I’m sitting on a beautifully woven met stretched out over the cool sand and beneath the dark sky. There is a light breeze that rustles the leaves on a nearby mango tree and causes a roosting bird to take flight. Reflecting on my day, I can hear the rhythmic drumming of a marriage celebration. I see the majestic Baobab trees covering the northern horizon, I smell the spicy fumes coming from the kitchen, and I feel the glaring heat of today’s mid-day sun. Thiadiaye is the name of my town. It lies roughly 130 km east of Dakar, the capital city of Senegal. When I received my site placement, the first thing I did was find it on a map; the second thing I did was find it on Wikipedia.
This was the first of many clues as to what my upcoming experience would be like: 130 km inland is about 1/20th of the way across Senegal and the satellite image gave me a view of a bunch of gray streaks for streets amid a sea of green and brown. And as for Wikipedia – my town does in fact have a page – it informed me that it is a small agricultural town in Western Africa. So enlightening… In that moment, I realized none of this information was going to prepare me for what is ahead. I realized that the only way for me to learn about what was in store for the next seven months was to go there and find out for myself. And that is the way every moment of this journey has been ever since.
After spending a week in Thiadiaye to meet my family and become re-inspired to take my Wolof language classes, I returned to the bustling city of Dakar. It was an amazing realization for me to feel so oddly at home. As I walked the same tiled streets and passed the familiar fruit stands and dodged the ever-present taxis, I realized that I wasn’t facing them all for the first time. I was coming back to them. And that made all the difference in the world. Over time, the littered streets and crackling painted cement walls fell away to show beautiful, vibrant, color. No longer was I a complete stranger in a foreign world, but I was a friend coming back to visit. And this is what it takes to feel at home. Just a little perspective and I saw things in a whole new and colorful light.
Just a few days ago, I returned to Thiadiaye. It felt good to be Returning. There is so much here to learn from and so many opportunities to do so. If you asked me during my first week in Thiadiaye what “seven months” meant, I would have stared off in the distance, wallowing in the depths of my despair, my mind full of fond thoughts of home. I would have told you that seven months might have well been a year, and that seven months was not just a long time, but an utterly ridiculous number of months to spend away from my mommy.
But ask me that now.
As I sit on this woven mat beneath the vast twinkling stars, watching my sisters giggle over my photo album and listening to my yaay (mother) humming as she sits beneath the mango tree. Ask me how long seven months is now, and I will tell you about my humorous and patient yaay and loving little sisters. I will tell you about the spirited women who occupy the cool shade of the baobab tree along my road. I will tell you about my driven young friend who wants me to teach her French even though she’s never been to school. I will tell you about the boys who play Scrabble under the trees each afternoon and the farmers who lead their cattle through the football field each evening. I will tell you about the rows of tailoring shops and the colorful tents selling vegetables. I will tell you about the wandering goats and the suckling piglets. I will tell you about the vast horizons and the billowing clouds. I will tell you about the majestic moon. I will tell you about the sea of twinkling stars. I will tell you about the darkness, when the sun dips beneath the trees.
What has worked for me in finding a sense of belonging is creating a world to return to. Every day, I make sure to leave the security of my house to explore a new road, a new neighborhood, a new corner store. Every day, I push myself a little further into the unknown. Because I now understand that the second time down that road, the second time I shake that person’s hand, is the second time. As simple as it sounds, it’s so comforting. That sense of belonging comes from a sense of familiarity.
It isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Often, I have to force myself beyond my gate to expose my tentative curiosity to the world of Thiadiaye. The weight of so much new information and of feeling so dependent on others is exhausting and sometimes disheartening. But then I always come across something that catches my curiosity and draws me forward. For instance, when the price of bananas imported from Guinea increase as a result of the border closing, I contemplate West Africa’s steps for dealing with Ebola. When I come across the Formation Center for Young Women in Thiadiaye, which was funded and completed over a year ago by an Irishmen but has never opened, I think about the impact of foreign aid. When a woman cured my little sister of a fever by expertly snapping her fingers and mumbling some curative phrases, I am left unsure of the nature of the human body and spirit and of the quality and availability of health care. When I encounter this bizarre, larger-than-life sized poster of Jack Black’s eyes – yes, only his eyes – that acts as a shield against the blaring sun for one of the market’s butcher shops, I contemplate the influence of Western media and the impact of globalization and how this Jack Black poster ever made it to this small town in the middle of West Africa.
So when I think about my time here, I have discovered a sense of relief that seven months isn’t any shorter. There is so much to learn, so many questions that have yet to arise, so many roads yet traveled, and so many hands yet to shake. It is amazing how transformative Returning is in lending me a bit of perspective to see my community in an ever more refined light. And when I Return home, perhaps I will have better idea of what these seven months have meant to me. Perhaps, Returning will help to connect all the little dots just as I strive to find patterns in these bright, yet foreign stars shining above me. Every night they surround me in a sea of twinkling lights and over time, the more I gaze into their vastness, I will understand them, and feel a sense of belonging below them. It will just take time.
Sophie (Nafi Satou Sene – as I am now called in Thiadiaye!)