Beyond the beauty of the ordinary

Erin Lang - Senegal


November 11, 2010

My head was dripping with sweat from the dry heat that I couldn’t escape.  My stomach had knots; my limbs, restless yet fatigued from the wear and tear of the social and physical maladies my body could not overcome…I replayed the event in my head exactly as it happened, trying to figure out what had gone wrong, and discovered so much more in the process…

“Bonsoir, Monsieur”

“Nga def?” my teacher said, as he sat outside the school, relaxing from the day that had just passed.

“Mangi fi rek,”

“Ana waa kër ga?”

“Nunga fa,” I replied, hoping I hadn’t messed up the two phrases I could actually pronounce in Wolof.

As we were in the middle of talking about the day, I was approached by an older woman.

“Where is your husband?”  She asked in English.

Caught off by the fact that she spoke English, and confused as to why the woman thought I was married, I couldn’t find the words to answer her.  The woman continued to ask me many questions about my life, my parents, my childhood, and my upbringing, without even taking a minute to absorb the responses that came out of my mouth.  I was shocked at the fact that a total stranger would approach me in such a manner.  She asked me every question in English, and in the effort to get my teacher to understand what was going on, I continued to respond in French.  Due to the shock of the present accusations, stereotypes, and judgements, I never stopped answering the woman.  I was confused and upset that it was so easy for her to think that she knew who I was, to curse and swear at me for things that were out of my control as a girl, and to have the audacity to talk to me in such a disrespectful manner.  

After about twenty minutes, I turned and walked away.  I tried to brush it off and move on with my evening. Just a cultural difference… that’s all… I thought to myself.  So many people had such condescending judgements about Americans.  I felt as though no matter how I presented myself, I would never escape this type of treatment.  It was the third time that day that I had been personally offended by a complete stranger, and to be frank, it was enough to last me the whole trip. I received an e-mail later the next day, one that helped me remember the point of this journey.  It was an e-mail that reminded me of the definition of real perserverance, character, and optimism.  In this e-mail, there was a poem that changed my point of view completely.  It helped me to see what strength was, that is, beyond taking a Global Citizen Year to West Africa.  It helped me to see that strength isn’t the challenges you take on in life, it is overcoming them, even when new and uninvited conflicts arrive in the midst of those that were already present.  It is viewing change as an obstacle, fear as a rival, and evil as an opportunity to discover the beauty that lies beyond the conflict.   Beautifully written by Oriah Mountain Dreamer, “The Invitation” goes something like this:

It doesn’t interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for, and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.

I want to know if you can see beauty even when it’s not pretty, every day,and if you can source your own life from its presence.

I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine, and still stand on the edge of the lake and shout to the silver of the full moon, “Yes!”

It doesn’t interest me who you know or how you came to be here. I want to know if you will stand in the center of the fire with me and not shrink back.

It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom you have studied. I want to know what sustains you, from the inside, when all else falls away.

I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.

Erin Lang