My whole life I’ve been told to “hand wash delicates” because it’s gentler. So when I found out that everything in Senegal is hand washed I thought my clothes would last forever. That was before I met my host sisters. Within two months their strong, insistent hands bore holes into all my clothes and their sharp, aggressive personalities left my heart feeling just as tattered.
I told them they couldn’t wash my clothes that hard. They asked me if I liked being dirty. I told them they couldn’t yell at me that loud. They yelled back “WE AREN’T”
I tried to patch the holes and told myself I didn’t care when when I was misunderstood. Sometimes the patches held, sometimes the holes ripped larger, and everyday I mourned that the holes existed at all.
Days and then months passed. I went to preschool, went to work at an NGO, played with my siblings, ate cebujen, ran. Some days at preschool when I looked at little Ramata eating chalk for the millionth time I thought “this can’t possibly be my problem” and on better days I wiped her face and distracted her with a toy turtle. Some days at the NGO I did things that mattered and other days not so much. Some days I continued rituals like running, reading, and quiet thinking without comment even as my family murmured among themselves that I was crazy. Other days I explained why I did such rituals even as they regarded me suspiciously, because the very act of seeing my family worthy of explanation was offering love.
Time passed and slowly I stopped mourning that the holes existed and just lived my life. At night I snuggled into my foam mattress, ate a banana and listened to TED radio hour. In the afternoon I tutored my siblings in math in a mix of French, Wolof, and English. In the morning I sang American children’s songs as I cooked breakfast. And just as the seasons change so slowly that it’s spring before you realize it, home snuck up on me little by little. Ndank ndank Senegal and I started to fit.
Last week I was washing clothes with my sisters. I squeezed my grey skirt between my callused knuckles, scrubbed with ferocity as my sisters do, and yelled my contribution to our conversation. When I rung out my skirt I found a littler hole, from my hand washing. I shrieked with happy glee, showed my sister and she hurumphed with contentment. As I dunked my hands back into the bucket to scrub my next skirt I remembered the overwhelming confusion and frustrated helplessness I felt when I found that first hole. As sly smile crossed my lips as I realized that I’m so different now. Washing clothes with ferocity and yelling conversationally is not only normal but doesn’t take effort because it’s a part of who I am.
Later that day as I was staring off into space and writing in my journal a family friend trepidatiously asked my three year old host brother what the heck I was doing. He confidently responded “oh, she’s learning inside her head. You can do that you know.”
Over time I’ve morphed around my family, they have changed around me and we’ve learned how to not understand. We’ve come to fit, not because we lack holes, but because we know the holes between us so well and still choose to carry on.
“Holes in our hearts, yeah we got holes in our lives, yeah we got holes in our hearts but we carry on” -Passenger