My mom handed me a bologna sandwich for dinner tonight. I studied it for a few minutes and started to laugh – an honest to goodness, full-blown, something-must-be-really-funny laugh. I don’t know exactly why I started laughing, but I know it felt great and luckily for me my only witness was Issa, my five year old brother, who mostly ignores my strange outbursts when he’s watching his ridiculous French cartoons. I finished my sandwich happily (normally I wouldn’t go near bologna but this is day 32 in Africa – I’ll take whatever comfort food I can get).
I’ll give you the full story. I am currently sick. I have been off-and-on sick since approximately my last blog post, which was 28 days ago. My stomach is upset, my head aches, my throat hurts and I have bug bites on my bug bites. My mom here in Dakar, similar to my mom in San Francisco, is a natural worrier. The first night I had a headache she came into my room, adjusted my fan, rubbed the Senegalese equivalent of Vick’s Vapor Cream all over my face (without the slightest explanation) and then tucked me in to my mosquito net, humming a lullaby the entire time. Since then she has doused me in insect repellent and lime juice to help me avoid the mosquitoes, forbidden me from walking through certain alleyways at night to keep me safe, and held my hand while walking around in the dark. The rest of the family also seems to be on a mission to keep me happy: my grandfather in Dakar likes me to sit near him outside before dinner. He positions me in such a way that when he fans himself with his woven handheld fan I can also feel the breeze. When I watch cartoons with Issa, he makes me draw him endless pictures – “dessine moi un cheval!” (Draw me a horse!), and even when my attempt at a horse ends up looking more like a cocker spaniel, he always jumps up and down and says “Waaw! C’est bon!” (Yes! It’s good!).
This morning, much to my mom’s dismay, I emerged from my room sniffling and sneezing. We proceeded to have our version of a conversation – rapid French on her end, and very stilted, thought-out answers on mine. After a moment of deciphering I deduced that she wanted to know what I ate in the United States. Images of Thai food crossed my mind. Macaroni and cheese. Cereal. Cupcakes. Bacon. Chocolate covered strawberries. She waited patiently for my answer as I struggled to form a sentence that would properly convey what I used to eat…finally I settled on one word that I could fit into a proper French sentence that she would understand. J’ai mange des sandwichs aux Etats-Unis. (I ate sandwiches in America.) She raised her eyebrows at me and shrugged and I forgot the conversation until dinnertime. That is why, after a full day of blowing my nose and moping around the house feeling sick, I was delighted to be handed a very simple bologna sandwich for dinner. A sandwich, reminiscent of my San Franciscan Dad’s famous sandwiches, completely unlike anything she’d normally make for dinner, was her way of trying to make me feel a little better. And it worked – not only has bologna never tasted so good, I got a good laugh out of it as well.
These moments of pure kindness have continued to surprise me since my arrival. I was fully prepared to discover aspects of the Senegalese people and culture that I would not agree with. I spent serious time developing what I hoped was an open mind toward the customs of this culture before I had any idea what I was about to experience. I knew there would be times when I would see something or interact with someone and I would leave feeling alone and confused, maybe even angry, and desperately far from home. However, more often than feeling isolated, I have felt accepted and loved. My family in Dakar and my family in Sebikotane* welcomed me immediately, cared for me immediately, and in turn I have fallen in love with them almost immediately. How lovely it is that these people can open their homes and hearts so naturally. We should all learn how to love like they do – without needing a reason first.
*Sebikotane is the rural village that I have spent 1 week in and will be moving to for 6 months.