Reflection

Elise Leise - Senegal


June 1, 2018

“Traveling—it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”

—- Abn Battuta, Moroccan explorer, 1300s.

How was Africa?

My feet still hold onto the last markings of fuden, the traditional henna paste my older sister traced into decorations the week of Easter. I still sometimes wear my colorful wrap skirts, and I write my number nines in the curlique style of my sixieme class homework papers. There are physical pieces of myself that have changed. Yet I am surrounded by a different reality than the one I lived for eight months.

For a while after leaving my Senegalese home, my thoughts found it difficult to coalesce into coherency. Even to myself, I wasn’t sure if I could ever truthfully answer the question of how, exactly, my experience was, or if I should even be able to. My year was created out of tiny, everyday moments; some challenging, some comforting, some carefree. There was no alternative reality to escape to in order to have the space to process every event, and so when I did change one reality for another, I was left speechless. I worked at a summer camp, and cried my heart out once because my host siblings would never be given those experiences. I drove along the winding highways overlooking the Mississippi and couldn’t stop the uncontrollable happiness of being back among bluffs and rivers and the beauty of a nascent summer. I passed by old buildings and places with memories attached, memories I hadn’t thought of in a long time because in my Senegal, there had been only new memories to make.

My Capstone public speaking presentations gave me the space and opportunity to let that speechlessness slowly transform into storytelling. I shared multiple stories with my community; with my high school’s foreign language class, my year in Senegal unfolded through a narrative of embracing individual paths and self-directed exploration, of language learning, and of learning how to fail. I presented at my former sustainability club on the cultural normalcy of composting and of zero food waste, on climate change, systems of waste disposal, and renewable energy projects. And with the community women's’ network, I become a storyteller for my most valued experience: that of becoming part of a second family, strong village mothers and morning greetings and unconditional teasing alike.

Capstone connected my two realities. In Senegal, the culture and surroundings —- geometric compound architecture, multigenerational families, ten minute greeting rituals —-

rarely let me forget I was in another country. The divide was often pointed out by Senegalese friends, family, and acquaintances, many of whom saw the understanding of different realities as the most important reason for me to be living among them. The more realities we live, the more tools we have to understand others, a Senegalese family friend once told me.

Other times it was easy to feel I had never left home. As with living in any culture, the longer I was there, the shock value of the differences faded into a sharper grasp of the similarities. My siblings procrastinated their homework, all of us sprawled out on their beds late at night, preferring to ramble on about the heat and school and the trouble my little brother had gotten into that day.

Yet my community here and my community there were indeed separate realities; separate rhythms, economic issues, politics, cultural taboos.

Thus began the most important part of my Capstone. Not only connecting my experience in Senegal with my life in the States, but forcing myself to think on a question I did not want to address, because I knew people would ask, like they had in Senegal —-

“senegal waala ameriik ya wuyn ka newo? fu waarin wiide?”

Which do you like better, Senegal or the United States?

In my village, I had never felt comfortable raving about everything I loved about the States, even though my community would have listened out of interest. I usually answered by avoiding thinking about it myself and tailoring my response to my audience. In my village, I said —-

“mi ndorokin kann ga amerik wante di ya newin de hewi.”

I miss my family in the States but here is the best place to be.

And I partly believed it.

When I arrived home, I was asked if I was glad to be home. I responded —-

Well, yes. Senegal was wonderful, but it’s nice to be back in the States.

And partly believed it.

Capstone allowed me to find another, truer answer with which I finally feel comfortable.

In order to present a story to my home community, I focused avoiding the danger of a single one. My cohort watched a significant number of videos over the year that screamed painfully of the classic “Africa” narrative, overflowing with little stick huts and rock gathering and tribal cultures. Far from surprising, then, was our desire to share our individual experiences with the caveat that others had lived vastly different lives. We lived in crowded cities and open rural farms, placed in various economic levels, apprenticing in jobs ranging from sheep herding to school teaching to sewing. Especially in our personal stories, we tried to present the multifaceted nature of it all.

The Capstone process, precisely because I did not have to, did not want to have a single story, made me realize the absolute limitations of choosing a single reality to define one’s worldview.

We naturally attempt to compare ways of living. Yet in doing so, we forget some situations are utterly incomparable. A life filled with braying donkeys and sugary tea and teaching fell outside the metrics of my life in the Midwest amidst the bluffs and rivers of my childhood. Those who assume my former life holds none of the comfort of my time in Senegal cannot imagine the freedom of wide open farms and morning runs, of small sisters grabbing onto my fingers, and of warm chicken and salad special occasion dinners with my family. It’s natural to feel as if we must choose; natural to say I liked Senegal more, or the opposite: to say it could never compare to my Minnesotan rivertown. But I should not have to choose. None of us should.

My reality is this: there are aspects of my Senegal I loved enough to bring tears to my eyes, and parts I am glad to have left behind and an ocean away.

I loved the unrivaled generosity. My siblings shared without reservation, whether it was a single orange or hammock time. Sitting outside under our mango tree, conversing for hours over cups of attaya, attending family gatherings , my experiences reflected a culture in which community came above all else. I sit here now remembering countless times where my host mother and sisters cooked French fries for me when I was sick, teased me when I felt sad, and taught me when I knew nothing. I loved the unbridled enthusiasm with which my sixieme students burst out of their chairs, snapping their fingers to get my attention in a flurry of “sir, madam, madam, MADAM,” the questions my co-teachers asked me out of habitual curiosity about other cultures, and determination with which my younger sister sat out on the sand with me for hours getting the correct pronunciation of English words mastered. I loved how the people around me refused to let numbers and statistics and technology dictate their lives. Loved how instead, they lived with a rare vibrancy built into a culture of stunningly tailored clothing, extravagant marriage celebrations, and delicious cooking.

I loved a Senegal I felt lived life to the fullest.

Then there are the parts I wished away. Marriage propositions that went on longer than the joke was funny, the clamor of TOUBAB, TOUBAB, TOUBAB in bustling markets, and the single correct way that seemingly existed to do anything. I abhorred being pushed to respond dutifully every time a male brother or cousin or uncle wanted my attention, regardless of whether I was obviously caught up in something else. I hated that I obeyed in order to integrate into a new culture.

My reality is this: there are aspects of my United States, of my Minnesota, of my Red Wing I love and parts I was happy to live apart from.

Yes, I missed snow and books written in English and peanut butter. But the parts I missed most were mainly concepts. Walking past the countless individual fonts of business storefronts in my hometown marks a stark contrast to the familiar writing style of those in my village. I realize now the extent to which I value the United States’ culture of innovation and change. I love like never before my alone time —- kayaking, reading, philosophizing —- after eight months of not having any. And I love the unbounded access to information I hold again at my fingertips thanks to Wikipedia and the internet.

Then there are the parts for which I seek a change.

I still miss my bitikas, the small corner shops where I would spend more time chatting with the owner than thinking about what I wanted to buy. The America I came back to overwhelmed me with materialism and huge grocery stores and Super Targets overflowing with anything we could ever want. I miss chopping up watermelon rinds to feed our pigs in place of the ease of American wastefulness. I miss random butchers practicing a couple phrases of English in greeting, embolic of a custom of welcoming foreigners and widening one’s cross-cultural perspective. I miss Macky Sall and the rationality with which my community spoke about political differences, and I miss my Roman Catholic host family carrying containers of celebratory Easter ngalaxx (a sweet peanut butter drink) over to our Muslim neighbors as part of the culture of religious inclusion.

Just as studying history gives us a better understanding of how to shape or not shape our present, experiencing another culture inevitably presents us with new options where we saw only immutability before. The beauty I found in living a divergent reality was that doing so showed me alternatives. Yet through the transition between realities; through going from speechlessness to storytelling; through attempting to find a balance between United States culture and its Senegalese alternative, I realized the choice of which alternatives I embrace is entirely up to me.

My ideal reality is neither American nor Senegalese. I hope to create a life not dictated by the values of a single reality, but of values I deem worth pursuing in a world full of many possibilities. Choosing one culture’s approach doesn’t mean renouncing the other. It’s justifiable to appreciate alone time and simultaneously love being around family, to love the knowledge and connection technology gives me while choosing a reality without the distractions of social media and our concern with constantly comparing ourselves.

I can love Senegal and not identify with the entire culture, and I can love the States despite its flaws.

It never had to be all or nothing.

So along with my fuden and wrap skirts and curliqued number nines, I still have a slight Minnesotan accent and a love for non-instant coffee and an ongoing debate with my little sister about who will win the next Connect Four game. My thoughts are in flux, but they have quite thankfully coalesced into a readable format.

To this Capstone, thank you.

Special thanks go to all the people who have been a part of my realities and transitions.  Kouly Mbaye, for being one hell of a language tutor, the GCY in-country team, my TL (go Georgia!) Friends I never forgot and new ones I gained —-  gratitude goes to Isa, Izzy, and Wyatt (Thiathia Koely, Thiathia Yassin, na Ngone), for being crazy amazing human beings and best friends —- my families here and in Senegal, and finally, all those who listened when I needed to speak and spoke when I needed to listen. You rock.

Love,

Elise


Elise Leise