The singular light bulb in my room went out. No big deal, I thought. It was late in the evening when I noticed and I didn’t want to disturb my family. Using my flashlight, I simply went to sleep, vowing to ask for a light bulb the next morning. However I didn’t remember until I returned home from the market in the neighboring village of Leona. When I finally informed my mother of my lack of light, she inquired as to why I didn’t buy a light bulb in Leona. It never even occurred to me that there wouldn’t be some readily available stock of light bulbs mixed up with all the sand of my home. Growing up, we kept a supply of light bulbs, in various sizes, wattages, and even colors, in a cabinet above the washing machine and I just assumed this luxury would have an equivalent here in Senegal.
It took another two days for my room to receive a light bulb and such illumination helped to see so much more, and I began to take note of the overall resourcefulness around me. One morning, I was scolded for allowing the flakes from my morning bread to fall onto the sand as opposed to letting them collect atop my skirt where they could later be deposited in a bowl and fed to the goats. The bits of charred wood no longer useful in lighting the fire that creates lunch, later become vitally important in brewing the Senegalese tea of attaya. I was truly impressed when I discovered the versatile uses of sand: scouring the tough grim off pots, strategic storage locations, the be-all end-all toy for kids. And when things are broken or torn, they are fixed and patched; from underwear to chairs nothing is wasted.
I hesitated before writing this blog because this waste not, want not lifestyle seems so normal now: that this is what I should have expected. Yet as I reflect on my life in the U.S., there’s no way I could have envisioned the magnitude of something so vastly unfamiliar to how I lived. So much was simply thrown away. Here everything has a use and, in fact, a re-use. There’s an overlooked convenience to being able to drive to the store, stock the car with so-called necessities, and return home. But when the store is a weekly market multiple kilometers away and the only way of getting there requires being stuffed in and on top of the back of a caged pick-up truck, that convenience doesn’t just become difficult, but impossible. And when there isn’t even the money to buy the light bulb or replace the broken chair? When accessibility is limited, value increases dramatically. Because of this, I now understand the significance of small things: the discarded piece of plastic that I wrap around my medicine bag to keep the bugs out, a sucker, ice, my bed, which took six weeks to procure. Under normal circumstances these objects wouldn’t even conjure the slightest inkling of gratitude or thought toward their value. Yet, they should.