I had many religion professors when I was at BYU, and they all taught me many wonderful things. However, one of the teachings that has stuck with me the most was the advice that Randy L. Bott gave us during our Missionary Preparation class. He suggested that no matter where we found ourselves in this big, wide world, whether it be on a university campus, in a bustling city, or a sleepy little town, that we find a “personal Sacred Grove” where we could go when we needed to ponder, meditate, and find answers to life’s many questions. I’d already found such a place on campus, but I decided to make that a life-long practice. Since then I have found and created some very special places in Madison, France, and now Senegal where I can go when I need to clear my head and get away from life in Dakar.
La Place du Souvenir is about a 10-15 minute walk from my apartment in Mermoz. Like many public areas, it’s a now-abandoned square. It has a couple of non-functioning fountains, two big empty buildings, and a large brass-colored sculpture of the African continent in the middle of what I imagine is supposed to be a reflecting pool. Small tower-like things in the shape of stars come up out of the pool and surround the base of the sculpture of the African continent. The sculpture and pool is located right on the edge of a small cliff that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. It’s quite beautiful there. Deep red and black rocks jut out into the ocean, and the water is a deep turquoise. When the water swells, it transforms into the most gorgeous emerald green water I have ever seen, and it continues to fade out into a calming sea-green before it foams into white breakers. Oftentimes white spray floats up from the rocks, and it always sounds so comforting to hear the water crash up on the cliffs.
I found this place a couple of days after I arrived in Dakar – I’m so glad that I did. Not many people go there, so it’s really quiet. The first time I went, I was still kind of reeling from culture shock and second thoughts about staying in Senegal invaded my mind at every turn. To get away from the uneasiness I felt, I climbed up on the edges of the pool and walked out on the very edges that reach out over the cliff and the ocean. I stood there for a long time, letting the wind blow through my hair, and I just watched the waves and listened to the water. My eyes wandered the vast expanse of blue ocean that sprawled out in front of me, and I allowed the winking sunlight that danced on the water to mesmerize me and carry my thoughts away to another place. At first, nothing coherent passed through my mind. It was like I was numb. To tell you the truth, I don’t know how long I stood there like that – but I was there for a long time. Eventually my mind returned to the water: how deep it was, how incredibly huge the ocean actually was, and finally, it dawned on me that the water had always been there. The waves have always crashed up on those rocks. Day after day, year after year, the water kept coming in, marking time with constant, soothing rumbling and hissing sounds as it splashed against the land. I stayed on that thought more what seemed like forever. I kept going back to it again and again. The vast expanse of the ocean, it’s seemingly eternal consistency. No matter what happens in the world, the water keeps coming in and spraying up on those cliffs. The cycle never changes, the water never goes away. Constant, eternal. Those two words resounded in my mind with every wave that rolled in. Constant (rumble), eternal (splash).
Then another thought crossed my mind. Since Dakar is built on the western-most point of the entire African landmass, la Place du Souvenir is quite literally at the end of the world. It was the farthest point of Africa, but it was also the closest point to home. Thousands upon thousands of miles of water separated me from everything that was familiar to me: my home, my family, my country, my friends. I was stuck in a blindingly unfamiliar world, about to launch myself into studying and viewing firsthand one of the most atrocious vices of mankind. That was kind of a depressing thought – but then the mantra of the waves broke through: constant, eternal. Constant, eternal. And then, almost out of no where, the most beautiful thought settled over me. It comes from the Apostle Paul’s writings in the Bible:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.
Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,
Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Romans 8:35-39
There I was, staring at one of the most immense bodies of water on the planet, one of the biggest things on this earth that can separate one object from another. And yet, it wasn’t big enough to separate me from the love of my Father in Heaven. Tears came to my eyes as I realized, in a more profound way than I’ve ever experienced before, that God was aware of me and that He will not leave me comfortless. Not now while I’m completely alone in Senegal, not ever.
I held on to that thought, took a deep breath of air and then felt all of the tension leave me. It was amazing. I returned to my apartment feeling much calmer, and since then I’ve been able to view every day as a blessing.
One can translate la place du souvenir in two ways. First, it can mean “the place of the memory,” and second, it means “the place of remembering.” I like both translations. For those who are aware of African history, the significance of the name cannot be missed. In reality, it’s a sad place. But thanks to the experience I had there, it’s a place of comfort, a place where I can go to remember who I am and how much I am loved. And when my 10 months in Dakar metamorphose from present-day reality to far-off memories, la Place du Souvenir will always retain its hallowed-ness.