Bird By Bird

Sinead Nardi-White - Senegal


October 10, 2019

It’s just after lunch on a Monday, and I am settling in to the typical afternoon routine I’ve developed after one month in my host family. I sit on the steps of our house with my book (important), my water bottle (even more important, especially if I’ve added a block of ice from the corner market), and my handheld fan, called an eppukaay in Wolof (so so so SO important). It’s October, and it keeps getting hotter outside. I’m in between two shifts at my carpentry apprenticeship, and thus I am covered in a light layer of sawdust. With me in the courtyard are my host grandma, napping on a mat on the ground, host grandpa, lounging as he always does on his chair under the big tree, and assortment of animals- chickens, goats, and the occasional cat. While I sit, my host mom brings me fruit- the type varies, but after a bad mango took me out of commission for a week, it’s been apples and oranges.

My favorite part of this time of day is that the streets of my town are relatively quiet, since everyone else has also returned home for lunch. You don’t need a phone to find someone, since they are undoubtedly back with their families taking a break during what is the hottest part of the day. Though Touba Toul is less noisy overall, my family’s compound is decidedly not- with upwards of 15 kids living here, all host siblings and cousins, it couldn’t possibly be. I only just managed to learn all their names two days ago, but luckily the bonding occurred far more quickly. I taught the little girls hand games I remembered from elementary school, and they taught me the body parts in Wolof. The younger boys were impressed with my considerable knuckle and wrist cracking capabilities, which they reported loudly and with glee before having me demonstrate to every visitor. The older kids love to dance and are very good at it, so it is with a mix of personal embarrassment (as an Irish dancer of over 12 years) and pride (as a self-respecting attendee of one or two American public high school dances) that I share that my contribution to this particular activity was the Cotton Eyed Joe, which they loved. They’ve all become “my people,” which is very welcome in a place where I am still getting a handle on the language and customs.
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Above: a few of my host siblings and cousins
If my host family has become my comfort zone, then my apprenticeship is my stretch zone on every possible level. It’s loud, messy, hot, demands physical strength, and is generally a little chaotic, all things I used to avoid when possible.  Before Global Citizen Year, I intended for the paper towel holder from middle school wood shop class (still in use today, thank you Mom and Dad) to be my first and last carpentry masterpiece, but here I am helping to build cabinets, dressers, and stools on a daily basis. Reactions to my apprenticeship placement are uniform across continents- both US friends and family and Senegalese passerby have laughed at the thought and sight of me drilling and hammering, at home because they know that it’s unusual for me and here because it’s unusual culturally for a girl to be doing so. However, I’m having more fun here than I ever had in middle school (just generally, but specifically with carpentry)! My supervisor is incredibly patient, so I am learning names of tools I never even knew in English, the correct way to assemble furniture that doesn’t come with instructions from Ikea, and how to properly lift things in order to give my arms the best workout. I still don’t think a career in carpentry is in my future, but I can at least foresee becoming more handy.
So far, the absolute most challenging aspect of living in Senegal, besides the heat, is Wolof immersion. As with any new language, comprehending is one thing and speaking another. I am beginning to actually understand conversations, but cannot participate if they are more complicated than, “What’s your name?” or “Tomorrow I am going to work.” Unlike French and Spanish, the motivation to invest energy comes entirely from what I want to make of my time here, since Wolof will not help me in college or beyond the way a Romance language might. However, there is nothing like frustration to act as a motivator, since I find myself frequently amazed by how simple tasks, like asking for change at a shop or doing laundry, are made infinitely harder with a language barrier present.  The upside to the Wolof learning process, though, is that it turns out that saying yes, or “waaw,” to most questions, despite not understanding them, has made me inadvertently more curious and daring. I’ve tried new dishes, explored the village market, and am making connections with family and neighbors faster. 
A phrase that’s been on my mind a lot this past month is “bird by bird,” something my mom says that is meant to encourage people to face each challenge in small, manageable pieces. This has certainly helped to keep me from becoming overwhelmed in every aspect of my Global Citizen Year discussed above: my host family, apprenticeship, and language learning. It’s a reminder to take things slowly (as is the Senegalese way) and to be good to myself during this crazy life transition. Overall, I’m feeling pretty good about the birds I’ve conquered so far. 

Sinead Nardi-White