Two weeks ago, I passed the year mark in Senegal. Sometimes the time feels like it has dragged its feet, stretching 12 months into an impassable mountain whose summit seems to elude me. Those are the days people don’t show up for meetings or I can’t get one sentence out in Pulaar. Other times I watch yet another blood red sun set uncommonly fast and wonder how a year can slip so quickly beyond our grasp.
So much has changed this year. I don’t just mean from when I stepped off the plane into a foreign country where I struggled to speak the language or stepped in sheep poop 20 times before I learned to avoid it. Although that’s certainly the bulk of it. I also mean learning that I can handle what I was sometimes deep down afraid I couldn’t: change and hardship. This means pushing yourself farther than you’ve ever had to before. It also means loss; loss of people and things you had before and the reality that the point at which you have to start pushing yourself comes when you are alone. The starkest moments of difficulty came in the beginning, in the initial few months. Now they are less frequent but I have my mornings where I open my eyes and forget where I am, and when it all comes crashing down I think, ‘Oh boy here we go again’. And yet the most beautiful moments I’ve known here have been in overcoming those challenges. They come after a meeting held completely in Pulaar where everyone understood me and I understood them. They come after a morning out in the fields when one of my farmers calls me over excitedly to show me a new technique they tried all on their own. And they come when my little host brother Ousmane calls me ‘Aunt Foune’ for the first time. These are the realities of my life here that help ground me, that help me appreciate what a crazy, once in a lifetime experience I am having here in Senegal.
This last year has also taught me a lot about hard skills. I’ve found, for instance, that I’m hopeless at Senegalese needlepoint. It takes more attention to detail and time than I’m willing to give. I consistently mangle the language of Pulaar and have only succeeded through the patience of my host family and village. And no matter how many blisters I callous over or field work I put in I always rip open new ones once a week. I’ve identified strengths too though. Through months of practice, I’ve come to know I’m more than capable of washing mounds of laundry by hand. I’m actually quite good at it. I take extreme heat pretty well too; up until 115 degrees Fahrenheit I’m fairly functional. I can prune a thorny tree into a live fence and only stick myself once. I have a gift for eating onion sandwiches (I once ate three in one day!) and I can shame even the most rude and forward Senegalese man into apologizing.
One last thing I have not so much learned this year in Senegal as much as perfected is walking. I’ve always loved to walk. The time it gives for reflection, perspective and quiet is invaluable. Ralph Waldo Emerson said some very intelligent, thoughtful things about walking, including the following, “Few people know how to take a walk. The qualifications are endurance, plain clothes, old shoes, an eye for nature, good humor, vast curiosity, good speech, good silence and nothing too much.” I think I could say the same things are required of Peace Corps service, and absolutely of my time here in Senegal: lots of endurance, no material possessions you aren’t willing to destroy by hand washing, the ability to see beauty in even the most desolate places, humor in spades, an endless supply of questions, speaking when you have something to say and overall listening hard. You will find it is more than enough.
I’m writing this post from my iPhone at site (we can dedicate a whole separate post to the strangeness of that statement another time). It’s evening here and the sun sets at 6:38 these days. It’s 6:37. Evenings are my own here, time to relax and get perspective after what always turns out to be a longer than expected day. Senegal has taken a lot out of me but it has also given so much back. One short year here has taught me more about myself than I could have ever hoped to know. One more year will give me the chance to make things better, to push myself just a little bit farther. The sun is about to set now, I count down slowly as it drops and finally disappears behind a ridge, leaving the compound in a hazy pinkish glow. I’m sure tomorrow will come and go just as quickly as today did so I hope I make the best of it. And with one hot, dusty, sweaty, frustrating, hilarious, change-filled year behind me, I look forward to it.