A Disclaimer

Thea Holcomb - Senegal


February 8, 2017

If you ask me right now how I am doing in Senegal, or this spring, if you ask me, “how was Senegal?” I’ll tell you about how it’s been a wonderful experience, thanks to an astonishingly generous scholarship, and I’ve grown so much, and how it’s also been incredibly challenging.

If you pry a bit about what’s been so challenging, or even if you just explore within the depths of your imagination, you’ll likely get to thinking about living without the luxuries of your native language, electricity, or running water. It is quite true that these have been aspects of my experience that are hard. I do indeed desperately miss having the ability to wash my hands (and by extension I spend a lot of time feeling angst about fecal-borne illness, which thus far, has been unfounded, and inshallah will remain so.)

But “challenging” is an adjective that is big- it can encompass many things, and frankly, I’m not going to discuss all those things in polite conversation, because:

1. I’m self conscious about taking that much of your valuable time talking about my life, because I’m deeply afraid of coming across as self-centered.

2. I want you to continue to believe my very true claim that thanks to the generous financial aid and strong program structure offered by Global Citizen Year, my experience has been a wonderful opportunity in which I’ve grown so much. I also know that when we are faced with diametrically opposing information, negativity bias leads us to remember less of what’s good, and more of what fell under the shadowy blanket of the more intricate side of challenging.

3. I, being human, want you to like me. I’ve found that the more I’m given the opportunity to view generally respectable people complexly, the more I can see the cracks in their façades. The more explicitly you get to see what it was that so challenged me, the more likely you are to realize the extent to which, contrary to popular belief, I do not, in fact, have my shit together.

But anyway, I digress. This is not polite conversation. This is my platform for “storytelling,” as they like to call it. More precisely than storytelling, at the original time of writing, this is me sweating under my mosquito net, with a pen that’s running out of ink, and a notebook gone slightly soggy with the humidity, fueled by frustration and feeling flustered. If you, dear reader, will choose to take the time to read all of this text, I grant you permission to see the extent to which I don’t actually know what I’m doing with this wild and precious life of mine.

So, rare reader, who have made it to this point, let me tell what it is about “challenging,” that you won’t hear from me elsewhere-

“Challenging” is when I want to bury my head in the sand on a hot day,  (a clever adaptation ostriches use  to stay cool) not because it’s too hot, (which it is) but because so many people near my ears seem to be yelling at each other and I can’t understand what they are saying. If you know me more than nominally, I probably haven’t been able to hide from you my fears of loud things and not understanding.

“Challenging” is when my heart starts to race with rage directed at systems of oppression perpetuated by colonialism and somehow I accidentally end up feeling anger at the victims of those systems rather than the perpetrators. I would like to understand why I do this with my thoughts, and whether I am the only one who does, but usually the metacognition required to figure this out feels too exhausting.

“Challenging” is the disgust and frustration that I feel myself when it’s 3:47 in the morning and despite my desperate need for sleep I’m allowing the feel of the movement of cockroaches and mice slithering around in the liminal space between my bed and the floor, keep me awake, even though I know with all certainty that the critters will cause me no harm.
“Challenging” is the anger, betrayal, and defeat that I felt the first time my host sister decided to laugh at me rather than with me. (It was this moment that inspired me to write this piece.)

“Challenging” is the deflated feeling that follows the pride of saying some phrase perfectly after putting so much mental energy into every word, only to be mocked profusely by my family for the apparent high pitch of my voice, or the lack of confidence with which I spoke. Or perhaps just how much I don’t belong, this foreigner who is 18 years old and still has no children, who comes from a land that contains, among other things, a strong currency, toilet paper, and a bunch of white people who don’t speak French, trying to learn a language that does not belong me.

So now you know. My life and I are not as spotless as we’re able to make it seem. I hope it is obvious that the aforementioned instances are not intended to be a full representation of my experience. Many, many moments are quite wonderful, and the majority of moments now feel quite normal, which is a victory in and of itself. I wrote this piece because it was quite a cathartic exercise and to help me conquer the sinking feeling that I’m being dishonest by omission when I answer “How are you doing?” with “Absolutely fantastically!” Because I am doing absolutely fantastically; I’m proud of my language growth, I love my family, and I can eat rice now without half of it becoming a casualty of the sand.

Sabrina Cruz, among the most articulate and creative people on the Internet, spoke in a recent youtube video about how stress and joy coexist and complement each other in our lives, and I want to echo her sentiment that my culture has created a false dichotomy between the things that make our lives difficult and the things that make our lives good. It’s likely that I’m perpetuating this dichotomy by writing an entire piece only about the bad parts of the difficult, but I assure you, most loyal reader, that so much good is present in my life. Perhaps someday  you’ll get to read about it.

Thea Holcomb