The blizzardous snow drifts in my backyard and the -45 degree windchills that have given my sisters three “cold days” off school in a row may be a far cry from the sweltering heat and sticky humidity that were the bane of my existence in Senegal, but it’s this nasty winter weather that is finally making me sit down to write my final blog entry for my semester abroad. I’ve been quite literally forced to stay indoors – the Indiana State Police will slap a $25,000 fine (that’s US dollars, not CFA) on anyone driving on the roads without a good reason, good reasons being limited to salt trucks, snow plows, and emergency vehicles. And my flight from Chicago to DC has been cancelled for two days in a row, so even if I could drive to the airport I’d still not be able to move into my Georgetown townhouse before classes start on Wednesday. So what better thing to do with my unexpected extra day at home than reflect a bit on warmer times?
It’s hard to believe that I was sitting on a beach less than four weeks ago. That it has only been twenty-five days since I last ate ceebujën, twenty-four days since I last waxaale’d for a cab (and was offered five free bracelets when I got teary and sad about leaving at the artisan market), and twenty-three days since I sat blubbering on the bus to the Dakar airport. I’ll probably finish up this post tomorrow on the bus to the Chicago airport, actually. Inshallah.
The thing is, America and Christmastime have a way of covering up and swirling together study-abroad memories like the snow that has drifted all over our mailbox and fence. Even just a few weeks after I bid “ba beneen yoon” to Senegal, I’ve begun to compartmentalize and condense my experience unconsciously. I’m wishing I wrote more in my final days there, but I’m also glad that I let myself experience those days in the moment. It’s the paradox of memory, right? Since returning to the fast-paced, smart-phone culture of the United States, I’ve been acutely aware of how much of our lives is recorded, posted, tweeted, instagrammed, snapchatted. It’s true that these technologies are not unfamiliar to Senegalese people – in fact, that’s one of the major realizations I had, when even in the village the little kids wanted to pose for photo ops – but it’s undeniably different. I don’t mean to get into a rant about how “life was so much simpler there” because (a) it’s not, and (b) I’m only bringing up smart-phone culture because it feeds into my struggle about what to experience for posterity and what to simply experience, knowing memories fade. I actually questioned the idea of a blog several times during my semester abroad, not only because it was making me think constantly about how to describe certain experiences to an audience, but also because blogs are inherently subjective and I felt in no way qualified to make generalizations about Senegalese people, culture, development, and so on. I don’t want anyone to take my personal-experience –colored word for anything – I invite you all to do some more research on anything I’ve mentioned if you’re interested!
When people have asked my about my time in Senegal in the past few weeks, at holiday parties, at family gatherings, or at the coffee shop, I’ve been able to whip out a few big experiences and a few funny stories: going to the market for the first time, bumping along in the back of a pickup truck on our way to the Great Green Wall, interviewing residents of an inundated neighborhood, wine-tasting and hiking and dancing and worm-cultivating in South Africa, celebrating Tabaski with a sheep-slaughtering, being fanned by my village host mom at night, holding a snake I later found out was deadly, traipsing around the desert and riding a camel, that sort of thing. Many of these stories have already been detailed on this blog.
But there’s oh-so-much I’ve left out. I’ve been trying to tell people since I got back that a lot of a study-abroad experience is actually very routine, kind of boring even. I got up and ran over horse poop and trashy sidewalks. I went to school every day. I had an internship at which I often wondered if I was doing anything productive or useful. I spent a lot of time frustrated with the slow Internet connection when I needed to send important emails. I spent even more time frustrated with the public transportation system. I walked a lot and sweated a lot. I ate dinner with my family on the same little stool every night. I hung out at N’Ice Cream and New Africa and Pub Mermoz. I learned the art of bargaining with taxi drivers and fabric vendors. I scrubbed my floors and tried in vain to get my toilet flusher to work properly. All of these things were as much a part of my life in Senegal – actually, quite more a part of my life – than glittering beaches and traditional photo ops and camels.
The quotidian and the nitty-gritty are what taught me the most. My observations, and to a much greater degree the conversations I had with my host family, my Senegalese professors, my American friends, and my co-workers at my internship, made me really gnaw on the ideas I had about the complexity of development, individual environmental action, multilingualism, and America’s role in the world, for example. I learned a lot about what I don’t know, and I learned a lot about myself – ah, how excruciatingly study-abroad cliché, huh?
Well, it’s true. Here are just some of the bajillion practical skills I hope I never forget: How to eat a mango. How to flush a toilet without a basin. How to hold the painful expressions when having your hair done. How to strategically reveal and not reveal personal information to vendors. How to wash underwear with your wrist. How to jump onto a moving bus, and how to avoid suffocation on said bus. How to win the heart of a twelve-year-old (buy him apple soda, let him use your electronics, and go on adventures together). How to pretend your doodles are notes. How to make ataaya. How to write a plaidoyer. How to show genuine gratitude and thoughtfulness. How to text quickly on a dumb phone. How to pour drinks without overflowing the glass. How to guess whether a question requires a yes or no answer. How to tie a sarong. How to avoid getting salt water in your mouth in the waves. How to poop in a squat toilet. How to fake playing a djembe. How to design tailored clothing. How to navigate flooded streets. How to smile in all sorts of situations.
Life skills, right?
As I predicted, I am currently on the United Limo bus to Midway International (it’s not a limo; that fooled me too). I have a personal bubble that would be absolutely inconceivable on the No. 29 Tata bus – two whole seats to myself – and I’m bundled up for Chiberia. But I’m still that girl – that woman (feminist friends in the back of my mind right now) – who danced the Hokey-Pokey in Keur Demba, who watched multiple sheep die, and who bartered for a better price for fabric than even my host sister could get. The tan may be fading, but SeneGal is still here. Of course, coming home has had different challenges, and already I’ve found myself slipping into old habits and ways of thinking that go against the new strength and positivity I thought I’d found in Africa. Humans are dynamic, though. The learning and growing don’t have to stop.
I’m lugging quite a few knickknacks for my room at school that I hope will remind me to incorporate my experience in Senegal into my life at Georgetown. I’m lucky to have made wonderful friends on my program, who live in DC and around the country, with whom I can’t wait to hang out. We liked to joke that as a group our CIEE program would buy a car rapide jointly to use to visit each other in the US. That didn’t happen, unfortunately, but it’s great to know I’ve got this support network in addition to my other lovely friends and family. I’m heading into an extremely busy semester, but I’m excited for it. I’ll feel just a bit wiser walking through those gates at 37th and O, I think, than I did five months ago.
Senegal was right for me. I’ve never regretting going to a non-traditional location for study-abroad, but with a few weeks of reflection, I am all the more glad that I chose Dakar. It’s whetted my appetite for travel and adventure. I would love to go back to Senegal, and I also can’t wait to see other parts of the world. That’s why* I was throwing out “ba beneen yoon” as I hugged my host family – “until next time,” not “goodbye.”
*(Also because I’m still not really sure how to say “goodbye” in Wolof.)