September 2009, 32,000 ft in the air I was 6,137 miles from home headed for the western tip of Africa. I could have stuck with my peers, as many advised sitting in a college classroom on U.S. soil. But now, eight months later, no one questions what they then might have thought of as my crazy decision at the time. While I never listened to a lecture, let alone sat at a desk, during what was supposed to be my freshman year of college with the country of Senegal as my class room and its inhabitants for my teachers, I learned more than I ever imagined.
I decided to participate in a new “bridge year” program. This meant traveling to Senegal with five other students like me and a “program manager” who acted as, coordinator, professor, mentor and more. The first month we took French and Wolof language lessons in the capital of Dakar. We then moved to more rural locations to live with host families and work in near by apprenticeships. The basic goal was to learn about and adapt to the country and its culture.
Daily life proved to be full of lessons not taught in books. Expecting to speak French in a former French colony, my ears were surprised to be immersed in the native tongue of Wolof. It soon became apparent that learning this language I had only heard of a month prior was a necessity. Surrounded by the sharp sounds and quick words, I thought it would be easy. However, after years of schooling where writing and reading come well before speaking a new language my ears were not prepared for picking up on a word that I had never seen.
Each morning, stepping out the door into the sandy streets, greeted by children’s calls of “toubab,” meaning white person, occasionally accompanied by the thud of a rock behind me, was a constant reminder of how foreign I was in this place farther than I had ever been from home. Adding to the feeling that I was completely out of context, the household I entered was very different from any I had ever known. I shared a room, which was kept more like a second living room than a bedroom, with three children. This forced me to adapt quickly. The hardest part proved to be appreciating the young couple who, in their combined seventy two years of life, had attended less school than I had in my meager eighteen. But, while there were frustrations, there was never a point when I doubted my decision to be there. With time, my host parents helped me learn to celebrate the culture they so graciously shared with me, marvel in their beliefs in vampires and miracles, and become aware of, and in doing so begin to shed, all the American baggage I had brought with me.
Much of my time was spent with women and I was surprised to find that they became some of my most influential teachers. The difference in language and culture often proved to be a greater doorway into the women’s world than a barrier from it. On most days I was an apprentice at the local “maternité”, a health and birthing center for women. At first, the gregarious but private midwives were cautious to share the details of their work with me. After about a month they realized that I was younger then all of them and had absolutely no medical training. Instead of me giving something to them I was there to learn from them. This made me different from all of the other westerners they had met. I became their little doll. It was fun for them to introduce me to aspects of their culture because for me everything was new and exciting. I also appreciated being joked with because it was their way of showing that they enjoyed my presence. The patients were quick to adopted this geniality toward me and let me be present in some of their more precious and vulnerable moments.
Four to six hours four days a week I helped the midwives with consultations. These were unscheduled appointments for pregnant women, women taking birth control, prostitutes and any other woman seeking reproductive help. While many consultations were uneventful some were dramatic, others amusing and a few just plain scary.
A particularly persistent woman came in after giving birth to her eighth child looking for help to have a ninth. Determined, she arrived every week until she convinced the midwives to do all they could to help her. In another consultation, the midwives read the results of a woman’s ultra sound to discover that one of her twin babies had been dead inside her for over ten days. The young woman was immediately rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery. I was comforted to find her a week later cheerfully holding the surviving twin. Unfortunately other stories did not have such happy endings. One prostitute came in to be told that she was HIV positive. Watching tears stream down her face as the head mid wife tried to comfort her I could do nothing but sit in silence. As the silent, smiling, light-haired girl, I also had the joy of standing with women through their births then placing their newborn babies in their arms. Through witnessing their large and small struggles and triumphs I was pushed to gain a deeper understanding of their lives.
I also quickly connected with women outside the maternité. I found my self as a bridesmaid in a wedding, and friends offered to name their children after me. I spent countless hours memorizing the women’s daily activities cooking the family’s one-pot lunch on a single gas burner, hand-washing endless piles of clothes in buckets of soapy water, braiding weave into my friends’ hair, then sitting watching the world go by when there was nothing else to do. I learned about the lives of girls I have little in common with. I ended up with unique and invaluable friendships.
Throughout this past year my awareness for the world has increased immensely. I have visited countries that I could not have placed on a map. I can speak a language that I did not even know exists. I have come to understand and accept practices that I looked down upon such as polygamy. I have experienced real life challenges that I had never been exposed to such as lack of waste management.
Now it has been a year since I made the decision to go to Senegal, eight months since I left home and a month since I have been back. I would have been fine going to school with my classmates. At the same time listening to my friends share their past year of dorm mate drama and study stress then telling them about my visit to a giant mosque and adventure through mangroves I know it was worth the wait. I also realize that through the ups and downs of learning how to take care of myself in a place so different from home I have acquired skills that will be useful in the years to come. Moments like this increase my appreciation for the opportunity I have had.