Finally, A Post Unrelated to Senegal

I mean,  it’s only been a month, right?

Anyway, I checked my Twitter feed this morning.

I follow Neil Gaiman. He writes things, like graphic novels and other novels. I also follow a few friends, like my high school buddy named Francis. He writes, too. Much better than he bowls. He also follows Neil Gaiman.

Both are pretty bright fellows. Francis has 91 followers, and Neil has 1,599,455 followers. No big.

So, imagine my surprise when I see this:

But I guess I wasn’t really surprised. It was an inevitable eventuality. And, it’s not small talk, as you can see. It’s substantial stuff that has to do with writing and its effect on people’s real lives.

So, I have cool friends. Of course I do.

“Let the children’s laughter remind us how we used to be.”

We were maybe a little shy toward each other for a few minutes. But they looked at you and something touched your heart. Besides, they don’t really care if your French isn’t perfect.

At the Koranic school, the girls sat separate from the boys, and that one boy recited only some of the Koran but he had memorized the whole thing by the time he was 11 years old.

I looked around and wondered who to talk to, there were so many youth, and the room became very noisy quickly. I took a few pictures, smirking at the stark contrast between my fair-skinned classmates and the rich darkness of the young students. The smiles sparkled the same.

Someone tapped me on the shoulder and I turned around. A group of young women looked at me. Their leader asked me my name. We talked about school and what they might do when they grow up. They all say they’re going to university, and a lot of them want to be teachers. A few girls ask me to take pictures with their cell phones.

They wanted to teach me a dance.

Every girl wanted to teach that dance to all the Toubabs. And they laughed every time we did it.

That first evening in the village near Saint-Louis, the kids were all dressed in traditional clothes and makeup. One of the teachers played a metal bowl as a drum, and little ones took turns dancing in front of the crowd. A few of us danced, too. A bunch of us watched a little boy wearing a green boubou with a white turban. His eyebrows were painted white. He fought sleep while we laughed at him.

A young woman made eye contact with me and we smiled at each other and exchanged names. I asked her about school and what she did during the day. She told me that she helped her mom make dinner and take care of the siblings. We took pictures and we look like friends.

All the village kids sang and clapped, and the rest of us clapped along.

One day in Saint-Louis, Natalie and I were on an errand to buy some bug repellent, because mosquitoes had attacked me the week before in Dakar and it was only a matter of time before malaria ravaged my body. We stopped by a pharmacy that told us to come back in an hour because they didn’t have any in stock at the time and were ordering some from another store. That was convenient because we wanted to go exploring that day. We crossed a bridge onto the fisherman’s island, photographing just about everything we saw. It was a bright, sunny day, like most of the days there. We walked to a less busy part of the island toward some houses along the beach. As we neared the coast a group of kids saw us and we started playing with them. A family invited us into their yard within a wall, where we got to look at their water well and talk about what we were studying. For the most part, I avoided the adult conversation and continued taking pictures of the children. There was a little boy wearing a yellow shirt with a puppy on it, and he made angry-looking, monkey-froggie faces and somehow immediately became one of my favorites.

One day at the village we got to teach the students. I sat at a table of 10-to-11-year olds, and their teacher instructed them to draw a cylinder with a length of 5cm and a radius of 2cm. So, that’s what I taught them. I used a can to demonstrate the height and to show them that they needed to double the radius. Reaching back into my basic geometry days was hard enough, and having to do it in French was an especially fun challenge. But I repeated myself three times, and when I asked them if they understood, they said yes. So I believed them.

Whenever I asked the girls if they were married, they always giggled. Then I asked how old they were and some of them were 13 or 14, and maybe I met a 15-year old. They can get married at 16, and it’s no more being a kid after that.

After class at the village we were standing in the courtyard and some of us were swinging the kids around. Two little girls were hanging off the arms of one of my classmates, and we couldn’t explain that they needed to take turns. One of them didn’t talk, but I took her and swung her around in a circle until I got dizzy and let her land gently in the sand. She let me spin her about five times until it was time for us to leave. It was cool knowing what she wanted without her having to tell me with words. She just took my hands, and I whirled her around.

There was another day of teaching the kids and there was the best recess I’ve ever had, with relay races and balancing water on one’s head and potato-sack races and wrestling. They taught us a few things about running in the sand, but I think they taught us more about how to be gracious losers and entertainers at the same time. They made us laugh, and through our follies and falls and spilt water and goofs, we returned the favor.

Then there was the evening our guys (and Britt) played soccer against the village team and while the village kids chanted and clapped in solidarity for their team, we bit our nails and winced and cheered whenever we got even a little bit close to scoring a goal. We lost 4-1, but we sang and danced together afterward and maybe I taught some boys how to wink.

The last night at the village we watched all the boys strip down to their underwear and tie their t-shirts around their loins like a sumo diaper so they could show us wrestle. It happened so suddenly and it shocked us, but it was all business to them.

It was during this last night that I noticed more kids had runny noses; I noticed their clammy hands and remembered a few kids with conjunctivitis. There was talk of bedbugs and lice, but it seemed that those were the least of the problems they were better off not knowing. Sometimes I wish I didn’t know about them.

I cried on the way back to the bus that evening. A young lady walked with me, and we talked about her family, that her dad was working in the Ivory Coast. She was 14, and she didn’t have to say she missed her father; that she even talked about it was enough of an indication. I asked if he visited often, and she said every month.  We hugged goodbye, and I told her to go to university and become anything she wanted. I told her I’d miss her, and I thanked her for being friends.

It was sad to go, not so much because I didn’t know if I was ever going to see them again, but I wondered how many of those children would live to see the next year. What’s so inspiring is that they weren’t even worried about that. They gave us hugs and showed us how disciplined they were and sang anthems with great pride. They searched our souls with sincere eyes and reached out to us. They trusted us when we weren’t so sure about ourselves. I was so concerned about their future, the conditions of their country, but they focused on their present circumstances. If they could smile and laugh and cheer, so could we. They lived in the moment, and we were blessed enough to have them share that moment with us.

How I Lost My Sharpie

Tuesday, May 3. We sit in a dark classroom of the CAEC in Dakar and listen to a lecture about the geopolitical history of Senegal. The chairs are uncomfortable and there are no desks. I can’t touch the floor when I sit in the chair, and my notebook slants away from me when it’s on my lap. I cross my left leg over the right and take notes until one of my legs goes numb. Then I try sitting cross-legged to stretch, then that also becomes uncomfortable, and I’m trying to focus but I’m only catching every other word yet I’m grateful Madame is writing notes on the board that everyone can follow. Senegal has a strategic location; they are known for their Teranga, or hospitality. The main rivers are the Senegal, Sine and Saloum; the mouth of the Senegal joins with the Atlantic Ocean.

I try to pretend that I’m floating.

Maybe the lecture goes on for another hour; maybe days. I prop my feet up on the back edge of the seat in front me, careful not to touch its occupant’s rear end. Using this slant, I can take notes more easily.

Sometimes the French sounds like noise, but I learn that other languages in Senegal are Arabic, Peule, Wolof, Serer, Madinka, and Soninke. The Isle of Gorée was a center of slave trade. I wonder if the rest of the trip is going to be like this. Will we have classes every day, will it always be this dark and hard to understand. Silly symbolisms bounce around in my brain.

After a couple of hours or a thousand, the lecture wraps up. I notice that Madame Aminata Sow Fall has entered the classroom, and an assistant starts to bring in stacks of her novels for sale. She writes about the rights of women and the potential of African countries to become self-sustaining. She moves forward in a country that halfheartedly attempts to unmire itself from certain traditions. She is highly esteemed and well-respected in the francophone world. An idea strikes me.

The lecture is over and the students begin leaving the classroom to stand in the sun. I reach into my backpack and pull out a copy of Douceurs du bercail and then a black Sharpie marker. I rehearsed the French in my brain while waiting for a free moment with Madame Sow.

In Senegal, the married name immediately follows the given name, and the maiden name moves to the end.

She walks toward the back of the classroom. With a book in one hand and a marker in the other, I stand up and approach her.

Excusez-moi de vous deranger 

It’s no trouble at all she says, all Frenchlike.

Est-ce je peux avoir votre autographe?

It would be my pleasure.

I hand her the book and the marker, because I thought she would write on the inside cover, but instead she asks for a pen and tells me the marker would bleed through the page.

She asks my name, and I tell her. She inscribes, “To May, With all my affection.” Then she signs and dates it.

I thank her, and I walk out of the classroom. My feet still don’t touch the ground, but I love this sensation.

For the next two weeks (but really four), I say nothing in class. I’m shy and self-conscious, I listen and the African-effected French becomes a little easier to understand. The role of women in modern society. Polygamy and the role of family. The education system. The future of Senegal.

At the CIRLAC in Saint-Louis, Madame gathers us to take yet another photo de famille. Madame Fall passes by me, she mispronounces my name (like “my”), but I give her the benefit of the doubt because I have been silent and avoiding attention, plus she meets and knows so many people. I smile and say bonjour, and she continues to walk and shake other students’ hands. Then she returns to me and pronounces my name correctly and tells me that one of her granddaughters has a name of the former pronunciation. At this point my brain freezes the way it does when intimidating people talk to me, but I’m also absolutely elated, so I manage to squeak out something like “that’s very interesting” or “how cute” but all I really remember is that she remembered my name.

And that she might have my Sharpie.

Our Turn!

It’s Fathers Day. The rainy grey somehow  invites contemplation and gratitude for dads, and maybe even a nap later on.

Church today has made me think about Senegal again. (Everything makes me think about Senegal. This is going to last a while.) I knew that I wanted to describe the girls on our trip, and but I wanted to include this special day by saying there are some especially proud fathers of amazing daughters I’ve been blessed to meet and get to know. No doubt, you are happy fathers.

Awesome understates the quality of this group of girls. They are different and intelligent and confident, and I admired them in so many ways.

In addition to being a very enthusiastic French teacher, Britt will totally kick your trash playing soccer. She played with the guys when they competed against the village team, and she stole and swept and scrambled, and honestly, played a lot better than some of the guys. She also plays the violin and everything she does shows her love for life. A natural teacher, she’s emotionally generous. She listens well, she strives to understand others, and she shares her enthusiasm which heightens group dynamics.

Chelsey will argue you into the ground and tell you why she doesn’t like dogs sitting on couches. She’s very politically and socially aware, but she also appreciates good television. She has a pretty awesome scary story about her sister and their bunk bed that only she can tell with the best and greatest effect. She has strong opinions and even stronger convictions, and these definitely contribute to her excellent sense of humor. She was very fun to talk and listen to.  She also blessed our bus rides with Jolly Ranchers.

Even though she’s only 19, Chloe  she’s quick-witted, feisty, and a champion haggler. She’s also really easy to talk to and a fellow Floridian. She was my roommate, and I got hear stories about her best friends at BYU, shopping adventures, Canasta games with James, touring Saint-Louis on mopeds with James, studying with James, having James tell her he likes her, then dating James – the reason I call him “scandalous.” She’s very independent and strong-willed and way pretty, and if I were James, I’d want to date her, too.

If I could vote for a Most Congenial on the trip, I’d vote for Emily. She makes me happy with her ukulele, which she plays really well. She’s a fascinating,  and she wants to make the world a better place. She really could save the world with the things she wants to do with her life. She sang with the village children, and they made each other laugh and smile. Her friendly demeanor made her very approachable on the streets of Dakar. Also, she likes Ingrid Michaelson.

Grace is sick with her French skills and general cheeriness. Her French has a perfect French lilt and her eyes are kind and her face seems to be in a permanent smile. She can express herself in abstracts and have real conversations in French, and she can sort of really bust a move, African style. I often wondered on the trip if she was for real, and she often intimidated me. The more I watched her, the more I realized I was a little jealous. The good kind. Anyway, she’s cool, and she’s friends with another cool girl I know, Camille. Small world.

If anything could make me think about my life and think about my choices, it’s Kylie. She  could not possibly be funnier or more brilliant. She had it rough with various diseases inflicted upon her during the trip, but she kept on writing and reading voraciously and ranting hilariously but also she kept not eating because eating made her sick and Madame kept asking at mealtime, Kylie mange? And Kylie would answer, oui, which meant sort of but not really. I can’t get enough of her.

I once told Melanie that she was my préférée. Then she asked if it was because she’s so much taller than I. Then I told her it’s not the only reason. I mean, she’s 6’1″, which I think is awesome, but she’s also very sweet and kind, and I can forgive her for singing Justin Bieber. She’s positive and thoughtful and can also sing better than Justin Bieber, because her range runs from bass to soprano, whereas little Justin only sings soprano. Also, this girl can dance like nobody’s business.

My first real memory of Mindy was during our prep class last semester. She commented on an African film we had to watch about a shark and a griot, and I was impressed with what she had to say. Then she gave me some kids’ clothes to put in my suitcase to donate to the village kids, and she was very friendly. My most dominant memory of Mindy is her laugh, which is incredible and infectious. I want to laugh when I hear her laugh, because whatever she’s laughing at has to be funny. I like funny.

One day, Natalie and I went exploring on the stinky fisherman island and had  an amazing experience. She has a holy curiosity and a very gentle manner. She’s really easy to get along with. She always had her camera, and her pictures are really stunning. The people of Senegal are really beautiful anyway, but somehow looking at Natalie’s pictures you felt you understood them better.   Also, she arm-wrestled Madame Thompson, and maybe she could have totally won.

Rebecca makes up one-half of one of the coolest married couples in the world. She will probably be the nicest lawyer you will ever know. Except when you try to mess with her. She was the one who massaged my neck when I had a headache, and she also strongly sympathized with those who thought vacation didn’t consist of writing a 6-8 page paper or studying for a midterm. She also shared some Sour Patch Kids with me during a supremely long and boring colloquium and I wanted to scream, but Madame was sitting next to me so I had to behave.

There was the time at JFK when Sarah asked to borrow nail clippers, then we became friends. Then she told the story about how she almost died, but she didn’t, and I felt it was because we were meant to be friends. Then somebody was in love with her.  But not Ablaye. Then she tried coaxing a goat to commit suicide. Then she has the most amazing doodles in her notebook I have ever seen. She sings well, but that’s not why I forgive her for singing Justin Bieber. Also, we’re real-life friends. We’ve hung out twice already.

One day on a boat, it was hot and we were on the lookout for hippos and crocodiles, and Stephanie closed her eyes, trying to will away sickness. She has lean, muscular arms that I covet. She’s best friends with Melanie. She once looked at my feet and told me they were little, which I considered more a compliment than an observation. She exudes kindness and easily loves people. She also has a very scary story, but it’s about babysitting, and it made a table of girls scream at dinnertime.

These girls’ lives pay tribute to their fathers, and I wonder how my life reflects upon my dad.

I’m really grateful for the experience of my dad being my dad. Our relationship has taught me the value of work and cleanliness and being orderly and considerate of other people’s time. The strains in our relationship have shown me the different ways the Atonement works: how to forgive, how to find comfort and move forward with life. I’ve learned not to be angry, but instead to have compassion and sympathy and to be a better communicator. He does not even know, and I don’t see the point in telling him. It would only sink him deeper into his life riddled with surgeries and loneliness and merciless cycles of self-pity. He’s my dad. I love him.

It was good talking with him today. I told him about school and Africa, and he told me about the missionaries visiting and his reading the scriptures more. We’re still working out kinks in communication, but things are a lot better than they used to be. I want him to be well and be happy, and I know he did the best he knew how as a father. But what impresses me most is that he’s still trying. He is always sincere with his intentions, and I’ve always felt his love and support. I’m grateful for his discipline, for his hard work, for the sacrifices he made for his family. I’m grateful for his tickling me until I couldn’t breathe and packs of M&M’s my brother and I shared and fudgecicles he bought on his way home from work. I’m grateful for cursive and multiplication tables and spelling bees and band. I’m grateful that he introduced my mom to the church and guided our family on a path to happiness. Those are all significant dad things, and I’m so blessed that my dad did those things for me. I’m grateful that my Heavenly Father gave me the dad I have. I wouldn’t be the person I am now without him.

Answers to Tuesday’s Quiz

Sometimes I forget that not everyone knows what I’m talking about on this blog. Sometimes I’m so much inside of my own head and use this blog to express ideas and feelings without providing any background. One of the best parts about the trip was the group we traveled with. Everyone got along, and there was no drama. Not really. The guys added balance and amusement and a sense of safety. Surely it would help you to know the guys from our trip better if pictures accompanied their descriptions. Plus, you’ll get to see boubous! If you took the quiz from Tuesday, see how well you scored. Unlike some exams over the five-week study abroad, this little quiz should have taken no more than five minutes.

1. Andrew

c. LOVES SWIMMING; married but not obnoxious about it; enjoys giving boys backrubs; barfed for 5 hours starting at 2:30 one morning. He and his wife shared the sweet story about how they met and courted and got married. This guy is learning Arabic to add to his lingual repertoire of English and French. Very funny and mild-mannered, but will walk out of a class if it gets ridiculously long and pointless. This did happen, and I’m grateful to him for it.

 

 

2. Brayden

e. Enjoys putting frogs in girls’ hotel rooms; also totally French kissed a dead fish; beat my boyfriend at arm wrestling. The first time Brayden really talked to me he was sitting next to me at the gate at JFK while we waited to board the plane to Dakar. He was observing a young man flirt with a young woman and said that she was way too pretty for him. He reminds me of my brother in all of the good ways.

 

 

3. Daryl

a. Is the best male tribal dancer in the village (out of the Toubabs); tells GREAT stories; some people (one girl named Kylie) think he looks like Voldemort. He was sick the day the group photo above was taken. Also, I’ll let you imagine the resemblance to Voldemort. That seems more fun. Very soft-spoken, incredibly intelligent man. He loves puns. He presided over our church meetings and brought the spirit in a class on our last day together. I do have video footage of him dancing. I might post that one of these days.

4. Henry

b. Watched an IV spurting blood FROM HIS OWN ARM; acted as chaperone for the professors; hates papaya; read lots of books in English on the trip. Son of Daryl. If there’s a man-woman professor team on the study abroad, it’s policy for a spouse to come along. Neither spouse of M. Lee nor Mme Thompson could come, so Henry came instead. He’s 17. He got to miss his last month of his junior year. And probably one of the most upstanding youths I have ever met. He got to experience first-hand the Senegal hospital system. He won’t ever forget it.

 

 

5. James

h. Is a snazzy dresser with skinny jeans and a fanny pack; quite the Canasta player; known by some as “Ginger Balls”.  Just so you know, that is not my name for him. I call him “Scandalous James” because he started dating a girl on the trip when one of the explicit rules is “no dating.” The official status didn’t emerge until the last week of the trip, but everyone watched it develop. James is smart and insightful and notices little things. He’s righteous and ever-helpful and likes to have fun.

 

 

6. Miles

d. LOVES AMERICA SO MUCH AND LETS EVERYONE KNOW; shaved his beard but left his mustache and sexy throat scruff one day. Miles has an opinion about everything, and I think that’s great. He loves Coke. He’s good company; he loves to talk and the way he associates things in his brain is fascinating. He’s a very patient and enduring man. I often wondered what Miles was thinking about lectures or meals or the plans of the day. He wanted to stage a friendly coup against staying at our interesting hotel in Saint-Louis our first morning there.

 

 

7. Ryan

f. Dazzles women with his purple boubou; gave the beggar boys a lesson on the worth of work by hiring them to clean up Saint-Louis. Ryan is sort of a conundrum. Somewhat quiet, has an interesting sense of humor and a distinct laugh. He’s an athletic guy, and he doesn’t flaunt his intelligence. His wheels turn, and I’ve often wanted to get him to open up. But part of the conundrum was that his attractiveness intimidated me, and I didn’t talk to him as much as I wanted. Silly, I know.

 


8. Spencer

g. Is a very reliable tenor; also asks questions to perpetuate an already 3-hour-long lecture because he’s sometimes too smart for his own good. Very persistent in several ways, one of which I definitely won’t mention here. Has a very spongy brain. Spencer is very easy to talk to and he talks to people easily. He made friends with a guy whom I considered his Senegalese twin. Skinny, alert, friendly, full of big ideas and hope for happiness. He was in my 321 class, and I’m glad I got to know him better on this trip.