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Tiana: Remarkable experience

June 1, 2010

The road outside my Dakar home.

America and Senegal: two almost entirely different realities, different cultures.  Both of which are now a huge part of my reality, the one that I’ve had the opportunity to live and grow in. I’ve been home for three weeks now, where green, leafy trees substitute dwarfing baobabs. Where the nearest ocean shoreline is approximately 3,000 miles away. Where time is money, and both time and money are in increasingly short supply. Where at least one garbage bin can be found every square meter, where automatic toilets occupy hundreds of public restrooms, and where everything is ridiculously overpriced. Where I am blessed with family and friends who welcomed me home with open arms and warm smiles.  And where I am struggling profoundly to reconcile the past five months with the past 21 years and the rest of my life.

My final week in Dakar was the most bumbling and busy week that I encountered in the entire semester.  The return from Joal felt like a bona fide homecoming, as I was met with the warmest of greetings from the kids (Aminata, Doudou, and Xadi), and I spent that afternoon exchanging news of the past weeks with Maman, Mariama, Nogaye, Ami, and others in the family. I showed off some of my new Wolof skills, much to the delight of those who were in close hearing proximity. Turning in early that evening, I remember trying to make a mental list of all that I hoped to accomplish in the coming days. I fell asleep at around task number 43…

In terms of academics, our final week was spent in a wrap-up seminar. Monday and Tuesday, we re-convened courses with each student giving an internship presentation, highlighting key points and events for the insight of the rest of the group. We also had a final country analysis class, final international development class, and re-entry seminar. The workload was light (except for those who hadn’t yet finished their internship reports), which was the ideal situation and allowed us ample free time for other shenanigans besides class.

My little niece, Khadi.

For me, such shenanigans constituted mostly hanging out with my family. I was able to go home for lunch almost every day, which wasn’t true during the eight weeks of class before my internship, and which meant that I got to see the kids more often. One day, a friend visited from Joal. Another afternoon, I hung out with the kids, bringing them with me to a fruit stand, letting them color and draw on my old homework, etc. One evening, I was taught yet again how to make ataya, but found myself completely lost because it was different than the way that I had learned before. (A small digression on the topic of ataya: After an entire semester of close observation and vain attempts to develop a specific formula for ataya-making, I’ve concluded that there is absolutely no way to put a recipe on it.  This was, at first, incredibly disconcerting and difficult for me to accept, as I like specific measurements and precise instructions, but I do believe I’ve come to terms with the facts.) One morning, I went one final time to Aux Fins Palais (for caramel pancakes and omelettes) and to the market (for an ataya pot and glasses, among other things).  That same day, Britney and I went one final time to N’Ice Cream.  That week, I ate my final Senegalese ceebu jen, watched my final Senegalese sunset over the ocean, drank my final Senegalese tea, had a final Hamburger Friday with the MSID family, went to the gym with Anta one final time, you get the picture.  It was a week of finals, obviously not in the academic sense, which made it just plain hard.  Not to mention exhausting.

At the final MSID get-together.

Friday afternoon was our MSID send-off. We were told to meet at WARC at around five in the afternoon for some light snacks and some goodbyes. Light snacks, my friends, was the understatement of the century. The snacks were, in fact, very very heavy, and I’m pretty sure we all ended the afternoon more heavy because of them. We aet our weight in fataya, various cakes, and little egg roll-type snacks that I forget the name of, and filled in any possible empty spaces in our stomach with different juices of about ten different flavors. Yiddema! Talk about one last and whopping manifestation of teranga (which, you’ll recall, describes the characteristically Senegalese hospitality).  We said our goodbyes to Waly, Adji, Korka, Awa, tout le monde at WARC and headed out one final time.

Saturday, my final day there, felt like just another day. I went to myShop near school to connect to the internet, where I met a nice group of four Frenchmen. They invited me to meet them back at myShop that evening, an invitation that I respectfully declined, explaining that I was going home that evening. (Note: Even if I was not flying home that evening, rest assured, I would still have declined the invitation.  The fact that I declined is important to the rest of the story, which is why I include it.  Just to clarify!) That’s when it really hit me the first time… I was going home. Was I excited?  Honestly? No.  There was a twisted knot in the pit of my stomach that refused to untangle as I headed home for lunch.

The afternoon passed peacefully. I snapped a significant amount of pictures of the neighborhood, of my family, with my family members, with friends and neighbors, etc. I had finished all my packing beforehand, which allowed for a relaxing couple of hours. The evening seemed so normal. We watched a soap opera after dinner, sitting like usual, all of us together around the TV.  I tried and failed to grasp the concept that I was leaving and would be halfway across the world in a matter of hours, whereas life would continue uninterrupted for my Senegalese families, and would continue for me according to my other “normal” in the States.

My composure was held together by a thin thread that evening, as eleven o’clock drew closer and closer, and came all too quickly.  I said my final goodbyes. We took final pictures together and gave final hugs and left-handed handshakes (which means you hope to see the person very soon), with Maman nearly falling asleep because it was so late.  Matar loaded my baggage in the back of Papa’s car, and we three set our sights on the airport. Matar kept the conversation flowing, which made my tears keep flowing, which should have made me feel like an idiot (as crying isn’t very Senegalese), but I didn’t care. It didn’t help that Papa was saying how much they would miss me, how nice it was to have me at the house, etc.  I collected myself before we pulled up to the busy airport at around 11:15 pm. Waly and Kenta were standing aside by a railing leading to the airport door to say goodbye. I passed through preliminary security, had my checked bag examined, got hit on by a security guard who proposed himself as a candidate for marriage, checked my bag, then went back outside quickly to chat with Waly and Kenta.

What followed included the usual period of line-waiting and security-passing that accompanies all flights. Thankfully, I had some wonderful people, some of whom I had never met until four months before when we all rendezvoused in Dakar to begin the MSID program, to spend the time with. Our 1:25 am take-off was succeeded by and eight-ish hour flight that included some sleep, some conversation, and my first time watching The Blindside. We all arrived safely and soundly in Washington DC, where we lined up and waited patiently to pass through Customs. Unfortunately for me, I had marked “seashells” on the list of items that I claimed, and they must have thought that said shells were filled with live sea creatures, because I had to pass through extra security.  Thankfully, it was a pleasant experience, and I had a lovely chat with the security man, who wished me a happy early birthday after checking my bags and my passport. After everyone was through the line, we had to bid farewell to some fellow MSID-ers, while others, including myself, continued on to Chicago. Before our next flight, however, Kelsey and I made our first American purchase in four months: medium Java Chip frappuccinos from Starbucks.

About three hours later, we landed in Chicago, where Kelsey and I practically sprinted to the nearest McDonald’s. I bought a cheeseburger happy meal. We waited for around two hours in the airport, then boarded for Minneapolis. All of a sudden, we were home. And stunned to be there.

Now, about three weeks later, I still have yet to fully reconcile my experience in Senegal with my life here.  I know I’ve changed, but I don’t know exactly how.  I know I was there, but somehow it feels like it was all a remarkable dream. Nonetheless, the pictures, the stories, the new friends that I’ve made—these are the precious gems that serve as proof that it was indeed very, very real.

What’s next for me?  Well, for starters, this blog is hereby inactive until further notice. I want to thank every single person who ever read these stories or peeked at the pictures, sharing in the entire experience with me. I sure hope it brought you some moments of joy and insight. This fall I will welcome my senior year of college and all associated implications, including the capstone of my undergraduate career, a summa thesis that I am incredibly excited to begin. I would love to travel more, maybe missions, maybe research—but I know now that I want to travel with purpose. I want to serve others abroad in whatever capacity the Lord directs me. And finally, my lifelong dream is to become a doctor, contributing whatever I can to minister to the health of my patients. I now know that if said dream comes to be, I will pursue a career in global pediatrics. Of course, only God knows what tomorrow holds, and that’s perfectly alright with me!

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