What the Bugs Gave Me

Emily Ford - Senegal


January 9, 2013

Bugs. Of shapes and sizes I didn’t couldn’t have imagined to be biologically possible. This is my first memory of my village. It was reaching dusk as I sat down on a mat in this unfamiliar place surrounded by strangers, when the hordes appeared. Cockroaches scurried from cracks in cement; beetles dug themselves out of the sand, and oddly crunchy creatures flew all around me. Fear coursed through my body, not from the pests that seemed instantly attracted to the new white toubab in their midst, but by the inescapable foreignness that seemed to permeate even the night sky. Overwhelmed, I attempted to take refuge in my new room only to find a bare piece of foam and a mosquito net. Throughout the unbearably humid night, I would wake to the sound of large grasshoppers leaping from wall to floor and soon find other insects scuttling around my bed and through my hair. The mosquito net became a shroud as I convinced myself I would not survive this torture until the morning.

Night after night, I would crouch in the corners of my room, near tears, sandal in hand, futilely attacking all these tiny invaders. Frustrated by my fumbling Wolof, inability to help around the house, and lack of skills to contribute at my health post, each swipe and swat felt like I was confronting those daily toils. Yet with little results to show for my nightly labors, I would tuck in my mosquito net more exasperated than before. One morning, as I swept away piles of sand, a large black beetle scampered across my path.  Convinced this survivor embodied all my Senegalese inadequacies, and I was determined to destroy it. So determined, in fact, I broke my family’s only broom as I repeatedly slammed it down in the beetle’s track. Ashamed, I gathered the splintered wood amongst my pools of sand and noticed a collection of insect carcasses that were not the result of my own murderous efforts. Nature had done what I couldn’t, and I realized: I can’t kill every bug.

This quickly became my mantra over the passing months. After watching endless hands perfectly chop onions, I finally took up a knife myself. As the chunks fell into the bowl, I knew the eyes of my sisters and aunts were surely scrutinizing the uneven, jugged pieces. Yet, I silently repeated to myself you can’t kill every bug. Communication continued to come to a halt despite endless attempts to rephrase explanations into the bare bones with the simplest of terms. With a shrug, you can’t kill every bug. This rather mundane epiphany was the sweetest surrender. No longer grading my own performance, whether success or shortcoming, I released myself from any fear of failure and could just be.

(A true testament to this bug adjustment, both literal and metaphorical, was when a sand-dwelling critter laid eggs in my skin and a week later small worms crawled out, yet my reaction was to simply join my family around the communal bowl for dinner.)

The seasons have changed, and nature has again taken its course. While I busied myself sweeping sand, recounting stories in Wolof, and giving vaccination after vaccination, I hardly took notice to the fact that the seemingly endless pestering bugs have died out or migrated. And somewhere between the transitions from fall to winter, last year to a new one, that unfamiliar place became my home and those strangers, my family, who remind me that I’m no longer that white toubab, but jambar laa: I am a warrior.

Emily Ford