The art of opening your heart

Jahshana Olivierre - Senegal


December 30, 2013

The stars illuminated the noir sky,the crashing waves became a calming melody – it was the night of November 28th one day before what would make a full three months since I set foot in Senegal and here I was in Toubab Dialaw gathered around familiar faces and warm spirits reflecting on it all.

Now that I look back on it – the whimsical peaceful haven we were in, the melodic calming sound of the waves, the vast twinkling night sky, and the fact that I was surrounded by people I love and who love me back in a country thousands of miles away from home was definitely the universe’s way of rejoicing and acknowledging our presence.

Granted we were having Thanksgiving dinner hence the reason why we were participating in such a ritual. However, for the first time in a long time practicing this ritual didn’t feel fake or forced. On that particular night, I felt overwhelmingly thankful, but as everyone was going around giving their thanks I sort of dreaded when it would finally be my turn to give my thanks. I felt myself about to open up and I did not want it to happen in front of all these people. I did not want my deepest sentiments exposed and exploding on all these people.

Short sweet and keep your composure Jahshana, short sweet and keep your composure” these were the words my mind chanted to my soul as it neared closer to my turn.

But at that moment in time, I felt so indebted and thankful to the universe that I couldn’t possibly give my thanks without it being lengthy or emotional – my soul owed it to the universe. I was on a particular high that I have never felt before, so undeniably happy and grateful for everything that has happened to me in the past year.

My friend Allie went right before me, as she stood up to give her thanks my stomach dropped, I don’t think I even remember what she said because I was too caught up in the fact that I was next and it might not go how I want it to. When she finished I could barely stand up — I wished they would just skip me and never come back to me, but I did — I halfheartedly stood up and started muttering and stuttering a few inaudible words before the great grand finale – the water works. I felt a wave of embarrassment come over me, I did exactly what I told myself not to do — cry.

I realized crying was just a physical manifestation of what was and still is going on deep down inside of me. I like to call it “The opening of my heart”. I believe that night at Thanksgiving dinner was basically my whole experience the past three months summed up in a couple of minutes.

I’ve been spending the last couple of months in the paradoxical town of Kébémer. There is a feeling of desolation in the air yet the comforting sense of a tight knit community. No matter how far I trudge through the sand across town there is bound to be a person I don’t recognize calling out “Mamm Roxhaya – caye! Nuy ma!”* The town comprises of mansions and huts, foreign cars and horse and donkey carts. In the western sense there is little form or fashion to the town – with sand stretching out for miles before there is sight of a house or a hut plopped down in the middle of seemingly nowhere. I’ve mastered the art of dodging horse, goat, sheep, and donkey excretion and the sight of any animal roaming aimlessly or walking along side me like we’ve been long time buddies is of no shock anymore.

Life in Kebemer has been pretty challenging yet exciting, each day possesses ambiguity and adventure and this is where the opening of my heart comes to play. I wasn’t always receptive to the whole ambiguity each day brings or accepting the challenges Kébémer offered to me. I honestly dreaded all aspects of the Senegalese life. I was scared of exiting my comfort zone and that’s what opening my heart meant, immersing – jumping into the unknown head first with no “insurance policy”. It meant being vulnerable, being OKAY with making mistakes. I come from a culture where mistakes are not OKAY – failure is looked down upon (even if it helps with growth), come correct or don’t come at all, or even worse come correct or fear being judged harshly. So in the first month or so of living in my town, I steered clear of anything that required stepping out of my comfort zone,  which was pretty much everything – and that manifested itself in various ways such as me spending hours upon end in my room or walking a different route just to avoid greeting people. I hated speaking Wolof because my family members would just laugh at me, eating around the bowl was the perfect place to make mistakes and risk being “ostracized” – so even if I was incredibly hungry I left the bowl after two or three bites , and it didn’t help that I had to partake in it twice everyday.

I honestly don’t know how the whole opening of the heart thing came along, maybe with time and the influence of the environment I was in, avoiding challenges was honestly inevitable. I also have to say a conscious effort aided in my self growth. I realized I was stagnant and the reason I came to Senegal in the first place was to avoid this.

Little by little, I started interacting with my environment more like forcing myself to stay up a little later just to talk with my family members under our baobab tree, or make friends with the peanut/ bouy selling lady on the side of the road, or standing up in front of thirty Senegalese children no longer fazed and successfully teaching them “Head Shoulders Knees and Toes” unafraid to make a fool of myself, or dancing off beat in the middle of a circle at a celebration with almost half of Kébémer watching, or joining a couple of intimidating Senegalese boys for a game of football or participating in an endless name calling match with my siblings or learning how to cook ceebu jen and my aunt saying “muno dara, muno toog, muno fot.”* or something simple as reaching for the piece of fish in the middle of the bowl ripping off a piece for myself and the person next to me.

That’s not to say there aren’t times that my ego is completely battered from making mistakes and being made fun of that I relapse back into my shell of comfort, however- making mistakes has become a lot easier. Laughing at yourself makes you lighter. I am more open to making mistakes than I was three months ago.

Sitting there at that Thanksgiving table with a heavy yet lighter heart I was able to realize this and was just incredibly thankful, the “wave of embarrassment” was fleeting and overpowered by a sense of freedom, gratitude, and a happiness I’ve never felt before. Senegal has made me lighter, the strong sense of family and community has made me lighter, Senegal has welcomed me with open arms and I have accepted it’s invitation with a now open heart.

* “Caye, nuyy ma” – Come, greet me

* “Muno dara, muno togg, muno fot” – You don’t know how to do anything, you don’t know how to cook, you don’t know how to wash.

* Header photo credit to Senegal 2014 fellow Rachel Teevens. The beautiful sunset we were blessed to experience at Toubab Dialaw.

Jahshana Olivierre