Crocodile Fears: A Guest Post by Dad

From the moment I could walk and glue two things together, my dad and I have spent countless hours on projects together. Such projects have spanned everything from a homemade generator to chemistry experiments to perfecting pumpkin pie and to my delight my dad has approached this year as an extended one of our projects. My bridge year has been more rich because of his emails, research, and all the times he’s voiced his worries and the all the times he has bit his tongue.

“You chose to take a bridge year, and everyone who loves you got dragged along.” said PeeBee at Pre-Departure Training and she was so right. Thus, this blog is written by my dad, Douglas Brower, about his bridge year. He has a PhD in Chemistry, works with computers, and spends the weekends writing a sequel to Treasure Island.

The other day my wife showed me a New Yorker cartoon by Roz Chast that someone had posted at her work. Chast is a sharp observer of parents and paranoia, and in the cartoon she proposed some “Parental Valentines” of the Hallmark-card variety – loving little nudges that worried moms and dads could send their adventure-seeking offspring. One of the cards showed a mom surrounded by hearts and the words “You’re Always In My Thoughts.” On the inside, the message read, “So no skydiving until after I’m dead.”

The very same sentiment occurred to me about a year ago, as my daughter Alice crossed off the last items on her checklist and set off on an eight-month stay in Senegal, West Africa.

Why couldn’t she wait until after I’m dead?

At the time, I did not think that my position was unreasonable. After all, Mary Kingsley waited until her parents were dead before setting off for West Africa, solo, in 1893. And well that she did. Mary Kingsley was a robust 19th-century explorer. Once a crocodile tried to crawl into her canoe. Another time she fell into a pit lined with sharpened stakes. Then there was the time . . . well, you get the idea. I imagine Kingsley’s father, were he still alive for the updates, reaching for his opium pipe with shaking hands whenever the butler approached with the day’s post on a tray and the dreaded words, “Another letter from Miss Kingsley, sir.”

Of course, my 21st-century daughter faced none of Kingsley’s dangers – or “challenges,” as Global Citizen Year would have it, the organization that set up her homestay in Senegal. No crocodiles or sharpened stakes, yet Alice went to live with a family that spoke no English and little French, in a rural home without electricity or running water. The land was flat and arid. When the wind blew, it carried dust and sand from a hundred miles away. Going anywhere meant a long walk or hitching up the family donkey – an animal so unused to Alice’s white skin that it fainted at first at the sight of her.

Nothing in my daughter’s suburban, middle-class, American upbringing had prepared her for this. How could a father not worry?

But Alice had great support from GCY, which provided in-country supervision, language training, medical help, apprenticeships and so on. On weekends she frequently visited one of the adult daughters in her host family who lived in a town nearby, whose apartment had electricity and Internet. Alice’s updates, a few times a month by Skype and email, were reassuring. She was doing fine.

I worried anyway, in the beginning, because guess what the big news was on the very day Delta Airlines flight 416 touched down in Dakar, Senegal, carrying Alice and over a dozen other teenagers eager to start their homestays?

“Senegal confirms first case of Ebola.” Every news organization on earth carried some version of that headline on August 29, 2014.

Alice’s grandmother was on the phone instantly. “Senegal has Ebola,” she said accusingly, as though it was my fault. Projecting more calmness than I felt, I explained that, as scary as the news reports were, the appearance of Ebola was all-but expected and Senegal was very well prepared to handle it. I had been following the country’s news media on the Internet for weeks, and I knew how seriously the Senegalese were taking the threat of Ebola. GCY, with a few common-sense adjustments to its program, had judged that the young people in its care would be safe. Alice’s grandmother, however, was not comforted. In her opinion, I was sending my daughter into a developing Ebola hot zone with nothing more than a mosquito net and an “attagirl!” In my own private, unstoppable doubts, I could not say that she was wrong.

As it turned out, in the ensuing days and weeks Senegal successfully treated the sick man and sent him home. None of the doctors and nurses who cared for him became ill. All of the man’s contacts were traced and monitored for additional infections, and no further cases developed. There was no outbreak, no hot zone.

After the Ebola scare, other worries seemed blithe by comparison. A kind of normalcy established itself. My wife and I chatted and exchanged emails regularly with Alice. We kept up with the doings of her complex and interesting host family, volunteer work at a preschool, and involvement with a local nonprofit organization. She was healthy, busy, learning a lot.

Me, too! I became an armchair, Internet-enabled virtual tourist. I watched Senegalese news in the evening and joined a couple of Facebook groups. I formed obscure opinions (it’s high time the Académie Française elected someone from West Africa!). I sought out new music (Daby BaldÌ is playing through my headphones now you are making such a mistake if you don’t own his self-titled 2005 album. Just saying.)

A certain giddiness developed. At Christmas, for example, a family friend leaned in, put her hand on my arm and looked searchingly into my eyes. “How are you holding up?” she asked in quavering tones.

“Great!” I said.

The friend was startled. I wasn’t supposed to be bubbly. But I was. My confident, capable daughter was carrying out a wish that she had expressed in her earliest days of high school; a wish that, to be honest, neither of her parents had shared. With a noteworthy lack of parental encouragement, she had made her dream happen anyway. Hard as the choice sometimes was – considering sickness and homesickness, not all times were good times – she was embracing the experience. And the experience was hugging her back. So, yes, I was happy.

Meanwhile, Alice was learning how to kill and dress chickens for market. In the afternoons, she rested under baobab trees and broke open the foot-long pods for the edible seeds inside. She found humorous ways to decline offers of marriage, in several languages. She prepared ataya pungent, sweet Senegalese tea for her host family and visitors. She gossiped with her host sisters and helped the little ones with their homework. She navigated the bus system and traveled off the beaten path.

Mary Kingsley would be proud.