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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The Village

No, I’m not talking about the movie by M. Night Shyamalan – although that was a pretty fabulous movie.  After our PARRER meetings in Kolda, we changed our clothes and went to a village to see a daara (Koranic school) that our funds helped construct.  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, one of the many contributing factors to the talibé problem in Senegal is the lack of modern daaras.  Wait, scratch that – there’s a lack of daaras.  Period.  I’ve seen many an “open-air” daara where the marabout and his talibés are sitting beneath trees or right on the side of busy roads in Dakar.  No building, and the kids sit in the dirt, breathe in the the terrible car exhaust, and have to deal with honking horns and the overall noise of a metropolis inhabited by 2.5 million people all the while trying to concentrate on memorizing and reciting the Koran in Arabic.  Not the greatest conditions for little kids who are trying to learn.

At any rate, many of the marabouts and imams that we work with in our efforts at PARRER always point to the lack of constructed, modern daaras that drive them to migrate from rural areas to Dakar with their talibés.  That in turn separates the children from their parents (obviously), drives up the number of children wandering out on the streets, and increases the chances of children becoming subject to drugs, pedophilia, beatings, illness, and a host of other things.  So last year we allocated some funds to go towards building daaras in a few select villages.  Those daaras would enable Koranic teachers and the students to stay in the village, the kids wouldn’t wander the streets begging for money, and most importantly, they’d be able to stay with their families.  So it’s a wonderful gift to the village and the children.

Because the majority of PARRER’s Executive Board and Imam Ousmane Samb were in the area, we wanted to go to the village outside of Kolda that has one of the daaras that was constructed with our funds.  Not only would we meet the families, the Koranic teacher, and the talibés, but Ousmane Samb would be able to dedicate the building.  That’s a pretty big deal.  We drove a good 10 or 15 minutes outside of Kolda on paved roads, and then we did another 5 or 7 minutes worth of off-roading in order to get back to the village.  It was totally out in the bush, but I thought it was a in a very beautiful area.  Here’s a picture of a mud hut that I took from the car as we were driving on the road.

A typical hut in a Senegalese village

A typical hut in a Senegalese village

When we finally pulled up to the village we were greeted by a semi-circle (located next to the daara) divided into two sections – the women and small children on the left and the men on the right – and a loud humming noise that I later identified as the voices of children coming from the daara.  They’d already placed a row of plastic chairs in front of the semi-circle (our places of honor), and they were obviously quite proud to have our delegation there.  The women were dressed in a beautiful array of brightly colored boubous and little toddlers peeked out at us from behind their mothers.  Greetings are very important in Senegal, so we personally greeted every member of the village.  Actually, they all arose from their chairs – or the ground – and came to greet us.  Most of the men didn’t shake our (the women’s) hands, but the young girls and mothers crowded around us with their faces all aglow with broad smiles, and they patted us on the back and clasped our hands warmly.

Then our local NGO partner introduced us in Pulaar, and then he asked one of the men to tell us about the experience they had as they were building the daara.  Then one of the mothers stood and said that she acted as treasurer of the funds and she explained how the members of the village had set up a sort of savings account to which they all contributed in order to make up the difference in costs that our funds didn’t cover.  Then she thanked us for our help and said how much it meant to her and all of the mothers to know that their children were safe, off of the streets, and able to learn the Koran in an environment more conducive to learning.  Then Imam Samb and the Executive Board members went into the daara to see the talibés – I was a little surprised to see that young girls were part of the group – and to eventually dedicate the school.  It was a very small building made of cinder block (with concrete plaster covering the blocks) and a corrugated tin roof.  The kids were very proud to have them there.  They had their long boards on which they write verses of the Koran in water-based ink, and some could recite without using it, but younger ones still used them.  They recited some verses as a group and then the Koranic teacher called up to young boys and had them recite other verses to him and Imam Samb.  The men would nod and say “Uh hum” periodically to show that the boys were reciting it correctly.

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Don’t you just love the fabulous color palette made by their boubous?

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The daara whose construction was partially funded by PARRER

The daara whose construction was partially funded by PARRER

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The village elders and the talibés listening to Imam Ousmane Samb before he dedicated the daara

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Reciting the Koran

A young talibé reciting verses from the Koran to his Koranic teacher and Imam Ousmane Samb

A young talibé reciting verses from the Koran to his Koranic teacher and Imam Ousmane Samb

While the dedication took place the mothers and small children gathered around the daara to listen – most of the little kids gathered around me and giggled softly, so I suspect another reason they came over was to get a better look at the toubab (me).  That’s when I took my all-time favorite picture of the Senegalese.  I’ve already shared it on this blog, but there’s just something about this little girl that tugs on my heartstrings a little bit.  So I’ll post it again 🙂

Senegalese Smiles

Senegalese Smiles

A mother brought her little girl to the daara entrance so she could see what was happening.  I thought she was pretty cute.

DSC_0017After the boys finished reciting and got the all-important approval of Imam Ousmane Samb, the imam said a prayer over the building and the Executive Board members, the imam, and the village elders all excited the daara.  The Koranic teacher continued his lesson, and the parents and younger children came and thanked all of us again for helping them build a daara and, essentially, helping them protect their children.

Then all of a sudden I felt a tiny pair of arms wrap around my legs.  It was my little friend giving me a hug.  Soon all of the kids 5 and under swarmed around me (but I noticed my friend made sure she was standing right next to me the whole time), so I gave my camera to Khady and asked her to take pictures of me with the kids.  They came in droves – some came up and touched my hair, others were content to stare at me, others smiled and laughed with me, and some hid behind their mothers.  When their mothers tried to get them to go towards me they started crying (again!), but there weren’t too many who were afraid of me.  They did pretty well for never having seen a white person before!

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Everyone was speaking excitedly in Pulaar so I didn’t understand a word they were saying, but they were all trying to get my attention.  All of a sudden I saw a chubby baby boy coming at me through the air.  His mother kept saying, “American, American, American,” and wanted me to hold her son.  So I took him and he was fine as rain.  He didn’t cry at all, and he was such a chunk that I couldn’t resist giving him a few kisses on the head.  Well that made everyone start chattering, laughing, and clapping and the next thing I know about 5 other mothers where holding their babies out to me so I could hold them, too.  It was so fun!

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I don’t know how this baby could stand being dressed and wrapped up as warmly as she was – it was 90 degrees out and very humid. I was dying and she’s decked out in winter clothes!

My boss signaled that we needed to go, so I pried myself away from the kids.  A couple of mothers wanted to get in a picture with me before I left.  One of the more elderly ladies grabbed me by the hand and started gesticulating wildly, chattering rapidly in Pulaar, all the while pulling me away from my boss and toward these two women.  When we got over to them the grandma lady smiled and pointed to one of the women who was probably 8 months pregnant.  Grandma Senegal pointed to her, then back at me, slapped me on the shoulders a few times, laughed and then pointed at the other lady’s belly.  By now many of the other women had gathered near us and they started laughing and clapping their hands.  I have no idea what Grandma Senegal said, but evidently it was pretty good.  She pointed to Khady and my camera, so I posed with the soon-to-be mother and another lady who’s baby I held.  After we were done Grandma Senegal pointed back to the mother’s belly and back at me and said, “American! American!” and then said something that sounded like baax na which is Wolof for “it’s good.”  Finally it dawned on me that she wanted a picture with me because it would be good for the baby.  So I smiled, pointed to myself and said in Wolof, “Bébé (baby), baax na.”  They all nodded and laughed.  The expectant mother still had her arm around my waist and she looked up at me and smiled, chuckled a bit, and then rested her head on my shoulder.  That made all of the other women clap.  I sure hope that baby is healthy and turns out to be a good kid, otherwise they might end up shaking their heads in disappointment and saying something to the effect of, “It’s all the American’s fault s/he turned out this way!!” 🙂

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By this time everyone from my office was waiting for me to get into the car so we could get back to the hotel.  I really wish that we could have spent more time with those people.  While they were talking about us in Pulaar before the dedication and before I got to interact with the kids and the women, my eyes wandered around the village and the faces of those people.  Tears came to my eyes for a few seconds.  There they were stark poor, without the conveniences of the modern world – not even electricity and running water – yet they were happy and so pleased that they could have a school in their midst.  I could almost feel how relieved those mothers were to know that their children would be safe and protected and still be able to memorize the Koran – a very important part of their religious upbringing.

And then I got to thinking about how remote the village was.  In all reality, it was an obscure little place, far away from the major metropolises of the world, and some people would say that in the grand scheme of things it really doesn’t matter much.  Most of those people haven’t traveled even to Kolda, let alone Dakar.  Most of them have probably never even seen the ocean – which was just a couple of hours away.  Seeing Paris, London, New York, LA, Chicago is absolutely out of the question for them – those places are just an abstract “something” that people talk about (how many of them have even seen a picture of those cities??).  Most probably don’t even have much of an education, have never seen many of the contraptions that I (or the rest of us) see as an essential tool/part of my life, or even know what something as simple as snow is…  They are so cut off from the “rest of the world,” so seemingly insignificant.

The scripture in Psalms kept running through my mind, “What is man that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man that thou visitest him?”  I looked back over the little crowd gathered in front of me and I immediately loved every single one of them.  And in that moment I knew with great conviction that God knew who they were, that He knew them by name and as individuals.  I’d had similar experiences on my mission in southern France, but I’d never felt it in such a profound way before.  As I looked into their faces that thought kept coming over and over and over again – that God loved him/her and that He was infinitely concerned about their well-being, their joys, their worries, their families, and that He was watching over them.  It made my heart pound really hard and it felt like electricity or some other type of energy was coursing throughout my body.  I had to clasp my hands in my lap because they were shaking so much.  I looked back over the mud huts, the animal pens, the trees and saw that in many ways they are rich in their poverty.  Rich because they aren’t distracted by the unimportant things in life.  They are surrounded by the land and their families and they find joy in what matters most.  Oh, the things that they could teach the rest of us!!

Out of all the wonderful things that I have experienced since my arrival here, visiting that village has been the most rewarding.  I will probably never go there again, and I will probably never ever see those people again.  Our visit lasted a maximum of 30 minutes, but that little village will always be sacred to me.

Bonjour, Toubab!!

Adorable: (adj) inspiring great affection.

Yep, that sums up my unexpected exchange with a little 3 or 4 year-old Senegalese boy yesterday.  I was walking down a long, sandy road and just before I turned onto the sidewalk of the main street, I saw two barefoot little boys ages 3 (or 4) and 5 years-old, respectively.  The oldest was pushing a tire ahead of him and running after it, and the youngest was jogging along just in front of him and the tire, looking back periodically to see how fast it was going.  They were laughing, and their eyes were big and bright.  Naturally I smiled, too.  It was wonderful to hear them giggle and find joy in something so simple in the middle of their abject poverty.

The oldest boy saw me and called out, “Salut!”  The 3 year old turned his gaze to me and his smile got even bigger as he said, “Bonjour, toubab!”  Toubab is the term everyone calls white people around here.  He raised his hand and waved at me.   I waved back and turned onto the street, walking just a little bit ahead of them.  All of a sudden I felt a tiny hand clasp mine.  I looked down to my left and there he was, trotting along side of me and grinning from ear to ear.  I squeezed his hand just slightly and asked, “Na nga def?” (How are you?)  His eyes smiled back at me and he started skipping along, still holding my hand.  Then we came to where they were going and he dropped my hand and scampered off.

He was one of the most adorable little boys I’ve seen here – big, beautiful, bright eyes and a big, happy smile.  I could have picked him up, hugged him and taken him home.  But alas, that wasn’t possible.