Whenever people ask me how I’m enjoying Senegal, I unfailingly respond that taking a bridge year was the best decision I’ve ever made. And I stand by that statement. But, I’ll admit, over the past four months, I’ve occasionally lost sight of the bigger picture and instead focused in on the things that make life in Sebikotane so different from life in Seattle.
Ideally, when things get tough, I should step back and calmly take stock of my situation. I should try to be magnanimous and understanding and noble. The Dalai Lama of gap years, a Senegalese Gandhi. However, it’s hard to be all Zen about a fist-sized cockroach in your bedspread or while you’re shivering violently from an early morning, ice-cold bucket shower. It can be difficult to turn the other cheek whilst being hit on mercilessly by strange men simply because of your skin color. Sometimes, I’m convinced that the entire nation of Senegal is playing a game called Embarrass Emily, in which they score points by testing me constantly on my Wolof, tricking me into saying impolite words, telling me to dance and then making fun of my moves, and informing me how fat or skinny I look on any given day.
I know I’m here for reasons that transcend the petty, everyday concerns that bother me. And it’s true that I can match every minor annoyance with an equally beautiful moment: a breakthrough with my preschoolers, a successful conversation in Wolof, and a meaningful discussion with my host mother. But even so, I still sometimes miss the baobab forest for the trees. So when it all gets to be a little too much, I go into my room, take a deep breath, and look at my manifesto:
From age 8 until age 17, I spent an increasingly greater portion of every summer at YMCA Camp Orkila, a sprawling old sleep away camp on Orcas Island, tucked in the Northwestern corner of Washington State. My Orkila summers, experienced first as a camper, then a counselor-in -training, and finally as a volunteer counselor, were essential in shaping who I am and what I believe in. I met my best friend there when I was 9. And it was there that I first discovered the manifesto.
In the teen lodge, where older campers convene for mealtimes, hangs a huge, butcher-paper version of the list above. Each statement is a response to the prompt “Why and How We Lead” – the aforementioned best friend took a photo of the original paper, copied it by hand, and presented me with my very own pocket-sized version. It’s been hanging on my wall ever since. And while these phrases were first conceived as motivation for leadership, I’ve come to see them as a how-to guide for living a healthy, meaningful, productive life.
It’s a new year, and all the fellows are approaching the most critical months of our gap years. We’ve learned the languages, formed the relationships, and firmly rooted ourselves in our communities. Now it’s time to work hard, fill needs as best we can, and attempt to create positive and lasting impressions from our time in country. I don’t want to leave Senegal with regrets. I want to come away feeling that I took full advantage of this privileged opportunity, and starting today, I’m going to try and use my manifesto in a new way: to help me remember what I’m doing here and why.
These are my New (Gap) Year’s Resolutions:
This year, I promise to experience and facilitate growth, to help create golden spokes*, to inspire self-reflection, to challenge through honesty in words and actions. To share experiences and communities, to share myself and this place with others, and to facilitate the realization of truth. To lead by example and to have fun! To make people feel comfortable in their own skin, to bring out strength that lays dormant, to connect who I am with where I am, wherever that may be. I promise to do the best I can this year for self-love, and the love of others, and to feel like a part of something bigger. To be (a little) crazy, and to be totally down with it. To do my best to inspire while welcoming everyone with open arms, heart, and mind. To fall in love with Senegal. To fall in love with my life.
*The Story of the Golden Spokes:
It’s a camp thing. All the counselors-in-training sat in a circle, listening to our director, Colin. He told a familiar old fable, the one about the boy who would walk along the beach at low tide, picking up stranded, dried-out starfish, and throwing them back, one by one, into the sea. One day, an older man happened to see the boy at his work and thought it was his duty to point out the futility of this task. “You can’t save all the starfish. There’s too many. You’re foolish to keep this up. You’ll never make a difference.” The boy simply picked up another starfish and threw it into the ocean. “I made a difference to that one,” he said.
Colin went on to explain the significance of this tale. When you’re a camp counselor (or, indeed, a gap year student doing volunteer work in Africa), you will be faced with many challenges, many problems, and more issues than you can possibly work through in a summer (or eight months). But you can affect change on a small scale – even if you help one person, that’s one more life that has been changed for the better, and one more person who will have the capacity to help others in turn. Picture your life as a great wheel. Every occurrence, every choice, is a spoke extending outward from the axis of yourself. The landmark moments of your life, the experiences that have shaped and inspired you beyond all others, are spokes as well – but they glow brighter than the others, and as the wheel of your life rolls towards the future, these golden spokes will flash by again and again, reminding you what you live for and why. It’s important to recognize and appreciate the golden spokes in your life. But it’s also important to create them in the lives of others. If I return to the States in April knowing that I’ve saved just one starfish, I will consider my gap year a total success.