Smiles and Salt and Color

I’m still getting used to the smell. A few weeks ago a girl in my cohort explained it to me: “It’s like stepping into another world. It looks different, it smells different, it tastes different.” She’s right. The air here is salt and animals and heat, and everytime I step outside my house it grabs me in a new way. Some days I am grateful for it: I kick sand on my walk to school and feel strong in my ability to do this for another 7 months. Some days I am confused by it, angered by it, hardened by it. I’m starting to understand this experience to be a series of ups and downs that began at the beginning of the summer and will end well after the completion of my year.

I want to focus on an “up”. I want to focus on laughter and small victories, because these things can so often get lost in the sweaty discomfort of days and nights. My solace comes from the beautiful people of Senegal; my laughter and my victories from them, also. I am sure that years from now, I will be able to close my eyes and see the bright smiles that surround me here. My family gives me so many of these: they have a comprehension of my adjustment process that is more intuitive than I know how to describe. On my first day with them we went to a Senegalese wedding. Remembering this brings images of color and djembes and mud and dance – all exciting for the first few hours, but over time becoming very over-stimulating. My sister, knowing me for a total of 6 hours, sees that I am growing uncomfortable despite my best attempts at hiding it. It is nighttime. She takes my hand and leads me in warm rain to a metal shed where all the women are stirring rice and says in a beautiful Wolof/French sentence: “We are leaving, but Aicha (my Senegalese name) needs to eat”.

Suddenly I am sitting on a stool, cushioned between two women in bright dresses and forming dysfunctional balls of Ceebu Jen in my right hand. The rain hits the metal roof like a thousand drumbeats and I feel okay. I feel so grateful and so okay that I ask my sister how to express this in Wolof. She tells me, and the words come out in short spurts of effort. I attempt the guttural sound they keep repeating to correct my pronunciation, and after a few tries every woman’s arms fly up and I see chests rising and falling with joy. Laughter. A small victory.

This is the essence. This is my first week in Senegal: smiles and salt and color. I don’t know what the next seven months will look like, and I don’t know what challenges lay ahead – but I do know that in this first week, moments of doubt have been overcome. Gratitude. Grit. Pure and fierce laughter. I’m learning that these things are sustainable. I’m learning a new world, a world completely opposite and still the same. A world of beautiful, messy, vulnerable teranga. And I can’t wait for the day when I can see this world from the perspective of someone who lives and breathes it.