Abdou Ghey’s big voice called out to me, almost home from a too-long vacation, tired and aching. “You’re Senegalese now!” He shouted, as I settled from the initial boom of his voice. “Your hips are -” and he gestured with his hands widely from the sides of his body. The crowd of people outside the boutique cackled, women I knew and women I didn’t, men who looked at me craving a response. They shouted names of fried foods that I’d spent the past five months cautious of eating, laughing more with each one, tracing the outline of my hips in the air. Language escaped me, and I froze, feeling back and trapped in the familiar panic of a helpless September. I threw my head back and laughed, like I always do when convincing others (and myself) of my thick skin. I kept walking.
It hurt inexplicably. For months I had been fighting the battle, re-wiring myself into a healthy self-image. I had fed and worked my body the way it deserved and it thanked me everyday with its output and ability – but I wanted to cry on the way home that night. A few tears even escaped me as the small voice of defeat came to return the power to other people instead of myself. I didn’t lose it like I would’ve lost it six months ago. I reminded the voice that the power is mine.
It’s no secret or surprise that the person I am now is wildly different than the person I was. Here’s what is simple: this year has let me claim myself as mine. I have the power, now, to know myself in totality, and live in it so boldly that it doesn’t waver at a thoughtless comment. I know my fallibilities and I am not overwhelmed by them. I create challenges for myself instead of waiting for the world to give them to me. In being uprooted from the only place I’ve ever known, I’ve found myself rooted deep in the rich soil of my own human person. And that’s excusing all my other cool new skills, like my ability to stare at a wall for three hours and not be bored.
There wasn’t a moment when this happened, though I’ve been searching for weeks, pouring over old entries and gratitude journals to find the proverbial turn-of-the-leaf. I wanted to know the second of the minute of the day that things were better. I wanted to pinpoint with stars and exclamation points when I finally felt like this life was normal, like I had grown internally, so I could tell everyone that things were better now. I didn’t find it. What I found instead, were ten thousand little pieces of “better now” hidden in my un-extraordinary day-to-day: the ability to hold a conversation, small acts of courage, greetings that began to mean something.
As my year in Senegal resigns, I find myself fighting the urge to make this finite. I am terrible with endings, and honestly deserve a badge for all the tears I’ve shed (even sometimes unnecessarily) at various goodbyes in my life. I’m not saying that leaving Senegal will be different. I know that I will cry obscenely, but I am trying to understand my time here as only the beginning of a lifetime in messy, radical personal development. Recognizing that this feeling, this reclamation of myself, is transferable across oceans is soothing to my busy soul that craves to accomplish it all before the plane takes off in two months. I steady myself and say no, this is quite far from finite.
The night that Abou Ghey told me my hips were big, I celebrated. After the initial blow, after a few exhausted tears happened, I walked inside and shared oranges with my family. I celebrated because it didn’t take me down, and then I realized that not much can nowadays. Not snickering, marriage proposals or overstimulating garages. Not jagged mountains or waterfalls. Not crying babies or locked doors or strange illnesses. Not even a sixth cup of attaya in sweltering heat can uproot me from myself. My time in Senegal has ended an era that’s lasted all my life. And as I follow the ebb and flow of what comes next, stumbling into more questions and hopefully into their answers, I’ll know the secret. The secret that brought me to February despite even my own doubts: to keep walking.