Old Enough to Change the World, Young Enough to Still Want To

Matthew Travers - Senegal


April 23, 2013

There are nights where I wake up in a lukewarm sweat, still saturated with the dream that doesn’t let me sleep. In this nocturnal vision, I am back at home in my room, or somewhere in San Jose, California, and I am looking for a way to charge credit on my Senegalese phone to make a call and get back to Sandiara. It is always a desperate attempt to come back to this point in my life, to my room here overlooking the lettuce patch, a comfortable substitution for home. When I sit up, the mosquito net brushes against my head and the symphony of crickets remind me where I am. I’m able to turn the flash light on my phone off and fall back asleep. I am still here.

Five months ago, I was sitting in a Senegalese restaurant in San Francisco with all my loved ones. I remember so distinctly the feeling of the first words of Wolof on my tongue and the shyness that resulted from this attempt. I remember when the waitress cleared the table and all of a sudden, the small restaurant became a night club and West African hits blared from a speaker tucked in the corner of the room. I remember how much I smiled. I knew, without knowing, what I was getting myself into. I knew, in my own life, I was stacking tables outside my walls and making space for what was to be a memorable moment in time. Five months later, I haven’t stopped smiling.

I love so dearly this time in my life. I have found youthfulness in its purest form- full of adventure, confusion, energy, and emotion. It is the warm egg in the chicken coop, the 500 CFA I forgot about in my pocket, the very first spoonful of yassa. There are lots of things I don’t know about animal husbandry, or about Wolof, or about the world, really, and that’s okay. It is fine for me to be a novice. Despite having lived for two decades now, I have realized how little I know- but there is power in knowing that because I have the opportunity to learn in any way I want.

Some of the things I know for sure have only been discovered through firsthand experience. I can recognize the smell a boiling chicken gives off when it is ready to be deplumed. I know how to jiggle the keys in the rusty locks to all the coops in the distinct way that opens them. I know how much sugar is enough when making attaya. I know that my way of life in the United States is by no means an absolute, and is in fact, an exception. I know what the hands of people who live on less than two dollars a day feel like when shaking mine, and I know that they search for the same things mine do-security, love, and acceptance.

I believe that, in this way, every young person should have the opportunity to find their truth and seek understanding of the human condition on a global level. Imagine if every citizen of the richest country in the world participated firsthand in the reality of one of the billion impoverished people in the world. What kind of country could we be? If we choose to experience life according to the reality we have always known to be true, we inherently overlook the possibility that there is another way to exist. We never hear the silence of a neighbor amidst the sound a community pounding their millet early in the morning. We never see a boy run over to this neighbor to share with them from the little amount of grain they have.

This gift of time for youth to me is so precious. Yes, there is a moment for college, for a refined education and a proper grounding in a discipline. In this moment, though, I stretch my legs and thrive under the West-African sun as a twenty year old boy-man that sells eggs and teaches English and wears the same pants all week- and it feels just right.

Matthew Travers