The Way Things Change

Alisa Nelson - Senegal


December 2, 2014

I was in Lome, Togo trying to catch a taxi. My family and I were there for the weekend during spring break and we had gotten lost looking for our hotel. My dad was attempting to use his non-existent Haitian Creole to talk to people, and I was nervously trying to make myself understood in regular French. I had been able to ask a woman what direction the hotel was in and if it was far away. She told me to take a taxi. So my family and I got in a car, with me struggling to give the driver instructions, having no idea if 2000 CFA was too much to pay because everything sounded like a lot in CFA. Eventually we made it, but it wasn’t without difficulty.

Sometimes I look back on the last three months I’ve spent in Senegal and think that there is no way I’ve been here for that long. I feel like I have nothing concrete to show for it; I haven’t really learned anything. Then I think about that weekend in Lome. Now, instead of struggling to ask where something is, I can ask my neighbor about his faith and why he converted to Islam. My host family can explain holidays and traditions to me and my siblings can tell me about their schoolwork. I’m so much more comfortable speaking in French (even if it’s far from perfect), and I’m having more and more conversations in Wolof. Now I know how much most things should cost and am no longer overwhelmed by the huge numbers (500 CFA is one US dollar). It will be weird going back to a currency that uses cents and decimals.

When I first got my permanent homestay placement, I was nervous. I had no idea if I would get along with my family or what a small coastal town in Senegal would be like. During Training Seminar One (TS1), I was nervous about coming back – I didn’t feel like I’d made real relationships with my family. But when I came home, my nine year-old sister jumped off the couch and ran to hug me. My neighbor Laif told me that if I hadn’t have come home when I did, he would have gone to Mbour to get me. My host mom and my 17 year-old sister’s eyes got wide and they smiled when I showed them the tablecloth I dyed at TS1. It’s these little things that made me realize how things have changed. I have a family where I thought I didn’t, a community where I was sure I’d made no friends, and people who will share in my excitement even if I am still just learning how to communicate with them.

I can now (on occasion) make the squeaky clothes-washing noise. I go to Joal every Saturday on my own and will hopefully start working – learning, really – at a hair salon there the next time I go. I explored Mbodiene more and found a place that sells bananas. I have plucked both chickens and ducks, cooked cebu jen on my own, and danced some crazy Seereer dances.

Things are always changing. Even if you don’t see it from day to day, look back two years, one year, or even three months, and you’ll be able to see something. And even though there are so many things I am still working on and improving, things I want to learn and do better, I haven’t gained “nothing” from these past few months. I’ve gained something, no matter how small.

P.S. Sorry for the lack of photos – my camera charger is broken, but I will hopefully find a way to charge my camera soon.

Alisa Nelson