My (American) mom is rather sentimental. One might even say she is the definition of sentimentality. Just two days before my departure my parents presented me with a going away gift – a beautiful book titled “Love Letters to Senegal.” My mom had compiled 33 letters from my loved ones – family members, “honorary” family members, and friends – along with photos, poems, song lyrics and quotes that make me happy. This book was meant to celebrate my ascent into “adulthood,” to provide me with advice for my inevitably difficult journey ahead, and to give me comfort when I miss home.
It has done that and so much more. Here is my letter to you.
Love Letter From Senegal
Dear Loved Ones,
My time in Senegal has been the most rewarding, challenging, and enlightening experience of my life. The support you gave me has so much to do with the amount I’ve learned – without your guidance and love I would not have been nearly as open to learning from my experiences over the past 6 and a half months. The memories you shared and the wonderful things you said in your letters have made me feel closer to home when I am farther than I’ve ever been before.
Here are just a few pieces of advice/ pearls of wisdom that have made an impact on my time in Senegal.
“Always keep your sense of humor.” – Gramps
When my hands turn blue during my “ice cold” showers, when a mosquito bites my eyelid in the middle of the night, when my host mom tries to slip goat intestines onto my side of the bowl, and when I am casually proposed to 5 times a day by random men, I have found that laughing is usually the best solution. This nugget of advice has proven correct so often in the past 6 months that I’m determined to bring it home with me. For instance, when I am suffering from hypothermia at the airport in San Francisco in 5 weeks I will simply chuckle at the irony as I freeze to death in my Birkenstocks and tank top.
“Try to see yourself more clearly.” – Mike
Before coming to Senegal I assumed that my volunteer work would take precedent over my personal development. It didn’t take long once I got here to realize that while I may put more conscious effort into teaching my classes, Senegal has taught me more about myself than I ever expected. My 14 year old sister has taught me how to be a constant role model, and my host mother has taught me how much I value my relationship with my real mother. My students have taught me how to be extremely patient, and my colleagues have taught how to be even more patient. My schedule has taught me that I go insane when I have nothing to do, but I get very burned out when I do too much. The language barrier taught me how my body language and facial expressions convey certain specific messages to others. The distance from home has taught me how much I value proximity to my family and friends, but it has also taught me how much I crave exploring the world and immersing in new cultures (two unfortunately mutually exclusive things). I have not miraculously discovered which career path I want to venture down, but I do have a much better understanding of who I am. I think that’s a pretty good start.
“You cannot do great things, only small things with great love. “ – Uncle Paul and/or Mother Theresa
I struggled with this one for a while. The idea of moving to Senegal to work for 7 months gave me grandiose images of building a new school/ planting enough produce to feed an entire village/ reversing harmful traditions that have been a part of the culture for centuries… I’ve found that volunteerism doesn’t quite work this way. While I cognitively knew that my job as a gap year student was not to make some huge lasting difference in my community, I still had secret hopes that I would be that one girl that cured that one disease in just under 7 months. After accepting that I wasn’t going to be able to eradicate any big issues, I toyed with becoming cynical about the magnitude of the world’s problems and how miniscule my impact was really going to be. Then I reread your letter and I became realistic about my purpose. I began to see where I could actually make a difference – working one on one with my students, talking to my sister about important issues, and setting an example for my colleagues. Admittedly, I still occasionally fret that I’m not making a lasting difference, but I really care about these “small things” and I’m doing them with “great love,” and I think that’s the best way to go about living the rest of my life.
“Every moment of this trip will be valuable, even the tears.” – Belinda & Dana
This one has been very important to me. I went into this year planning to regard each new experience, good or bad, as a learning opportunity. This was mostly effortless – the new food, new climate, new friends and new family are exciting elements of my Senegalese life and are easily cherished. The bad experiences, the incidents that caused tears and frustration, were harder to learn from but I found that they often taught the most important lessons.
“When you get homesick, let your memories cheer you up.” – Paige
Before September I’d never been away from home for more than 2 weeks. I had no idea what real homesickness feels like – how incredibly helpless and lonely the world can seem. I think I experienced enough homesickness in September to last me the next 6 months… Or maybe I just got better at using my memories to cheer me up rather than bring me down. Reminiscing about going sailing with my dad could either make me feel worse about how far away I am, or give me a smile and something to look forward to. Once I started choosing to use my memories as a way to feel closer to home, the closer to home I actually got.
“I live in Sebikotane, Senegal.” This delightful statement will only be accurate for another 27 days. While it is incredibly exciting that I will be home in about a month, it is also terribly sad that my current colorful, torrid, spicy life is technically coming to an end. Sometimes I wallow in bittersweet thoughts about the family, friends, students, flavors, languages, and customs I’m leaving behind, but I know I’m bringing home much more than I left with.
So, to wrap up this ramble: thank you, Loved Ones, for your guidance over the past 6 and a half months. I probably could have survived in Senegal without your letters, but I am infinitely grateful for the support and the love and the wisdom you shared with me. And thank you, Mama, for your sentimental nature and your habit of always knowing what I truly need (be it a care package full of tea and granola, or a book full of love letters).
All my love,