walking me home (he offered for me to stop by his house so he could give me a “gift”… Don’t worry, I declined, Mom) and he only asked me if I had a husband once! Almost too good to be true.
Later that day, a particularly yellow-skinned man with no teeth approached me on the street and said, “Hey! Amereecan!” He then proceeded to tell me that he used to live in Rhode Island and I was thus his American “sister.” To test him, I said (in French), “Oh, then you must speak English?” And he said, “Well…uh…you speak French, so that doesn’t matter.” Clearly a U.S. native. Look out, Rhode Island, Senegalese people are feigning citizenship…
Tonight, I had a genuinely hilarious and fascinating talk with my little brother. First, we discussed how he wants to be an assassin when he grows up so that he can cut off people’s heads and then examine their brains to see if they’re crazy or not, starting with me (no worries, he was clearly joking this time). I reminded him that he already knows I’m crazy, and he conceded. Then he taught me how to fist fight, showing off his toothpick arms and telling me how strong he is. After such a convincing display of fortitude, I informed him that I would be locking my door tonight for fear of him.
Suddenly he stopped attempting to punch me and said, “I’m going to teach you a life lesson now: You shouldn’t be afraid of anyone in this life, except your mom, your dad, and God.” He informed me that God is not, in fact, human, and then prompted me to explain to him what God is. I said, “Well, I guess God is just…God.” He said, “Nope. God is ‘dot dot dot,’ because nobody will know what God is until they die.”
Well, geez. Who knew we had a little philosopher on our hands… What’s more, when I asked him who he wanted to be elected president in Senegal’s next election, he said, “My dad.” Precious. So, as for What I Will Miss About Senegal, Part Two, I’m going to have to say…I’ll miss Saër’s crazy antics, even the stories involving my death (of which there were several tonight).
Finally: The other night the lightbulb in my bedroom burnt out. So, naturally, my family hired an electrician to replace the bulb. …Yes, they really did.
“What am I doing here?” That is what poet Arthur Rimbaud wrote in a letter home while traveling in Ethiopia, and I feel his pain.
Some days, my sense of purpose here is so clear that it’s almost a tangible thing: When I spend a morning with the babies at the orphanage, when I accomplish a successful Wolof conversation with a friendly neighbor, when something I see or experience causes my heart to fill with clarity and peace. Those moments are priceless, but to be honest, they’re also not an everyday occurrence.
Before arriving here, I had this idea that I would come to Africa and do African things and help people and make a difference. Those are the buzz words that typically get tossed around when someone makes a voyage to Africa, and, I mean, they do sound really great in theory. I thought I would spend every day thinking, “What once-in-a-lifetime experience will I have next?!” but since coming here, I’ve found the more pervasive mantra in my head reflects my buddy Rimbaud’s question: What am I doing here?
Although the stereotypical moments—counting shooting stars in the desert, holding orphaned babies, making pottery with deaf and mute children, taking a boat up-river in Gambia to look for chimpanzees—have been as breathtaking and life-changing as they sound, a lot of my time here is spent on incredibly mundane and even undesirable ventures: washing my underwear by hand in the bathroom sink, waking up in a malaria med-induced panic at 5:30AM when the the call to prayer comes blaring through my window, and a LOT of sitting around. It is during these moments of solitary sitting that the pestering question most often comes around, and even after almost 4 months here in Dakar I’m not certain that I can supply a good answer.
For a while, my lack of response to this persistent internal query really bothered me—I felt I owed something to my school and parents, who helped fund my trip here; to my friends and family who have supported me so tremendously this whole time; and to myself, to justify why I ventured out into such unknown territory alone in the first place.
As I near the very end of my stay here, though, I’ve started to let those concerns go a bit. Although the mantra What am I doing here? continues to play like a broken record in my head, I’ve begun to get the feeling that maybe it belongs there, and not just while I’m traveling abroad. Perhaps it took going to a place so completely unlike my old life to make me take a pause and consider what, exactly, I am doing here, in a more abstract sense. It’s a quandary that will maybe never have a satisfactory answer, but I think it will always be worth asking.
In the sake of closure I have started to make a running mental list of things I don’t want to forget when I move back to the States, and I think this is the one at the top of my list: Don’t stop asking What am I doing here?
It’s an uncomfortable question, to be sure, and sometimes it generates a response that I’m not happy with (a response along the lines of, I HAVE NO IDEA), but it is also a mechanism for keeping me present, engaged, and curious. In just two short weeks my What am I doing here? will likely no longer be asked in desperation after killing my fourth cockroach of the night, but hopefully as I return home to get my senses overwhelmed by Christmas lights, Starbucks coffee (whoa buddy, caffeine), and magical, magical grocery stores (all the peanut butter you can buy…AND everything has clearly labeled prices and expiration dates!), I will not forget to continue checking in to my purpose, my direction, and my attitude. Life is too short to forget about asking the most important questions.
Sorry to get all existential on you guys. If that was too much, just scroll down and look at the babies…
P.S. 14 DAYS!!!
So, yesterday as I was walking from the orphanage to school, I noticed a middle-aged man walking straight toward me, making eye contact with me but showing no intention of moving out of my way. As we neared each other, he held out his hand to reveal a handful of pieces of grass or clove or something. Then he just tossed them in my face and walked away. I looked back to give him a “What WAS that?” sort of gesture, and he just grinned a little and kept walking.
The look of extreme confusion on the face of the guy walking beside me revealed that this is NOT, in fact, some sort of everyday occurrence that I just haven’t yet learned about. Which leaves me to just be very, very confused. Like, he threw grass in my face. Just because. And walked away. It didn’t seem particularly malicious or anything, which enabled me to laugh about it. But still…although I know American culture has a ton of weird aspects, I can tell you that I have never gotten plants thrown in my face by a stranger until moving to Senegal.
Other than that, not much of import has been going on here. My classes have gotten slightly more demanding (although still nothing more than the amount of homework I would get in an average week at Denison), my friends and I have made a ton of paper snowflakes in order to make it feel a little like Christmas, and I come home in a mere 18 days.
Now the only thing left to decide is whether I want a peppermint mocha, crème brulée latte, or caramel macchiato at Starbucks when I land in JFK. [I am returning to the land of first world problems, so this seems like a good one with which to start].
As my return to the States draws nearer, I’m increasingly bombarded with the all-important holiday query: What do you want for Christmas?!
As I considered the question last night, I had the weird and wonderful realization that I cannot even think of things that I want. This is not only because being with my family, breathing cleaner air, eating as many fruits and vegetables as I want, and having hot running water will be MORE than enough of a gift, but also because I’ve been so removed from American consumerism and advertisement that I can’t even think of what there is to want.
So, (and I admit that this is a major First World Problems moment), I googled, “What should I want for Christmas?” After about 10 minutes of perusing websites full of ridiculous gadgets—a self-stirring coffee mug, an alarm clock that launches rockets, a case for your iPhone that looks like an oversized ear—I started to feel sick (and not because of food poisoning this time).
All I could keep picturing was this family I know that lives on the street outside of my neighborhood. They spend all day out there in the sun, babies in tow, sometimes attempting to sell trinkets. They talk to me every day when I pass by, greeting me by name and asking me how school is going, but they never, ever ask for money. This is a huge deal, because everyone asks me for money—even respectable people who clearly have enough to live on. And yet here is this huge family wearing genuine, non-resentful smiles and full of kids that hold out their hands for a high-five rather than for my spare change. Ironically, it actually makes me want to give them money and food (maybe they know about reverse psychology…those clever homeless folks).
Anyway, in my head I couldn’t help but think: The same $14 that could purchase a pair of microwaveable slippers could feed this family for a week. “Roly, the ‘hilarious canine’ toy” could fund one of those kids’ schooling for a year.
Now, I realize that money and its corresponding ethics are all relative… I don’t like it when people say things like, “If you would just skip one pedicure a year, you could feed a starving child for a month!” I mean, that may be true, but people have a right to decide what they want to do with their own money. All the same, there is something striking about being able to make those money comparisons in regards to a specific family—a group of extremely kind people I’ve come to be really fond of. So when I think about using $15 to either buy a Digital Voice Changer (“Scary fun!”) or to buy those kids a ton of fruit, bread, and water, the choice is clear.
I realize that not everyone lives in West Africa and can just walk ten meters down the road to give to people in need, but I just wanted to share what this semester has done to a person who used to have pretty extensive and detailed Christmas lists.
(…Although, I’ll be honest, microwaveable slippers might come in handy this winter, now that 75 degree nights here feel cold to me).