Today I met a new host cousin, who asked me what I was doing here in Senegal. It is a question I am well-versed in answering on American soil– but my gift-wrapped why-gap-year-spiel only comes in English. For a foggy moment it seemed that there was no answer and maybe I should just pack up my belongings and head home. But that would involve untangling myself from my ten-year old host sister who had draped herself over my shoulders like a mink coat. With the pressure from her hand on my shoulder and my host mother’s sunlit smile, I explained the reason for my bridge year. I spoke in sputtering French about learning culture, volunteering and seeing Africa. It felt puerile–but pure.
For the past month I have been a pair of wide eyes. I have watched the waterfall dance of the attaya tea preparation and savored the end result: Senegal’s three cups of tea. I have inwardly laughed through the pre-fight preparations for Senegalese wrestling, lutte, which involves dancing, and inexplicably pouring juice and scraps of paper over the fighter. I have seen my new host mother in Mbour return home with leaden feet from her ten-hour work day as a hotel maid and then cook dinner and clean the dishes, make lunch for the next day, breastfeed her yelping daughter and swat the family dog gnawing at her feet.
In the preschool where I volunteer I have seen the class of forty two derailed for fifteen minutes while the teacher dresses one student’s small cut. I have seen the stark contrast between the early morning song when the tom-tom is brought out and the students bounce with the playful power of pogo-sticks and later, when the teacher seeks order, breaking a branch off a nearby tree, brandishing it, and saying, “croisez les bras” (“cross your arms”). I have stared into the hollow eyes of five year-old students who speak only Wolof or Sererre repeating lines from a French poem ad nausea, slurring the foreign words together. Later, they blindly ‘read’ French children’s books for half-hour blocks, though they often hold their books upside-down. I have winced to see an undiscriminating ruler or tree branch find the scalp of a three-year-old and been wowed by the altruism of Senegalese children, who compete to offer me part of their snack, holding out their chocolate cookies, lollipops and treaclely drinks , relentlessly repeating “Am, am” (“have it, have it”).
At the orphanage where I volunteer I have seen one-year old babies drink bottles filled with water because powdered milk is too expensive and have struggled to sever the deadlock grip of eye contact with a tear-stained child so I can catch the bus home. But my trip to Senegal has not merely been an exercise in voyeurism—I am trying to assimilate into Senegalese life-around the bowl at mealtimes, under the mosquito net, and plodding through the sandy roads. Even though small children still trumpet my arrival, “toobab, toobab” (“white person, white person”), when I was doing a marathon of laundry this past weekend my host mother smiled approvingly and said “Tess Senegalese.” When my host cousin asked what exactly it was I was doing here in Senegal, I felt that my response to his question would be choked by my paltry language skills. How could I explain why I am spending seven months in Senegal, forestalling college for a year, missing my sister’s sweet sixteen and my brother’s thirteenth birthday in a sentence or two of broken French? It seemed that saying I was here to experience a culture, to volunteer and to see Africa would be vast oversimplification. But it was enough.