Une Lettre pour Mon Ami

Mouna Algahaithi - Senegal


November 18, 2013

Written on October 2, 2013

 

Dear Friend,

 

I know you’ve been asking me for an update, so here it is.

The anxiety is deepening. By the end of this week, I’ll be officially moved to my house in Mboro, which is on the coast of northern Senegal, about 2 hours from Dakar. I have a big family, which consists of: My father, Arona Sarr, and my mother Aminata Sarr, along with 5 siblings: Serigne Saliou (15), Mame Bousso (12), Sheikh Yahya (10), Adja (7), and Sheikh Bethio (3). I have yet to meet my two brothers, as they were not there during my week visit. Our house is rather small, with 3 bedrooms, one bathroom, a kitchen, and a semi-standard living room, which consists of a television and a few couches. It’s no big deal. Cramped and crowded is what I’m used to anyway. I come from a family of six all stuffed into a tiny two bedroom apartment in University Apartments, Madison, Wisconsin, as you very well know.

Anyway, there is a door in the living room leading to our backyard, where the clothesline is full of colorful pagnes (traditional skirts), children’s clothes, and birds singing soft lullabies. The story is always the same: Once I walk down the three stone steps, the three main chickens that cluck-cluck-cluck around all hours of the day and night run away quickly, and the sheep I nicknamed Shawn (Shawn the Sheep, anyone? hehe) starts baaaa-ing at me repeatedly, almost as if the louder he gets, the more likely I will understand. I respond in Wolof, “Noppil!”, which means to “be quiet”. Shawn doesn’t necessarily understand, no matter what language I chat with him in (and I talk to him a lot, actually), so I avert my attention to the massive citrus tree in the middle of the yard. Sheikh Bethio loves to swing on the rope hanging from one of the long, spiraling branches extended from the tree, and I smile as I remember his giggles as the wind pushes him back and forth. Adja is most likely eating a lime somewhere in the house, while our maid (and one of my most lovely friends) Ndeye (18) is probably making fresh lemonade in the kitchen.

The only memories I have of Mboro are those of the 7 day visit I was given. It’s funny how short of a time one week is, yet I promise you, it was the longest week of my life. My days consisted of a simple routine. I would wake up, tangled in my white mosquito net. Glancing across the room, I would see Mame Bousso and Adja sleeping soundly on the bed beside me. Considering we’re now sisters, we share a room. After my shower, I eat breakfast with the family, which is always half of a freshly baked baguette with chocolate spread or butter, and a nice, big, cup of Cafe Touba (traditional Senegalese coffee). After breakfast, I pop out my mighty Wolof textbook or French book and study for a solid two hours before I get too bored to continue. Next, I would read whatever novel I could. Over my week visit, I completed “However Long the Night” by Aimee Malloy and “The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway. (I had left all of my technology in Dakar, which I regretted very quickly). The rest of the day drags on as it did every day, filling the hours with simple tasks or games such as journalling, more reading, more studying, watching Disney channel in French, dancing foolishing with my family, more eating, and several successful games of Solitatire with a deck of cards I had brought. And I’m almost certain I’ll be working at a school called CREPE for mentally challenged, low-income children. Isn’t that cool?

Yet, with these seemingly normal and simple memories that I have of my short time in Mboro, the anxiety is deepening. I can’t say, ” I don’t want to go back,” because that would not be true. A part of me does want to go back, yet another, stronger side of me, wants to stay in Dakar, in my lovely and big house, with only a mother and two maids, my awesome American host sister, Andy, and a neighborhood full of Fellows that I love. Staying in Dakar means accepting the horrendous pollution of living in the capital. It means eating out at different American, Chinese, or Mexican restaurants whenever I feel it’s right. It means hanging out and watching movies with Fellows. It means going out dancing at night or spending days relaxing on the beach. What makes Dakar so meaningful is being close to all of the other Fellows, some of whom I now consider very good friends.

I really want you to understand how I’m feeling. The anxiety lies in the idea of being alone. The anxiety lies in the fact that I will no longer have access to places or people that make me feel like I am at home in the States, hanging out with you, like being in Dakar is a movie that we observe with tears and laughter and comfort. The anxiety lies in not being able to call Emily, Julia, Allie, Shakhi, Rachel, or any of my close friends and  fellows to hang out with on days when it’s too hot to go outside.  The anxiety lies in the fact that I know that these upcoming 7 weeks will be the hardest weeks of my life. It lies in the fear of the unknown. It lies in the face of the true beginning of my experience as a Fellow with Global Citizen Year. Independence. The actual experience, without being clouded by the comfort of familiar faces, foods, and language.This is it. And all I know for sure is how nervous I am. How much I long for the comfort and support of my family back home, and of you. I am anxious for these 7 weeks to pass, yet I’m also afraid of letting the time pass without fully living in it. Isn’t that what you always told me to avoid? The confusion between living and just being alive?

While chatting with my mother on Facebook, she says, “Get off of Facebook. You’re in Senegal. Live it, experience it. Unplug from the technology and be in the present moment, because time passes. Don’t miss us, because you’ll see us before you know it.” Deep down, I know she is right. Yet still, there is this aching sore in my chest that is longing to continue chatting with her, to just imagine where she is and how she is and the sound of her voice. I haven’t even gotten a chance to Skype with her yet.

During Fall Training, we were told that we were going to hit some of our highest highs and some of our lowest lows. They never said it was going to be easy, but they could’ve never prepared us for how hard this is. It’s difficult to sum up where the hardness comes from. Is it from adjusting to a new life, to a new culture that we are completely unfamiliar with? Was it from trying to survive Dakar’s first extreme water shortage of 3 weeks? Is it from trying and failing time and time to again to carry out a successful conversation with a stranger on the street in French, Wolof, or Pulaar? Is it trying to find energy when the sun seems to soak us out, and the meals we’re fed lack adequate nutrition and vitamins? Is it in the feeling of the longest days that seem like they are never passing, and the idea the 6 months truly does feel like a lifetime?

This is all just the beginning of our experience. I am aware that I have not hit my ultimate low yet, although I find content in the reminder that I have already survived some major lows, which involve breakdowns and scream crying and negative thoughts that persist for hours. Questions such as, “Can I really complete this program- is this really what is right for me?” or “What have I gotten myself into? Why am I here? Will I succeed?”

Mangi fii rekk. I am here only. While a hundred questions do run through my mind at all times, I know that I am here only, and that is exactly where I am meant to be. I know that this is going to be very difficult, especially emotionally, but I have a strong sense within that tells me everyday that I can do this, that I can complete this, and that I will succeed, and it is from that little voice that I draw my courage.

I’ll never forget that quote you wrote down for me before leaving. What was it again? Oh yeah: “Challenges are what make life interesting and overcoming them is what makes life meaningful.” 

It may not seem this way, but I am very content here. Senegal has a beautiful way of inviting people from every corner of the world into her arms with a loving and caring atmosphere. You should hear the singers every night. They stand out in a field beside my house and sing beautiful poetry written by their spiritual leaders. And did I mention how wonderful it is to be able to hear the call to prayer 5 times a day? Also, there is this super sweet juice called bissap- it’s made from purple hibiscus. I drank an entire liter of it yesterday morning. Whenever I mention that to someone, they always respond with a concerned expression and the question, “How have the runs been?” to which I laugh off. I’m actually adjusting pretty well to the heat, I think, but then again I’m usually sitting beneath a fan half-dressed anyway.

I’m beginning to appreciate small things like soft breezes, sunsets, and even access to water- considering the awful water shortage all of us in Dakar suffered through. And the drums! If you could hear the drumming, performed on a djembe, combined with the amazing dance moves of the Senegalese, it honestly puts you into a trance of appreciation of the sheer beauty of Senegalese culture. Also, I know I’ve always been pretty bad with directions, but I could probably find my way around a few neighborhoods here in Dakar, which I think of as a great accomplishment. Not to mention, my language skills are continually put to use. My host mama was giving me a lecture the other night about staying safe and it was all in French- I understood most of it! And I can hold a 2 minute conversation in Wolof, which is pretty good for a starter, I think. Don’t even get me started on the beaches and the markets and the art!  🙂

I should probably go to my language class now. Je suis en retard! (I am late!) I miss you a lot, my dear friend, and I’ll be sure to keep you updated. Please inform me of all that is going on back home- I’d love to know. 🙂

Love you,

Mouna

Mouna Algahaithi