on a nostalgia that never arrived & trans-linguistic familiarity

Phoebe Shea Perez - Senegal


May 22, 2019

Mangi fi – I’m here. 

For now, I’m here in Guatemala, yet another place I indulge in calling home. I’m back in a place that further reduces the nostalgia I had so long anticipated for Senegal, a nostalgia that never quite arrived. I occasionally do miss the concrete things that I can’t naturally do here – it’s not normal to curtsy every time I shake people’s hands, to offer part of my breakfast to the strangers with whom I share a bus, to ask people I’ve just met if they’re in peace. Sometimes I miss being in a car, not knowing exactly where my stop is, and not having to worry about my safety; sometimes I miss drinking tea and fearing every additional sip is ominously increasing my chances of getting diabetes at an unfortunately young age; sometimes I even miss waking up at 5 am with the first call to prayer, simultaneously reaching me from two of the many mosques that surrounded my house.  

But that nostalgia is so subtle and so fleeting. 

I can never hold onto it long enough for it to be felt. 

It’s hard to feel nostalgic for the year I just spent in Senegal not only because it doesn’t feel like a part of my past, but also because of the growing belief I never really got to know Senegal, that there’s thus no reason for melancholy to arise. It’s not that I don’t think I learned much in Senegal – I won’t minimize how my French improved and how my Wolof grew without roots, I won’t dismiss the caliber I developed for discussing sensitive issues regarding social castes and painful dynamics of power, I won’t dismiss how personal my understanding for syncretism between monotheistic religions and native spirituality became, I won’t ignore the long conversations, the identity crises, the shared jokes, and the comforting silences that have brought me to where I am now. Much was learned in my time there. Among all of them, humility was a constant one; one that was taught and re-taught every afternoon lunch when I struggled to eat rice only with my hands, every instance my Wolof failed me, every time I tried shaking a man’s hands only to soon remember different gender connotations rendered it culturally inappropriate. Consequently, accounts of languages my tongue has attempted to speak and cultures my brain has acquainted and deconstructed, fallen in love with and detached from hardly make a case for acquired knowledge about a country; now, new frameworks on which I base my conversations and analyses and deeper levels of self-awareness they all seem to amount to not enough, in part because they say little about a country and much about one teenager’s experiences in it. I don’t know much about Senegal, but I do know that I loved it. That I love it still. That what I learned there about local issues, and global dynamics, and how they manifested in micro interactions and in my own behavior towards others and towards myself, are not static understandings, set in stone, ready to be missed. That the beauty of my time there was that it was ever changing; that even now, it doesn’t feel like a still image belonging to my past, but rather an interactive piece of art I am to grow with and to share. 

One of the ways I feel Senegal’s continuous influence on me is in the re-acquisition of K’iche’, the native tongue of my mother and grandmother. Although I was raised in a predominantly indigenous town, Spanish was the household language; it was common ground between my parents who, independently, spoke K’iche’ and English as their native languages. I never learned K’iche’ beyond the basics, never reached a prodigal level of fluency. The consciousness of my poor level rendered me too ashamed to, most of the times, even try.  This time I’m here, however, something feels different. Never before in the fourteen years I lived in Guatemala had I felt more awkward when speaking Spanish as I feel now. Never had I been more inclined to just jump into a K’iche’ conversation despite my poor conjugation of verbs, or how many times I’ll use a Spanish word to make up for the lexicon that I’ve either forgotten or never learned. April 30th was the first day I was back in Santa María Tzejá and every time I tried formulating something in K’iche’, a perplexing mixture of Wolof and Spanish helplessly took over. But after 20 days filled with Beq’ij instead of Buenas Tardes, 20 days of telling stories in K’iche’ about my time in Senegal to my grandparents, 20 days of constantly reminding my favorite aunt to only talk to me in K’iche’, 20 days of loving the small talk in a language that was never mine but to which I always belonged… after 20 such days, I feel so at home. 

I feel so at home in the discomfort of not being in a position of linguistic superiority; a discomfort that simultaneously embraced and changed me the months I lived in Touba Toul. With Wolof, the formulation of my own thoughts was significantly more advanced than my capacity to understand that of others. With K’iche’, even though I understand (almost) every word that’s exchanged, idiomatic expression, and playful remark, I have a terribly hard time translating my thoughts into cohesive phrases. Now more than ever, this linguistic disenfranchisement feels as heartwarming and befitting as it felt in Senegal, when I was first challenged to develop a fruitful relationship with it. 

Senegal taught me communication doesn’t rely on language (my first week there has a lot to say on this), and that, nonetheless, languages exist to facilitate communication. Besides shame, I long refrained from speaking K’iche’ because of my fixation on purism. Spanish presence in it bothered me tremendously; evidence of colonialism, I’d always say. But in denying its (imposed) changes, I denied myself the privilege of speaking it. By politicizing language, I stole away my own voice. Wolof had sprinkles of French colonization all over it, and Wolof itself, for its privileged position over other ethnic groups and relationship with French colonial powers, was historically problematic. But Wolof was the language my Seerer family spoke. When other fellows and I spoke English in public spaces, even people from other ethnic groups would insist on us speaking Wolof. Wolof was the language that had risen to power among the masses, not because of its relationship to French powers, but despite that. Wolof was a manifestation of greater socio-economic realities, its prevalence told many stories. Just as it told stories of inequality and slavery, it told stories of unparalleled sassiness and the preservation of a native tongue in a world that’s losing everything indigenous to globalization. It told intricate stories – multi-faceted, hilarious, significant, inspiring, problematic… all kinds of them. Learning Wolof, falling in love with all it encompassed – the complex nature of its ubiquity, the bright faces of people when they realized we could go beyond basic greetings and hold solid conversations, the routine of biweekly language classes, the Q&A sessions I held with my cousins every night after dinner – is what changed so much of how I’m now interacting with K’iche’.

Now, as in Senegal, there’s an instinctive love for conversation, a careless attitude towards mistakes, and an eagerness to talk to someone in the language they claim as their own. There’s a continuation to a story that started in Senegal, a story with a consequence that’s not limited to the geographical constrains of that primarily agricultural town in north-western Senegal. There’s an unescapable reverberation and alhamdoulilah there is.  

Phoebe Shea Perez