Dakar, Senegal – September 29, 2014
Something another Fellow said during In-Country Orientation has stuck with me. It was while we were riding snugly fit in a taxi, driving down the multi-lane highway that runs along the beaches of Dakar into downtown. We passed another taxi – not an uncommon thing, however, it looked incredibly rundown with faded peeling paint and a back window with so many cracks I was certain if it went over a speed bump too fast it would surely shatter. Not a moment after my thought I heard him say, “It’s crazy, in the United States people use things until they are no longer attractive, here [in Senegal] they use things until they no longer function.”
I found this statement truthful, but odd. It had a strange aftertaste like when something you eat does not have the flavor you expect. I know for a fact the statement reflects a portion of the population in the United States, but it made me take a look at how I function. The lifestyle he had just described was the way my family had always lived.
When I was growing up, you wore clothes several years until there were holes, although they were reserved for chores and loafing around the house. If they were too small, they got passed down to the next member of the family. Until the hard drive crashed or the screen no longer turned on you used the computer. That out of style flip phone? I carried it eagerly to and from school in 2012 because it was functional. I still have the same philosophy today.
One of the finest examples of this would be our 2000 Toyota Corolla we bought at a used car dealership and at this point in time would definitely not be considered the least bit attractive. Up until four months ago we had driven the vehicle for 12 years, practically every day, both for work and leisure. There are dents in the driver’s side doors – from a drunk who took a sharp rock to them; a pink spot – plaster that was used to fix a gaping hole; door handles that don’t match the rest of the interior because we have replaced them multiple times after months of rolling down the window to get out of the vehicle. There is much more, such as the windshield having long cracks creeping along, and small nicks we managed to fix before they expanded. The clutch failed, brakes would not work, and on several occasions the engine overheated and so it was necessary for me to push the car a long distance before it would even start.
Coming to Senegal, I see it on a daily basis just as at home. Taxi drivers have a special way to open their doors with a twist and jerk. Street vendors take advantage of trees not only for their shade but also to lean their three legged chairs. A can from tomato paste can be washed and used as a dipper into the large water barrel in our courtyard. One liter soda bottles are reused to chill water for each day. Clothes, with spots from hair dye and small holes, are reserved for cooking and washing clothes.
When a hole appeared in my mosquito net I sewed it back together as close and neatly as possible. I have learned to balance on the stools with only three legs and when the handle of a brand new pair of scissors fell off, I shoved it back on and proceed to cut with care. When the lid of the coffee pot loses its handle, the fringe of your skirt can serve as a mitt to lift it off. There is no need to buy a new pair of flip flops, you can stick a wire through the plastic and foam for a temporary fix. And to the horror of any bookworm – myself included, I have sewed a book back together, but that does not make it any less legible. My handheld fan may be tattered at the edges, but that does not keep it from sending a rush of fresh air to my face as the temperature rises.
One important lesson I have been able to reflect on with this subject is that life is not always beautiful, but you need to make the most of everything. I find myself in the opinion that functionality is all relative to the perspective of the viewer, and you must approach life with the idea that not everything you need is going to be attractive and catch your eye. If you do not look in the obscure places, you do not know what treasures you could find or the lessons you could learn. So I encourage my readers to do the same as I am, and look a little bit harder.