Senegal Sundays

Whenever I hear the song of a bird
or look at the blue, blue sky
Whenever I feel the rain on my face
or the wind as it rushes by
Whenever I touch a velvet rose
or walk by a lilac tree
I’m glad that I live in the beautiful world
Heavenly Father created for me.

He gave me my eyes that I might see
the color of butterfly wings
He gave me my ears that I might hear
the magical sound of things
He gave me my life, my mind, my heart
I thank him reverently
for all his creations of which I’m a part
Yes, I know Heavenly Father loves me.

Someone played this song on the piano during church yesterday. I cried.

I can’t stop thinking about Senegal. Not that I would want to.

Sundays were special, because that’s when we held church. We were the only group of our kind holding the kind of service our church holds. It was us and a lone family who lives in Dakar, the Smylies. When we’re not there, it’s just the Smylies, in their home. We were glad to spend two Sundays together with them.

The first Sunday was our arrival in Dakar. We agreed to have church in the conference room of the hotel at 2pm, after getting some rest. It was also the first Sunday of the month, which means testimony meeting.

I don’t think I’ve ever been to a church meeting so small. We sang hymns in French, we prayed in French; we passed the sacrament around the conference table.

Church in French when one doesn’t know the language well takes extra concentration. The rest of the meeting was spent bearing testimonies. I listened hard. People got emotional, and perhaps the more intentional focus helped me to feel the Spirit. I wrote in my journal at the time that the Spirit is stronger in French. I know if I put as much mental and emotional effort into an English church meeting, I could have the same experience. As classmates bore their testimonies, I couldn’t contain my tears. I knew the next five weeks would change me.

We toured Dakar after church. Madame Thompson led us down city streets and past markets and various restaurants. We took pictures and wandered for two hours, dodging occasional vendors and walking through neighborhoods. A little boy gave me a tap cinq.

We ended up in a restaurant where the program paid for the meal. It was a strange meal with strangely plated foods with beef or fish and brown sauce with either rice or millet. It tasted fine, but other people were a little bit squeamish about the meal. I shared some of my rice with Sarah, because the millet with its strange sauce tasted like strangeness. The tv broadcasted lutte, which is a type of wrestling and the most popular sport in Senegal.

Then, the power went out.

The second Sunday was Mother’s Day. The Smylies invited us to their home for church and brunch. They have a piano and we sang hymns with accompaniment. There was a special musical number by Melanie and Stephanie. Stephanie and Spencer gave excellent talks. Brunch was amazing with quiche and scones and fresh fruit and cake and delicious juices. I had been looking forward to it all week. People gathered around the piano and sang hymns. I played with the Smylies’ toddler. Their home was beautiful and clean and they were gracious. I got to speak to them about a common NYC friend, Ned. They love Ned, as everyone does.

This would be last time we’d see the Smylies on our trip. After an hour or so, we shook hands and gave thanks and boarded our trusty white school bus.

We went to an orphanage.

It was Mother’s Day.

We waved and smiled at the kids, and they smiled as us. Sometimes they were shy. We walked through buildings where they slept. Sometimes kids peeked around corners and I waved. I tried to imagine my life without parents, and my heart became heavy.

We stood outside, and a group of children stood facing us, and they taught us a version of “If you’re happy and you know it.” Their rendition uses joy in one’s heart and then shouting “Merci, Dieu” on the last verse. Those children were happy, and they knew they didn’t have to be unhappy, and I wanted for them to have even more happiness. I prayed it for them as I whispered through a tight throat, “Merci, Dieu.”

The following Sunday, the 15th, was our first in Saint-Louis, an old town in northern Senegal. I said the opening prayer for sacrament meeting that day. Don’t ask if I wrote it down and memorized it, because I won’t answer you.

I wrote this in my journal that day, in actual English:

“I’m thinking about capitalism and governments and organizations that promote and educate and encourage. I wonder if any of these institutions wil ever synchronize. I saw a news headline that said that Mitt Romney thinks ‘Obamacare’ will result in a complete government takeover of healthcare. This is such a huge issue in the United States, and elsewhere in the world people struggle with clean water and good schools.

“Schools! Why aren’t all the kids in school and not off the streets? This is a problem everywhere, but when little beggar boys wander around at night asking me for money and/or food, it’s very disheartening.

“How is this trip strengthening my faith? How is it touching my heart? It certainly enrages me in several ways.

“Dinner was lovely. Conversation was fun, though we got gently chided for talking in English.

“I think I’m gaining weight, which is totally lame.

“Another week is over. That’s so hard to believe. Yet, in some ways, I can’t wait to go home.”

Then, in French:

“Where is my heart? What do I love? How do I understand people? How do I devote my life to God?

“I don’t know how to read more quickly. Continue. Persevere. My brain is broken. Please, help me to fix it.”

We spent another Sunday in Saint-Louis, the 22nd. Those in the loop know this date is my birthday. Before sacrament, Madame Thompson announced there would be a “surprise” after church. Professor Lee’s birthday was on the 2nd, and Andrew’s birthday was on the 20th, and there was talk about having a combined birthday party for the May birthdays.

After church we met downstairs in the lobby of the hotel, and Madame Thompson led us into the restaurant, where tables were decorated with confetti and stars and little angel figurines. There were delicious drinks that I know the names of but I do not know how to spell. And then, there was cake. And three candles. And “Joyeux Anniversaire” piped in frosting and Professor Lee, Andrew and I blowing out the candles.

And then the cake was something like tiramisu. I don’t want to say for certain.

After cake, everyone who bought a boubou posed for pictures.

Then we strolled the town for our last Sunday in Saint-Louis.

Also, there was studying for an Anthropology midterm, but we can gloss over that.

Sunday the 29th, we rode a fancy, air-conditioned charter bus from a nice hotel in the middle of nowhere to another nice hotel in Saly, Senegal. (I will tell you another time about the hell-hole hotel in the middle of nowhere prior to the nice hotel in the milieu de nulle part. It was so many types of awesome.)

I took a nap on the bus and woke up with the worst headache ever. I drank some water, and I tried going back to sleep. It hurt so bad I turned my head toward the window and away from my dear friend, Kylie, and cried. Probably for a solid twenty minutes. Then I calmed down and Kylie shared cartoons on her iPod with me.

We arrived at the nicest hotel I have ever, ever, ever, ever stayed. Church was going to be at 6pm, and since it was our last Sunday together, it was also going to be a testimony meeting, in addition to Andrew speaking. Since it was a testimony meeting, and since it was the last one, the culmination of all our experiences in the past month, and since I already had a headache, and since classmates were saying beautiful and touching things and men were crying and I knew them so much better than I did just a month before – their spirits and their hearts – I sobbed the entire meeting.

This did not make my head feel better. At all. However, I was sitting next to Andrew’s wife Rebecca, and I told her I had a headache. That was when she placed her fingers at the base of my skull and applied a moderate, massaging pressure, and I felt instant relief. I had given shoulder rubs to eight or so people on the trip (because that’s how I make friends), and thought nothing of being touched in return, because I know not everyone is touchy, but this was what I needed. Also, Excedrin.

Then Sunday, June 5, I didn’t go to church because I was too busy being on a plane over the Atlantic Ocean. So yesterday was my first Sunday at church back in the United States. I thought about the part of the world I’ve been blessed to see and experience in Senegal. I reflected on its beauty and richness of culture. I brought my French scriptures to church yesterday, and I thought especially of the children and how much God loves them. How they seem to know. I want to keep a deeper, more meaningful focus, and the eyes of the children are my lens. Their innocence, not just in French, not just in Africa. They are the difference I will never forget, happiness unrestrained and nondiscriminating. I spent five Sundays all over Senegal to realize, to see with utmost clarity, that God truly loves us all.

Merci, Dieu.

4 thoughts on “Senegal Sundays

  1. MAY, I just accidentally deleted what I had written. Know this: I’m glad we got to experience Senegal Sundays together, this blog post was beautiful, you are a fantastic writer, and I really really like the detail you put into everything (including your photos – awesome!).

    I get to step back into Senegal for a few hours on my way back home. I’ll say hello for you 🙂

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