Parent Post: The Joy in Living

The following is a blog by Pam Ricker, mother of Global Citizen Year Fellow Jordan Ricker, written after a trip to Senegal to visit her son.


When my son Scott and I arrived in Dakar just before 6:00am, it was really 1:00am to us and we had only slept about two and a half hours after two whirlwind days of preparations.  When we deplaned in Dakar, Scott and I were both as tired as zombies. We knew we were thirty minutes early and wondered whether my son Jordan would be there yet to meet us.

Prior to our trip Jordan had emailed an emergency survival list:

  1. Make sure you have the Senegalese address to write on your customs form
  2. Do not accept help from anyone in the airport unless they are wearing an official uniform
  3. Come straight out the door as soon as you get your bags, and I will be there.

I thought, “Jordan, stop worrying. I can understand and speak enough French to get from the plane to the airport door.” In fact, I had been speaking French with a friend one hour every other week for eight weeks. I felt tentatively confident.

Boy, did I not know what to expect!

We exited the doors of the airport. We were instantly accosted by eight or ten very aggressive but friendly people who wanted to help us: “Taxi?” “Non, merci.” “Bags?” “Non, Merci.” And several other offers, but I just kept repeating, “Non, merci, Non, merci,” as I anxiously scanned the dim horizon for Jordan. Within minutes I caught sight of his silhouette 100 yards away and separated by a fence.  I knew it was him, and my heart leapt. I hadn’t seen him since the day he flew out of NY in August, and it was an amazing rush after six months of separation to recognize his posture and mannerisms, even at a distance. He saw me and began waving in pantomime how to reach him.

We made our way to where Jordan was and found an official taxi.  Tired as we were, the first conversation we overheard was all the more staggering to us. After my French preparations, I was not expecting the vast majority of conversations to be in Wolof. Listening to Jordan haggle confidently with the taxi driver over the price of the voyage and the price of the bags, all in Wolof, was a big surprise. Everything about the way Jordan handled himself was new. He was the caretaker now, not me. He stood there, smiling, but protective and clearly communicating that he would not be taken advantage of. Eventually, the taxi driver began laughing, calling him a “true Senegalese,” because of his bargaining skills. As we drove to the hotel, Jordan and the driver continued a lively conversion in Wolof and the unfamiliar sounds were the backdrop to the first sights of the city. Dawn had not fully broken as we drove along the highway, and the first impressions were a hazy mix of mid-rise buildings, construction cranes sitting unused near unfinished buildings, large sand lots, and scattered animals, mostly dogs and goats picking around in heaps of trash. It was a strange juxtaposition of very attractive and very dingy, mainly the trash heaps disturbing what would otherwise be a positive image.  It reminded me of a grunge-futuristic-sci-fi landscape, like something out of “Blade Runner,” because of the mix of the very modern alongside herds of livestock, horse and donkey carts, and trash piles.

After some sightseeing on the gorgeous isle of Goree, where we saw the only two American tourists we would see on our entire journey, we traveled north to Jordan’s internship town of Mboro. Mboro grew to have a special place in my heart, having elements of my fantasy Utopia. My wish has been to live in a world where quality human interaction trumps materialism and status. Living in the Washington, DC area, I am regularly exposed to competitive back-biting as people claw their way up the socio-occupational-educational ladder. As a high school teacher in a super-competitive school, I have watched some parents aggressively bully anyone they perceive to be a threat to their child’s ascension to top status. The culture of selfishness has been disheartening, and shaking up my students’ acceptance of this culture has been one of my primary goals. In Mboro, I finally felt at home.  Human interaction is the primary focus. Every person you know and half the people you don’t know go out of their ways to greet you and converse with you every time they see you. It gets exhausting, in fact, to hold so many conversations. To talk, talk, talk, ALL day long! Especially when you are trying to speak in a second and a third language! I was surprised how much Wolof I understood by the end of my week; it was because there were so many lively conversations packed into that short time.

My most memorable among many experiences were the theater workshops I did with a theater troupe in Mboro. With Jordan, Marisa, and Marisa’s host dad, the director of the troupe, translating into French and Wolof, we worked with local actors on physical expression in performance.  In one activity, I asked the actors to work in teams and use their bodies to make a human sculpture which represented an abstract concept or emotion. “Joy” and “Unity” were easy for them. But we stumbled when one of the words I gave them was “depression.” The translators broke down in confusion. “What’s the problem?” Apparently there was no Wolof word for depression. They did not understand what it was. Ok, Ok. New word. We had to settle for “anger.” Wow. No word for depression. I thought about my students in the DC suburbs and how half of them were being treated for depression.  At home were affluent kids with heaps of resources, high paying jobs, and nice houses (not to mention flush toilets) but they were depressed. In Mboro people had no resources to speak of and no future filled with material goods or high-paying jobs, but they did not even recognize the concept of depression. It became clear to me that we had as much or more to learn from these people as they had to learn from us. Isn’t the most important thing in life to achieve happiness? If they are happy and we are not, why do we want them to live like us? We stay in our self-constructed traps, traps from which we have the ability to free ourselves with only a little courage to defy social expectations. They, in Mboro, make the best of their externally imposed traps, traps from which most will not ever have a chance to free themselves, and they are able to find the joy in living.

I am so glad my son has had this experience. It has given him more than the acquisition of two new languages, a glimpse into a new culture, rich new relationships, and a confident ability to adapt to change and adversity. It has given him the key to happiness. He has seen people who put the joy of life ahead of the acquiring of material wealth or social power. He has lived what it is to be “rich in friends, not money.” This saying, for him, is not a glib, superficial cliché, as it is for most Americans. Most say it, but don’t really believe it. He has seen it and lived it. I hope he never loses that memory, and that he brings back his ability to live in joy, and shares this skill with as many people as he can!