Adaptation and fish guts

Kaya Hartley - Senegal

November 9, 2011


I’ve recently been reading a book called The Minder Brain; it discusses the functions of the human brain and the ability we have to adapt. Adaptation. What an interesting concept.

I have also been considering the connection between adaptation and fear. Most of us can make a fair sized list of things we are afraid of, and things we do not enjoy.  I have always had a fear of heights, sharks, and public speaking. Ever since I can remember I’ve hated visiting hospitals and nursing homes.  When I was younger, my younger sister Brooke and I went through a countless number of pet goldfish.  My dear mother permitted this as long as we could show responsibility and regularly feed our goldfish and clean their tanks. To this day, I have never cleaned a fish tank.  I would pay off my little sister to clean the fish tank, I would do extra chores for my mom, I probably would have given up everything that I owned, I was willing to do whatever it took to get out of the dreaded task of cleaning the fish tank.  I’ve always been unnerved by seeing a fish out of water, I can’t tell you exactly why.  When I was in 5th grade, a fellow classmate made an extraordinary science report on the functions of the eyeball. His father was an eye surgeon, and supplied our entire class with cow eyeballs to dissect. The second it was placed in front of me I ran to the bathroom and lost that morning’s breakfast. 7th grade biology frog dissection day had a very similar outcome. I would close my eyes in health class when they would show pictures and videos of surgery.

Now, I want you to meet my Senegalese 7 year old sister Amie.  Every morning she walks to the market down the street to buy some freshly caught fish. Gripping the unfortunate creature in one hand and a knife in the other, she presses the knife against the fish’s skin and proceeds to scale it by sliding the knife up and down the fish’s slimy body. After dumping out the pile of scales she cuts open the fish down the middle, and reaches inside. Now, at this point, I used to look away. I’ve learned to adapt. Her hand disappears for a moment inside of the fish, and then reappears, but this time, her hand is full with the fish’s insides. She then rinses it, and stuffs it withsome seasoning. Now, she cooks the fish. During this process she’s exchanging laughs and slightly bullying her younger brother Assane. There’s obviously no sense of disgust or hesitation in doing this task. If you had asked me to even witness this at 7 years old I would have ran away.

So what is it, then, that has made this 7 year old girl so strong in an area that, at 18 years old, I still find to be one of my biggest weaknesses?

Now, let’s jump back to my list of fears and dislikes. At the start of 2011 I made a New Year’s resolution that I would face my fears, in hopes that I would eventually adapt to them and, therefore, conquer them.   To face my fear of heights, I went paragliding. To face my fear of sharks, I attempted to go into a shark cage (that however, didn’t end up happening because the waves were so strong that we could have been tossed out of the safe bars of the cage); I started regularly visiting residents at a nearby elderly home.  And here I am in Senegal, temporarily interning at a hospital witnessing circumcisions and c sections.  When I return to the States, I’ll be public speaking to high school students as an ambassador for Global Citizen Year.

I still haven’t cleaned a fish tank, but I have come to the realization that someday I will. And that is the beauty of adaptation. The human species still exists today because of our wonderful ability to adapt. We are able to build our behavior around how our world is, and when our world changes, we are able to change so that we can continue to function in it.  When I first arrived in Senegal, I was completely out of my comfort zone. But now, Senegal is becoming more and more comfortable, Senegal is becoming my home. I’m slowly speaking the language; I’ve finally mastered bucket showers and doing laundry by hand. I now consider the ever so abundant population of bugs living in my room as roommates rather than intruders. I am adapting. I am constantly learning, discovering, accepting, and changing. I am learning that ‘fear’ is often just a term used as an excuse to avoid something because we find it unfamiliar or unpleasant. Although I have got a long, long journey of conquering fears before me, I am now more confident that because of adaption, it is possible. (Within reason of course, I’m not suggesting I intend to become a fearless superhuman, common sense is a given.)

And so I suppose the lesson that my brave 7 year old sister taught me is that I constantly need to question and challenge myself. If I am able to question the reasoning behind my fears, (or rather, the limits that I have created for myself) then I am capable of nearly anything and I am able to fully experience the beauty and adventures of life.

Kaya Hartley