Out of Africa, With a New Family and a Pledge to Return


Author: Mary Brant

As I sat on the steps in front of my host family’s home in Dakar, Senegal, during the second week of my study abroad program, I couldn’t help but smile.

My 21-year-old host brother Habib sat next to me, and my sisters, oldest brother and two cousins sat nearby, chatting away in Wolof. Habib and I were having one of our many hilarious exchanges, in which he spoke English to me, and I attempted to answer in French and broken Wolof, two of Senegal’s national languages.

“I bet you will cry while you are here,” Habib teased me.

C’est pas vrai! No I won’t! Why do you say that?” I replied, laughing.

“All the Americans do,” Habib said in a more serious tone.

“Well then I bet I’ll be the first one who doesn’t,” I said defiantly.

We shook hands on our bet and headed inside to a late dinner of rice and fish, joining our family around one large bowl where we carefully crafted balls of rice with our right hands and then popped them into our mouths.

From that moment, I vowed that despite opening myself to the full range of experience awaiting me in Senegal, I would not cry. What was there to cry about? Though I knew that many of my experiences would prove different and difficult, they would become, very simply, a part of my life.

So I did not cry when, crossing a river to visit my Peace Corps friend’s village of Bani, we were told that women had to sit at the bottom of the boat with the garbage and chickens because “women are not as strong or as smart as men” and “not skilled enough to swim.”

I did not cry when I was bargaining in Sandaga, Dakar’s largest market downtown, and vendors followed me around, hawking their products insistently as I searched my brain for the Wolof to bargain back and resisted the urge to get angry and yell at them to leave me alone.

I did not cry when, on Tabaski, a Muslim feast day, I looked on as my family slaughtered two sheep, or later when I helped to skin, dice, cook and eventually eat the same animals.

I did not cry when the children I was volunteer-teaching at a primary school in my neighborhood were beaten in class for whispering to one another or daydreaming.

I did not cry when I had to spend the night in an old seven-seat station wagon in the middle of a deserted dirt road en route to a small village because thieves roamed the roads after dark, and the car’s driver refused to continue that night.

These experiences were some of the most frustrating, turbulent and just-plain-scary moments of my time abroad, and yet they were also the moments I learned the most from.

There were also moments in which I fought back tears arising from feelings of ease, acceptance or even joy.

I did not cry when my host sister Mimi invited me to have a slumber party on the roof with her and told me I was her sister and best friend.

I did not cry when I was lying outside in the village of Medina Abdoul, looking at the stars with a little girl who rested her head on my shoulder. She sang me a song in Pulaar and instantly accepted me as part of her family and village though I had just met her earlier that morning as a part of my week-long rural visit.

I did not cry when my host mother Awa, a stern woman who yelled at her own children as a sign of love but always spoke calmly to me, told me one afternoon that I was her daughter now too and then yelled at me to start chopping the onions.

I did not cry when I played soccer every week with my host brother Issa and host father Pape and 30 other Senegalese men and proved to them that women too can be successful athletes.

I did not cry when I succeeded in pulling water from the well in Bani and carried it on my head all the way back to the hut I stayed in, to the cheers and laughter of the entire village.

I did not cry when, at the end of my stay in Medina Abdoul, a pregnant woman with whom I spent the week sharing laughter, hand gestures, chores and smiles told me she would name her child Mary after me, whether or not, she said, it was a girl.

The sum of these variously thrilling, terrifying, comical, tedious and mystifying experiences shaped my time in Senegal. The four months I spent living and learning in my new home were some of the most vivid and unforgettable times of my life. I learned to find a sense of accomplishment, and sometimes even triumph, in simple achievements and daily tasks. I shed my self-consciousness, along with Western notions of decorum while working through feelings of embarrassment and discomfort. And, perhaps most importantly, my semester in Senegal taught me to live and find meaning in the moment, no matter what that moment brought.

On the last day I spent in Senegal, dressed in a full Senegalese bubu, I busied myself packing, helping to cook ceebu jen one last time and teasing my siblings. More than anything, I wanted to delay saying goodbye, but the moment inevitably came.

I looked around, struck by the smiling faces of the people in the room hugging me, telling me how much they would miss me, telling me to never forget them and that I was lucky enough to have another family now, surrounding me with their love and thoughts no matter where in the world I was.

I gave hugs, kisses and left-handed handshakes to my family—an assurance that one day I would come back to right the wrong by shaking with my right hand.

Nam naa, sama waa ker – I will miss you,” I said.

And I smiled as my eyes filled with tears.

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