“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!!!