To feel or not to feel – normalizing discomfort

Karina Lisboa Båsund


May 22, 2017

*This
blogpost is based on the speak-up I did during re-entry training.

Before I
went to Senegal, I was prepared to embrace the culture and keep an open mind. I
didn’t intend to judge nor criticize that which I didn’t know yet. So I arrived
in Senegal all excited and ready to experience 'something new'.

The first
week or so, my mom would ask me how I was doing, which was easy enough to
answer. But when she asked how Senegal was, I chose to answer in a manner that
was as objective as possible. For if she asks me; is it hot? Of course, coming
from Norway, and comparing the heat to the cold, indeed it’s hot for me in
Senegal. But maybe it wasn’t particularly hot for the locals there at the time
we arrived. Maybe this was cold compared to the heat they were used to. I
didn’t know and I didn’t want to assume anything, so I would simply tell her
how many degrees there were.

This was
just a concrete example, but generally, I was afraid of misrepresenting
Senegal. And as I found it challenging to share and do just to my experiences
through words, I simply kept from telling anyone about anything.

As time
passed, I felt more pressured to tell my family and friends something more
substantial, important and maybe even inspiring. And I did experience and learn
things that I could never fully understand just by reading or hearing about it.
Such as how it feels to walk for miles under a burning sun and not be able to
escape the heat. Or how it feels to be constantly reminded that you are the
only white person amongst thousands of people. But more importantly, how
issues that seem to have obvious and do-able solutions, are a lot more complicated
once you start digging under the surface.

But again,
as time passed, things got normal. Not using toilet paper. Bucket showering.
The heat. Eating around a common bowl. Sharing lollipops with my host-siblings.

And one day
like any other day I walked to my teaching apprenticeship with my host-dad, who
is the vice principal of the high school I taught at. We take the shortest way
to school, which has to be walked right next to the highway. On this road,
everything from small busses filled with people, gigantic trucks from Mali and
military vehicles on their way to the Gambia rapidly pass by. And on both sides
of this road, there are plenty of colorful fruit stands and butcher shops lined up,
with men and women sitting patiently in the shade ready to sell their goods. Every
morning walking on the narrow space between the road and the fruit stands, I
hoped I wouldn’t get sucked by the strong wind drag caused by the trucks
passing by.

On this
day, there’s a huge pig blocking our way. It’s been hit by some vehicle and is
laying there dead. My dad wasn’t paying any attention to it. And neither did I.
All I thought really, was that it was a shame that the meat had gone to waste,
that someone might have just lost their most valuable possession.

I just made
my way around the pig without giving it a second look, because seeing
dead cats, dogs, pigs and donkeys laying next to the highway with their guts
spilled all over the ground was normal.

Seeing
groups of little talibe boys running around barefoot in filthy clothes begging
for money and food was normal, and so was seeing trash in the streets, trash
burning outside of houses and trash burning as cooking fuel.

I arrive at
school and enter the 7th grade glass I’m teaching English to, all by
myself. I enter this dark, cramp and hot classroom filled with no less than 76
students. Those two hour long lessons were some of the most exhausting parts of
my bridge year. One hour of teaching later, students get tired and talk to each
other and make noise and it’s impossible to control them. I kick students out because
that’s what they’re used to and I note names of students that are disturbing
but it doesn’t make the situation any better so I ask them: why don’t you
respect me? My eyes get watery and with no answers, I threaten to just leave.
But Seynabou Sow, a girl in the front row who so desperately wanted to learn
English begged me not to leave, so I
stayed.

But that
day I went home early, not co-teaching the 3 other classes I was supposed to have with my
language supervisor.

I come
home, but the gate to the house is closed, so I sit down under the enormous
mango tree next to our house waiting for my host-mom to come back from the
market.

And I sit
for a long time, starting at the horizon, playing with the sand.

A
Mauritanian shepherd passes by with his herd of sheep and greets me. Some more
time in silence and then a man passes by, greeting me with “
ça va?”. “Ҫa va.” I respond, barely paying any
attention to him, concentrated on drawing figures in the sand. Then I realize
I’d responded with quite a pathetic voice and look up again to see where he was
going.

But he was
gone. I quickly figured he couldn’t have made his way out of sight in so little
time. I checked if maybe he’d entered one of the houses, but all the gates were
closed and I hadn’t heard a sound. He could only have taken the road behind me,
but then going around the three would have been highly unnecessary. It took me
probably less than 2 seconds to think all of this. I turn to look behind me and
there he stands, looking at me.

He says he
loves me and I aggressively snap at him, saying in French, who do you think you
are, you don’t know anything about love, go away. I felt this anger and
frustration welling up inside of me, even though having men I’d never met
before telling me they love me was normal. Because though it’s often meant as a
joke, I wasn’t in the mood, and I’ve had encounters like this one where it wasn’t
a joke. Like the time when my host-cousin (who later moved out) said so and
then said I now ought to satisfy his need. Or when I sat in the back of a bus
and a man sitting face towards me whispered so to me, then sucked his finger
while making eye contact with me.

I go back
to staring out towards the horizon, trying to rid myself of this uncomfortable
feeling that had established itself during this brief encounter with a
stranger.

I try to
remain passive towards this experience, like I have with all the other
uncomfortable things I’ve seen and experiences and moved past, and I manage.

My mom
comes home and it’s as if nothing happened.

Now, fast
forward to the first week back in the U.S. after having left Senegal, and I
come to realize that what I had been doing for so many months, namely trying to
remain passive about things that felt wrong and accept things as they were, was
in itself not doing just to my experience, for slowly that passivity turned into
ignoring the “something new”, that I wanted to embrace. I normalized the things
that felt wrong and thereby denied the unfamiliarity I needed to understand.

And as I
finished writing this, I realized that though I will never be able to fully
convey the truth of my experiences to others, I think personal feelings must be
heard and validated, no matter how uncomfortable or disturbing they are,
because they come for a reason. And by better understanding the reasons as to
why I felt so strongly about situations that locally wasn’t paid attention to,
can I delve deeper into them.

That’s when
things become complicated, but again very reasonable, relatable and better
understood. 

Karina Lisboa Båsund