Reflections

It’s after midnight here in Dakar so that means that technically, I fly home to the United States in two days.  Yep, two days from now I’ll be back in Madison, hugging my dad (and probably crying), eating some really yummy food, and sleeping in my bed for the first time in 10 months.  And the day after my mom will be flying home from Utah and the hugging and crying will start all over again.  We’re criers in our family.  But they’ll be good tears.

While I am profoundly grateful for the experiences I’ve had, the people I’ve met, the places I’ve visited and the things that I have learned, I am absolutely thrilled and even more grateful to be going home.

My first two weeks will be a whirlwind of activities, including finalizing things for my new apartment, getting things settled with my car, going through belongings to see what things I can get rid of, seeing my extended family over the Fourth of July weekend, and moving into said new apartment.  And from the minute I step off of that plane at O’Hare – wait, probably from the time I board the plane in Dakar – I will get questions like, “Why did you go to Senegal?”  “Why did you choose that particular topic when you could have chosen so many more positive things to write your dissertation on?”  “Why Africa?”  Those are all  good, valid questions.  But more often than not, I’ll also get the more banal, humdrum, run-of-the-mill, barely-scratch-the surface questions like “What was your favorite thing/place/person you saw/visited/met in Senegal?”  “Do the Senegalese have TVs and drive cars?” “What’s the food like?”  “How was the weather?” And my all-time favorite: “In three or four sentences, tell us about the highlights of your trip.”

HUH??  As Genie says in Aladdin, “What?  Doth my ears deceive me??”  I just spent 10 months over there and you want me to distill all of the sights, smells, tastes, people, joys, frustrations, things-I-wish-I-did-differently moments, cultural adjustments, soul-searching, fear, bewilderment, helplessness, empowerment and happiness I experienced into 3 or 4 sentences?  You’re nuts!  (And evidently, so I am I because I just quoted a line from a 21 year-old Disney film in an otherwise very somber, intellectual post.  Seriously, guys, I haven’t watched that movie in at least 15 years.  But that’s beside the point).

I know that these types of questions are coming because those are the exact same questions people asked me when I came back from my other two residencies abroad… except for the TVs and cars one…  And in all fairness, those types of questions aren’t an affront to me or what I study.  The people who ask them have good intentions, and they’re trying to express interest in what I do and understand what makes me and my research tick.  So I can’t get miffed about it.  And usually I don’t.  Because I understand.  I’ve asked those stupid questions myself in the past, even when I knew better.  But they’re not the best kind of questions that one should ask another person who has dedicated the last however many months or years to a single topic/area of expertise and who will continue to dedicate – or at least be heavily interested and involved with it – for the rest of his or her life.

So what types of questions should be asked by others – including by the one who had the experience (aka – during moments of self-reflection and pondering)?  Well, in essence, the ones that you have to think about in order to formulate and the ones that become springboards to substantial elaboration.  Here are a few off the top of my head:

  • What are some of the most important things you learned during your time abroad?
  • What aspect of their culture touched your heart the most?  Why?
  • What do you appreciate the most about those people/cultures/experiences and why?
  • How has this time made you a better person?
  • How are you going to take what you have learned and make a difference in your life and the lives of the people you will touch in the future?
  • What would you want someone like me to understand about x, y, or z?
  • What were the things you experienced over there make you more grateful for your upbringing/cultural heritage/family/job/blessings?
  • Are there any people/places/things (yes, that is the definition of a noun) that you hope to never take for granted again and why?
  • How have you changed for the better?
  • What did you do when times got tough and you wanted to throw in the towel?  What kept you going?
  • How did you see the hand of God directing you or the people you worked with?

Those are hard questions, and your friend may have a little difficulty answering them.  Or at least putting all of those feelings into words for the first time.  But those are the ones that really show interest, and more often than not, those are the questions that s/he wants you to ask because their answers will embody the complexity of the most important aspects of their experience.  Some of those questions are quite personal and depending on how well you know him/her, they might be inappropriate for you to ask.  However, those questions will get him/her thinking and will help that individual identify and process the richness and uniqueness of their experiences.  If they can’t share them with you, at least you’ve helped them put feelings and heart beats into words.

So by all means, when you see me, ask me those questions.  As soon as I stepped off the plane into the stifling humidity that envelops Dakar in September, I’ve been asking myself those exact questions, trying to wade through some of the answers and trying to formulate them into one cohesive whole.  It’s hard because they’re multi-faceted and don’t lend well to quick, off-the-cuff conversations.

A lot of you ask me why I don’t write more specifically about the things I’m researching and seeing with the children.  Well, there are several reasons.  First, some of the things I’ve experienced here are so completely unbelievable that if I hadn’t seen them myself, I’d question my honesty as I reported them.  Second, you have no idea how much suffering these people go through, nor can you readily identify with how happy most of them remain throughout their horrendous difficulties.  You have to see it and experience it for yourself.  Most of us Westerners really need to suck it up, stop whining, and look for the blessings in our lives.  Because we flip out if we can’t get the smartphone we want or go on that trip we’ve been looking forward to, etc.  We think our life is “over” if we have to go without this or that or don’t do this or that.  Give me a break, guys.  These people are pretty down far the ladder in terms of material wealth and bodily health, and yet their smiles are some of the biggest and brightest I have ever seen, and their laughs have more life and sincerity than the majority of ours.  And yes, I am chastising myself just as much as I’m chastising you.  Because I flip out unnecessarily, too.

Third, a lot of what I’ve been doing will turn into intellectual property and play major roles in my dissertation and future publications.  So it isn’t necessarily in my best academic or professional interest to have them plastered on the internet for others to take and use for their own purposes without being able to control how they’re used.  Fourth, and most importantly, I have seen and experienced things that are so terrible and evil… that I don’t think I will ever be able to talk about them – and if by some miracle I do, it will be several years down the road.

But I can tell you the following.

I am proud and humbled to be an American.  I love my country, I love my freedoms, and I hate seeing them being stripped away by people who think we need to be more like other countries and other cultures.  I will not apologize for or be ashamed of what we hold dear, nor will I bow down to what other people think we should do/be or not do/be.  Because I have seen what such actions can do to a whole society.  And Senegal is a model in West Africa and the surrounding area.  The Senegalese have it good compared to other countries.  Think about that one for a while.  Are they good people?  Do they have things to offer me and others as far as values and the way they treat others?  Do they have just as much inherent potential and value as you or me?  By and large, have I enjoyed my experience with them?  To all of these questions, I respond, by all means YES!  But I cannot tell you how much my heart swells with gratitude when I see my flag and think of the myriad of things it symbolizes.

Similarly, we all need to be careful of smooth talkers – no matter what profession they practice, no matter what social class they belong to, no matter what religion they adhere to, no matter how beautiful or popular or rich they are.  Because they do not always have our best interest at heart.  This is true in politics, and this is especially true in leader/follower or mentor/mentoree relationships.  In my current context, I have seen this time and time again as families entrust the care of their young children to individuals who they think are good men.  But they turn out to be the worst kind of charlatans and do unspeakable things to children who range from the age where they just barely cut their teeth to the late teens and early 20s.  Things are not always as they seem, and we owe it to ourselves and our loved ones to study it out from every different angle possible, and especially to not fall into traps that so often come with the proverbial bandwagon.  We do not have to be like everyone else.  We do not have to keep up with the Jonses (sorry, Dan and Darla!).

Families are the most important thing that you and I have, and they are society’s most important unit.  Nothing can replace loving parents who honor their marital commitments and strive to raise their children in kindness, with soft voices and warm hands, and with the purest of love.  Parents, don’t get sucked into the media and money-crazed world that we live in.  Put the phone, laptop, iPad down (or anything that is similar metaphorically) and pay attention to that little voice who is asking for your attention or to the little hand resting on your knee in the hopes that you will pick him/her up and hug him/her close.  The phone will be there when you get back.  So will the computer or the TV or that book or that project you’re working on.  Stop allowing yourself to be distracted by the things that matter the least and ignoring the people that mean the most.  I have always been very sensitive to the needs and actions of little children – and if anything, these last 10 months have made me even more so.  Play with them, speak gently to them, hug them, kiss them.  Remember that when they’re little they’re still learning – don’t develop unrealistic expectations for a young child that s/he cannot achieve.  If you do, you’re setting both you and him/her up for heartache and disappointment, and the little one will learn to fear you and not trust you.   Help your kids know and understand by your words – and most importantly – your actions that they are loved and that no matter what happens in the world or what stupid (or serious) mistake they make that you will always, always, always love them.  Don’t let your bad mood dictate how you treat them – it’s your problem, not theirs.  Because they will remember it, and their little spirits will break.

Remember that the relationship you have with your spouse affects them in ways that you can’t even fathom.  So if you and your spouse aren’t doing so great, love yourself, him/her and especially your child enough to evaluate where you went off track.  Stop getting mad over stupid stuff.  Stop yelling.  Stop arguing.  Be adults and learn to work out your differences like adults.  The other person isn’t entirely at fault.  You share part of the blame.  So stop deluding yourself into thinking otherwise.  Of course there are situations where splitting up and divorcing is inevitable and the best solution in the end.  But by and large, your problems can be fixed fairly easily.  So be a man (or woman as your situation dictates) and suck it up.  Stop being so selfish.  Because it’s not just you who is unhappy.  Your spouse is, too.  And remember that there is a little pair of eyes watching you from around the wall, eyes that are filled with pain, tears, and fear because you are his/her world.  And if your world falls apart due to ridiculous reasons, so will his/hers.  I don’t care how old the child is – even if s/he is an adult.  I promise you that they will have the harder end of the deal than you.

I realize that these are harsh words.  Most of you know that I have no tolerance for those kind of things.  But as one who has seen to the bottom of the cesspool, please realize that I only have your best interests (and those of children) in mind when I say what I say.  Can children and child-rearing be difficult?  Yes, of course.  Don’t think for one minute that I don’t recognize this or that I haven’t experienced it just because I’m not yet a mother.  But remember that your child can test your patience, love, and metal without you reacting or retaliating in a way that is unbecoming of their parent, the person that should love them unconditionally.  They don’t force you to react one way or the other.  They have no control over your reaction.  You chose how you will respond.  Not them.

Cherish your families and treat them accordingly. Live so you won’t have any regrets if you don’t wake up tomorrow.  Live so your children know, see, and understand that they are loved.

Lastly, God lives and He is good.  Despite of what I have seen and experienced lately (and even in my past), I know that He is aware of us as individuals and that He cares very much about what we are all going through.  I’ve heard the following expression over and over since my arrival in Senegal: “God?  What God?  How can He see this suffering and not do anything about it?  If God exists, He must be dead.”

God is not dead.  He is always reaching out to us, always willing to relieve our pain, always willing to enfold us in His arms of love.  But just like any other relationship, we must put forth the effort to know Him and embrace His goodness.  How can He help us if we give into despair and refuse to find the good in the world and people that surround us?  How can He help us if we have adopted a fatalistic attitude?

He can’t.

Let us be better friends and disciples, let us seek for and fight for the good.  And we will find that He is and always has been right by our side.

There is always hope.  There is always light at the end of His tunnel – we just have to choose not to dynamite the cavern and block our path to what lies ahead.

So in a nutshell, that’s what Senegal and studying/working with victims of child trafficking have taught me.  There’s certainly a lot more, but in essence, my time here has helped push aside the fluff and focus on what’s important.

I pray that I may keep this perspective uncluttered and move forward with faith, hope, the determination to work hard, and the courage to love when it is difficult to do so.

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Learning at the Ocean

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.

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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.