Month 1, Theme: Happiness

Isabelle Johnson - Senegal


October 12, 2017

Hello All! 

The culture shock has subsided, the fog has cleared, and i can finally form semi-rational thoughts about the last 3-4 weeks. It's been an eye-opening, difficult and wonderful adventure.

First of all, I am starting to get used to all of the little aspects of life here that are so different compared to back home:

-Bucket showers

-Squat potties (no TP, use [left] hand) 

-The humidity & heat

-Eating from a shared bowl on the ground with my [right] hand

-Dramatically different gender roles 

-The humidity & heat

-Learning a tribal language that has never been written down

-Deciphering unknown cultural norms

-Cooking everything over a fire

-Very limited food options 

-Washing everything by hand 

-The humidity & heat

I realized quickly that every aspect of my life back in the states was taken for granted. I am so incredibly privileged to have everything I do back home, and I never realized just how much I have. And how much I really (really) don't need. 

Here, I live a much simpler and slower-paced life than what I am used to back home. In the west especially, there is a constant focus on time: the go-go-go attitude, pack as much into one day as possible or the day is wasted, the "time is money" mindset. 

This concept does not exist in Senegal. The days here are fluid, and seem to flow together. It's not that time isn't as precious here as it is back home, it is just treated differently. 

Mostly, I suppose, because things take TIME. Doing laundry does not mean throwing a pile into the machine. It means a process of scrubbing, rinsing, squeaking, more scrubbing, and hanging to dry that could take up to 3 hours. Dishes are washed in huge pails under the sun. Cooking lunch starts around 10 am, and doesn't end until around 2pm. Long trips to the farm are made in the early morning, and hundreds of beans are peeled slowly throughout the day. There never seems to be any hurry to get anything done and (at least in the small villages I live around) the vibe is extremely relaxed. 

Life here is largely focused around food- the biggest event of the day being lunch. Among the countless household skills Senegalese women (and girls younger than myself) have mastered, cooking has to be the most impressive. It's intimidating as a foreigner to witness the skill and relaxation they carry with themselves while cooking in the small, dark, stone-agelike huts. No cutting boards, cooking everything over one or two small fires, no tables or areas to lay out ingredients, and cooking for about 15+ people per meal. 

I would love to dive into a detailed analysis of the food, but it really is such an enormous part of Senegalese culture that it deserves its own blog post. So let's just stick with rice (lots of rice) and oil (lots of oil). You will only find meat in a dish if the animal (chicken, goat, bunny, or pig) was killed that morning. 

Massive amounts of food are made for everyone living on my compound, and for every passerby around breakfast, lunch, or dinner, an invitation to join is shouted and insisted upon. 

Walking to work during lunch-time means shouting "Jëregef, lokki lefin!" (Thank you, my stomach is full!) to many family's eating outside their huts. 

I'd like to think that I'm at the point where I can explain Senegals' intense culture and all of its inner-workings in a neat little blog post…but right when I think I understand a social norm, cultural difference, or even a simple interaction, it ends up being completely opposite than what I had thought. Every day I learn more, and every day my feelings about Senegal, the people, and the culture shift slightly. One thing I can confidently say is that the people here are overflowing with Teranga (wolof for hospitality). This part of the culture has been eye-opening. Everything is shared, NOTHING is wasted, and there is an overwhelming curiosity and concern for the well-being and the families of those around you.  The most selfless, happy and beautiful people i've ever met in my life have been from the past 4 weeks. 

My unique placement has allowed me to experience an extraordinary example of community. The small village of Colobane and the 20 surrounding it are all inhabited by the Sereer ethnic group, all sharing a completely separate language, Laala, rather than Wolof (the national tongue). The connectedness I have experienced among these 21 villages and the 1,500 people living inside this bubble reminds me of growing up in small, secluded Presque Isle.

It only takes a few hours for news from one side of the region to reach the other, every family knows every other family, and there is an unparalleled amount of support for those living around you. I love the feeling of being a part of tight-knit community and trying to find my place in it all. 

Almost no one owns a car, and very unreliaible public transportation and the heat prevents a lot of movement from place to place. At first, being so stationary was hard, but I am slowing solidifying my daily routine. Most mornings I get up before the sun, pull on my running attire, and jog a few villages over to meet up with the wonderful Elise (Senegalese name: Mame-dome) for a morning jog. Mamedome is from Minnesota, and her Northern-Midwestern body is struggling to adjust to the heat, as is mine. 

We get up early enough to run facing the moon as it sets, and turn around in time to witness the fullest and brightest African sun crawl it's way over the horizon. Our morning ritual helps focus my mind and body and has been a great way to adjust. My ability to maintain my self-care in a strange and foreign environment is something I am proud to be able to do. Exercise (especially if you are a woman) is rarely seen in the rural areas of Senegal. However, the lingering stares and calls of "toubab" (foreigner) from village strangers have soon become smiles, excited waves from children, and gentle calls of "wëlat" (good morning). 

What I saw at first as a strange, uncomfortable, and almost primitive lifestyle has shifted quickly in my mind in a matter of weeks. The villagers here live a much different and much simpler life than what I am used to, but that doesn't mean the way they live is wrong. If anything, it is opening my eyes to the differences, and yes, the flaws of the culture and way of life back in the states (extreme wastefulness, focus on money, the individual mindset). 

After running and a quick bucket shower, I am ready to face the day and it's inevitable challenges. 

I am becoming more and more confident in my routine and my place in my new home as the days go by. Each day in my village I feel nervous, uncomfortable, surprised, humbled, grateful, happy amazed, and frustrated. 

The enormous language barrier has proven to be the most difficult part of the journey so far, but every new word I learn unlocks dozens of small successes throughout my day. Some days are better than others, but these last 2 weeks especially have been very encouraging.

I have been granted the time and space away from everything familiar, time that is allowing me to discover myself and start growing the values I want to keep with me for the rest of my life. 

I have started to ask myself, "If I can be so happy and at peace while living in such a strange & challenging environment, what is keeping me from living my whole life with this sense of happiness and gratitude, no matter where in the world I end up?" 

Each day I feel more and more strongly that this is where I am supposed to be. The culture shock and frustration are becoming easier and easier to handle.

I am making friends, building the relationship with my new family, working hard on maintaining a constant positive mindset, and have gotten better at talking myself out of the homesickness. 

Being here is going to allow me to become a different and much better version of myself.  

I know that this experience is going to allow me to tackle college with grace, focus, and maturity…even though college is the last thing on my mind. 

I am thinking about & missing everyone back home, and sending my love. Thank you to everyone who helped make my experience here possible 🙂 

More soon! 

-Izzy (Senegalese name: Caa Caa Yassin) 

PS: A vision statement I wrote for myself this morning: 

My contribution & promise to myself and those I encounter on my life journey is: 

~To approach every experience with a sense of peace, understanding, & kindness

~To trust in myself & my own intuition

~To appreciate the simple beauty of all things  

~To be a resource for strength, self-love, and belonging to anyone whose path crosses my own

Isabelle Johnson