Mariama, my rambunctious four-year-old host sister, finally falls asleep outside beneath a blanket of Senegalese stars, curled up closely to her mother who rubs her back as she drifts in and out of dreams. Ngoyné and Marie Sylla practice their gymnastics on a tumbling mat outside, laughing hysterically when one lands head first and accidentally gets a mouth full of sand. Awa’ly yawns and wraps up in a bright blue, yellow, and orange blanket as she studies for the next exam.
I am lying comfortably outside with the rest of my family, discussing how one braids shells into their hair and enjoying the cool breeze that greets my tired body due to the long walks to work in the afternoon heat. As the night progresses in our calm neighborhood of Ndiaye Ndiaye II, I reflect on my life in Senegal and my life in the United States, the close connections I have made in Dakar and Fatick and my loved ones in Door County whom are drawing me back home.
Everyone is familiar with the phrase “distance makes the heart grow fonder,” and during my stay in Senegal, I have definitely experienced this feeling. Over the past four months of living in Senegal, I have fully immersed myself in the culture, traveled to Casamance, Toubacouta, and Touba, and tried to speak a mixture of French, Wolof, and Sérére. During that entire time, I have worn my heart locket that holds pictures of my parents, David and Jeanne. It’s as if they have come with me on all of my adventures. For instance, when I came across a group of Baay Falls (Senegalese Rastafarians) who taught me how to play the jembe drum in their palm-leaf beach hut, dancing zouk and mbalax (forms of Senegalese dances) until I could watch the sunrise on the beach, when I went into rural villages to hand out school supplies to young students, and when I was greeted by mothers and children dancing with large smiles of appreciation. I am so fortunate to have such amazing and courageous parents, who have blessed, loved, and supported me during my first (but definitely not my last!) trip to Africa. My parents and my family have been with me each step of the way.
Family is the key that unlocks the heart of the rich and loving culture in Senegal. Brothers and sisters are constantly keeping a good eye on their younger siblings, making sure that they are always out of harm’s way. I feel like a well-cared-for baby bird at lunchtime when all of my sisters, even Mariama, pick out the bones from the fish, cut up the vegetables with their hands, and throw them to my side of “the bowl.” My sisters laugh until they almost cry as they teach me how to dance a new mbalax move in exchange for English classes, where they want to learn the lyrics to the latest Akon song. “Mama Senegal” has watched over me and allowed me to embrace every part of the Senegalese culture that was in my reach.
There have also been people that I have met on the road-less-traveled in Senegal who remind me of the loved ones in my life living back in the United States. The first time I met my host mother’s mother I knew that there would be a close connection that would tie us together forever. Not only am I named after Binta’s mother, Aminata, but her mother also reminded me of my grandmother who passed away last summer. I was so overwhelmed with emotion when I first heard Binta’s mother speak in a sweet, soft voice. Her face was aged but was so welcoming and kind that at that instant, she reminded me of Granny Svien. From her love of her many grandchildren to singing joyous songs to me, I felt like I was back with Granny Svien again. Is it possible that Granny was reincarnated into this sweet Senegalese woman who was wrapped in bright, yellow-laced fabrics and large, gold jewelry? I still cannot even explain how I felt at that moment, but only that it was such a beautiful place to be – I thought I was meeting a stranger, who turned out to be such a loving, caring woman, exactly like my grandmother.
So as I gather together my memories, photographs, and adventures, I will also leave a piece of my heart in Senegal. There have been many tears that were shed, from both frustration and absolute joy. As I continue to travel around the world, I appreciate those back at home more each day. I have learned to never take any experience in my life for granted, both extremes of the grays and bright colorful adventures. From these experiences of everyday life, working at my internship, and building stronger family connections, I finally have a vision of a future after graduation. Working and fighting for children’s rights within the education system all over the world is my passion. I want to retell all of my stories. As I relive my stories, I also recount my blessings.
Now that I am home in Ellison Bay, people continue to ask me the same question: “Do you think you would ever travel back to Sengal?” And my response each time is, “In a heartbeat.”