“Finding Myself”

Isabelle Johnson - Senegal


January 6, 2018

My first few weeks in this country acted like a giant wrecking ball came down on me without mercy. It squashed me into nothing & showed me how massive and diverse the world can be. 

These last 4 months have slowly built me back up into a different version of my old self. Not one second of my time here has been what I expected, but it has been everything I needed. 

Through experiencing a completely new culture & set of traditions, new languages, homesickness, unexpected customs, rewarding interactions with complete strangers, immersion into a new family, and daily mind-expanding discussions with some of the most intelligent and open-minded people I have ever come to know…I am beginning to believe that I am "finding myself". By that I mean…I am beginning to discover pieces that make me who I am–the parts of Izzy that I am proud of and want to further develop, and the parts that I want to dissolve and grow from.

I'm starting to see exactly what it is I want to get out of this time before college, and beginning to solidify & identify with the values that mean the most to me.

I thought i'd share some of my personal discoveries! The following values are ones I am starting to hold close and find comfort in, with examples of how the last few months have guided me to reach these conclusions (: 

~~~Value of Patience 

  1. Patience with myself. Picking up a 2nd, 3rd, or 4th language is not going to happen in a just few weeks. My body is not going to adapt to a completely new climate or diet overnight. I am not going to be able to understand every new cultural norm, every interaction, every command or question. Forgiving myself throughout this process of discovery has been extremely rewarding. Taking everything one step at a time has made me much more comfortable with myself, and has helped me capitalize on every new experience.
  2. Patience with others. Understanding that it is equally as frustrating for a native speaker to try to get their point across, as it is for me to try and grasp what is being said. Being surrounded by everything that is unknown is not a feeling that many are familiar with. Interactions with foreigners are much easier if approached with understanding & patience. 
  3. Patience with a new culture. If you've ever found yourself in the center of a Senegalese "Garage", you know how crucial it is to stay calm and act like you know what's going on. Waves of taxis, buses, mini-cars, sept-places, motorcycles, and horse carts all trying to grab and persuade passengers to go with them, people rushing around selling & buying & making deals, little pop-up food stands, and small, bare-footed children begging for spare change or fruit in exchange for a song. The "Garage" (among many other places i've stumbled upon in Senegal) is probably the best place to meditate if you wanna get really good at it. Taking a breath, relaxing, and finding the patience to tell myself that everything will work out–no matter how insane everything around me feels, has gotten much much much easier. 
  4. Senegal is very different than any other country or culture I have experienced, in a number of ways. The way "time" is perceived, for instance, was a challenge to get used to. There are virtually no schedules or no set times to be anywhere, which results in having very loose plans. Days are not measured by how much was accomplished in the last 12 hours. Senegal has taught me that it's okay (and sometimes extremely beneficial) to slow down, be patient, and observe. To take the time to listen & interact with each other. At the end of the day, I don't need to have 100 things checked off on the massive to-do lists that run my life back home. 

~~~Value of Family/Community 

  1. Discovering the importance of inclusive communities! Teragna is a wolof word that translates to "hospitality", and it has been the center of almost every interaction I have had in this country in the past 4 months, in my village especially. My current home has welcomed me with open arms & hearts. The second you enter a home or compound, you are rushed a chair or bench and told to sit. You are asked about the health of yourself, your family, your friends, your siblings or children, your parents, your recent activities, if you slept and woke in peace, etc–regardless of if you saw the person the day before or not. You are ordered to stay for the upcoming meal, or for the afternoon round of tea, in a way that makes it difficult to decline. Senegal is slowly showing me how to apply this amazing example of Teranga to the rest of my life. 
  2. Being away from my family for the better part of the last 4 years has definitely helped me understand how important loved ones are. I am incredibly grateful I am to have been blessed with my family in particular, and their constant & unwavering love, support, and kindness. 

I want to strive to have more meaningful and present conversations with everyone in my life, especially my family.  I want to take the time to pause and really check in with my loved ones. Stepping away has showed me that because life gets so hectic sometimes, it's hard to maintain a meaningful & genuine connection with many of the people in our lives, sometimes those closest to us.

~~~Value of Gratitude 

  1. It didn't take long after arriving in Senegal that I realized how much I've taken for granted in my life. Living surrounded by the realities of poverty and underdevelopment, I have realized my privilege not only in possessions but also in my ability to travel and experience the world…something that almost no one in my new home will ever have the chance to do. The examples of sharing and sacrifice I see everyday from those that have so little compared to back home has been extremely humbling. 

  1. Writing daily gratitudes have been an important way to remind myself of the amazing things that happen to me everyday, from cuddling and chatting with my 4-year-old host brother to understanding how lucky I am to be alive. 

  1. The act of giving more than I receive is a concept I grew up surrounded by. My parents are extremely selfless people who have given everything to their children, the rest of our family, and to our beautiful community. Their daily examples of giving & gratitude has made me strive to be as wonderfully generous as they are. These feelings have grown since arriving in Senegal. 

~~~Value Of Language 

  1. Ever since my year abroad in Chile I have been in love with the idea of language learning and connecting with people from other backgrounds and cultures. This was something that really held no importance to me growing up, because (unlike almost everywhere else in Earth) the U.S. believes that a few half-assed years of a foreign language in high school is good enough. After being around people that have seen the value of language since the day they were born, I am realizing the dramatic significance of it everywhere outside my U.S. bubble. 

  1. Witnessing my mind work to maintain my Spanish, try to link that with French, learn Serer Laala phonetically, and now beginning to learn Wolof has been very interesting. The language skills of the amazing people & friends i've encountered in the last few months have inspired me to work hard & become more excited about learning in college. 

  1. "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart."-Nelson Mandela 

It's an incredible way of connecting with those from dramatically different backgrounds, and an important component in understanding one another. Language will continue to be an extremely important part of my life.

~~~Value of Health & Self-Care 

  1. Before you are able to take care of others, you must check in with and provide for yourself. This was definitely a concept I struggled with in the beginning of my time here. From new foods & cultural norms to different levels of sanitation & a different climate, I pretty much thought I could tackle it all without changing any part of my life. 

After a few sessions of trial & error (ending with Typoid Fever, some G. I. issues, daily nausea, etc). I am learning how to check in with my body & figure out what it needs, rather than ignoring the signs and pushing through. This has helped me connect more with myself. 

  1. Everyone should belong to their own unique self-care routine. For me, exercise is crucial, and helps clear my mind. For others it is reading, meditation, listening to music, dancing, or sitting next to a still body of water… something that is there for them & they can rely on. Giving our bodies and minds peace when everything seems chaotic is so important. 

~~~Value of being Friends with Yourself

  1. Body image is something that I feel like almost everyone struggles with. Tackling this issue this year is a slow process, but it's such an important thing to come to terms with. I am me. I will never be anyone else. Trying to match the ridiculous standards that are forced onto to many people (in the West especially) can be harmful. Learning how to treat & talk to myself like I would my best friend is something I am working towards. Having no real bathroom, a small plastic mirror, virtually no access to social media, and witnessing completely different standards of beauty here have all helped focus my mind on what's important. How we treat and connect with others, not how we look. 

  1. Sometimes I can feel my body and mind slip slowly into a negative state, when thinking of the comforts of being back home and having everything be so effortless and simple. Learning how to quickly pull myself up out of these moods is hard. I've learned that if I immediately switch over, or put of a false front in front of people, it ends up hurting me even more. Letting myself feel the sadness, letting it pass, and focusing of the millions of things I have to be grateful for is the healthiest way to let myself heal here. 

I needed this year, whether I knew it a year ago or not. I am so grateful to have this time in my life to pause, to recalibrate, and to figure out what's truly important to me. 

Thanks for reading 🙂 

Isabelle Johnson