Finding Grace In Africa

Happy Monday! I hope your weekend was rejuvenating and restful. Sharing about my experience in Senegal yesterday went surprisingly well! When I have to speak in public, I sometimes get blindsided by nerves and have a hard time forming sentences, but I was as cool as a cucumber and I got some great feedback from people after I spoke. A friend of mine asked to see what I shared, so I decided to post it here with some pictures. I hope you enjoy!

Finding Grace in Africa

When I was asked to speak about my semester in Senegal, I was not entirely sure if it was a good idea. It’s been over two years since I left returned from my semester abroad, and as I started thinking about what I would say, I realized how far away that actually feels. What could I possibly have to say now, nearly two and half years later, that could be of interest?

As I looked back through pictures and tried to think of something intelligible to say, I decided that it was important for me to focus my sharing on a couple of themes from my time in Senegal. Yes, I could talk about all of the day-to-day quirks about my semester in Africa, but I wanted to use this time as an opportunity to think about what I truly got from this experience. What did I take with me that still affects me this far down the road?

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Where I attended college, involvement in a study abroad program was a graduation requirementAlthough other programs are accepted as alternatives, most students participate in the college’s own program, known as study service term, or SST.  The structure of SST is simple: a group of students, usually about 20, travels to a foreign country with one or two leaders, usually professors, to live, work, and study for three months. The first 6 weeks are the study portion, where the students all live with host families in one city and attend school together. During the second 6 weeks, students are spread throughout the country and placed to work in some type of organization. Along the way, assignments and journal entries are collected and there is a substantial paper and presentation due at the end of the semester on a topic of your choosing.

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For the study portion of SST, I lived with a family of seven. I had four younger sisters (ages 3, 5, 9, and 12), a teenaged cousin who lived with us, and a host mom and dad. My host mom stayed home while I my host dad worked as as a Baptist pastor and helped translate the Bible into the languages of various ethnic groups in the area. During the service portion of SST, I shared a host family with another student from my group. We had two sisters aged 2 and 4, and our dad was also a pastor while our mom stayed home. For my service assignment, I worked in a center that provided breakfast to street children, called talibe, which was housed in a school for the deaf operated by Canadian missionaries.

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When I first got to Senegal, not-so-fresh off the plane and bleary-eyed, several things struck me. Well, actually, everything struck me. I don’t know what I had imagined, but Senegal was not what I imagined. Initially, the obvious differences in lifestyle were glaringly apparent. Animals wandering the streets, mosquito nets over beds, clothes hand-washed and hung out to dry, and the like all seemed new and exciting. As the days passed, however, the novelty of these things wore off. I grew accustomed to seeing them, and it was no longer noteworthy for a taxi to stop in the road for a herd of goats. Although the daily differences in Senegal grew somewhat mundane, the attitude of the Senegalese people that I encountered continued to amaze me for the entirety of the semester.

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One substantial difference that I observed in Senegal almost immediately was the way that Senegalese people truly live in and value the present moment. In Senegal, when you are somewhere, you are all there. In the complex and beautiful greeting process in which Senegalese people engage, one part of the greeting includes the exchange of “Where are you?” and the response “I am here only.” The significance of the greeting process in and of itself is indicative of the importance of each moment. I would be watching my host mom converse with a friend, thinking that surely they were nearing the end of their conversation, only to realize that they had just gotten past the greeting stage.

Senegalese people spend inordinate amounts of time greeting one another, something that reflects the attention they give to each moment of their day and each person they encounter. To them, nothing is more important than what is currently happening and nobody is more important than the people around them. There does not seem to be such a concept as wasted time. Returning to American society, I had a hard time adjusting to the distracted nature of our culture. I missed the Senegalese routines of lengthy greetings, drinking tea for two or three hours in the afternoon, and spending hours preparing meals and eating together.

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If you are invited to spend a meal with somebody, you are expected to do so. If you are at someone’s house when attaya, the tea ceremony carried out daily, is performed, you are welcome and expected to participate. Even if you have other plans, the people you are currently with are given priority. It is not acceptable or understood to rush from one engagement to another, and day planners would baffle most Senegalese people. They may have plans, but timelines are practically nonexistent. Things take as long as they take, and caring for others is always more important than time.

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A few weeks after I arrived in Senegal, I encountered a conflict between Senegalese and American expectations. We students always had a break for lunch in our school day, and it was not expected of us to return home to lunch, although our host families came home every day and ate together as a family. A group of students would usually go to a bakery or cafe during our break and run various errands around town instead. This was fine, until my host mom found out that we were not being fed at school. I could tell that she felt bad about not providing me with lunch, and she insisted that I begin coming home during my lunch time to eat with the family. At first, I was trepidatious. I thought of how much I would miss out by not being with my classmates during lunch, and when I would do all of the things I needed to do, like go to the post office or buy souvenirs. I spent a few days trying to figure out how I could let my host mom down easy before I had a significant realization. The post office did not matter. Running errands did not matter. Hanging out with my college friends did not matter as much as spending time with my family, with whom I had such a short, finite time to begin with.

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I made the decision at that moment to try to live as the Senegalese do, to return home for lunch and eat with them, and to be wholly present in that experience. It was one of the best choices I made in Senegal, as I got to spend hours with my family that I would never trade for the feeling of accomplishment associated with making it to the post office on my lunch break. I made a choice at that time to accept the fact that my mom wanted me home for lunch and to spend my break with people rather than doing things.

My mom wanted to offer me the gift of food, and I am thankful that I accepted it graciously rather than dwelling on the importance of two hours to myself. Senegalese accept and welcome those around them more than any group of people I have encountered, something I learned to admire greatly.

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This attitude of acceptance carries into other areas as well. There was a degree of respect for one another, an acknowledgement of our value as human beings, that never ceased to amaze me. In a country where most people practice Islam and Christian groups are few, there are hardly any conflicts between religions. If my host sisters and I were sent on an errand to fetch tea or eggs from a shop, we would patiently and respectfully wait while the shop-owner finished his Islamic prayers. If my host mom and I were conversing outside and the call to prayer from the nearby mosque interrupted us (it was deafening), we waited for the call to finish without griping about the intrusion into our conversation whatsoever. 

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The Senegalese people that I encountered truly accepted me as a stranger and foreigner in their land. I was embraced with a form of hospitality that I have never encountered before, and which I doubt I will encounter again. I was welcomed into the country with open arms. My host family showed me patience and tolerance when I made mistakes with the language or customs. My mom loved me even when I accidentally used my left hand to do something or made another cultural faux pas, and when I did a poor job of hand washing clothing because I had not quite nailed the technique yet. In all honesty, I never nailed the technique. Through all of this, my host mom showed me true grace day in and day out.

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During one of my first weeks with my family, in a classic case of miscommunication, I accidentally told my mom to have fun at a funeral. I was new to the language and all I managed to glean from my mom before I left for school that day was that she and my dad were going to Dakar. I enthusiastically told her to have fun. She just smiled sweetly and told me to have a good day. It was only later that I found out, through our Senegalese liaison, that my parents had been at a funeral that day, most likely not having very much fun. I knew from my mom’s response to my misunderstanding, a caring smile, that she was offering me the grace that I imagine Jesus would offer a confused foreigner like myself.   

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While working in a school for deaf children during my service assignment, communication was especially challenging. Not only was there a French-English language barrier, but there was the added dimension of sign language. I was amazed at how patient and eager to learn the students were. They were eager to learn from me, somebody who was new to their country and did not even speak their language. Although the students and I both became overwhelmed and irritated at times, I never saw them lose patience with me, the ignorant “teacher”. They accepted me and enthusiastically learned whatever I was able to teach them.

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Miscommunications were, of course, a regular occurrence throughout my entire semester in Senegal. I spent most of my time following my host mom around like a puppy, never knowing with certainty where we were going or what we were about to do. She patiently explained things to me again and again, never losing the look of warmth and love that permanently adorned her face.IMG_3496

Not only did my family show me endless grace and forgiveness, they also treated me as one of their own almost immediately. I became a member of the Ndione family as soon as I arrived, and I was given the name Diouma to show that I was a part of the family. They included me in everything, from everyday trips to the market to tailoring commemorative clothing for a special event. I helped cook meals and get my sisters ready for school in the morning, walking hand-in-hand with them each day. By the end of my time with my host family, I felt a bond that I had never imagined possible, especially with people who were strangers to me weeks before.

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After the service portion of SST and before I headed back to the US, I stopped in to visit my family. It had been over six weeks since I had seen them, and I was just hoping for a quick hello before we left. When I walked in the door, my three year old host sister leapt up from her place on the floor and jumped into my arms with unparalleled enthusiasm. My other host sister told me that I could put my purse in my bedroom. I clarified that it was no longer my bedroom, but she just smiled at me and said, “It is always your bedroom.” My family and I ate a wonderful final meal together, strangers no more but members of one family.

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In this country, we spend a lot of time labeling things. Gluten is bad. Exercise is good. Spending money is bad. Saving money is good. Wasting time is bad. Getting things done is good. Sugar is bad. Vegetables are good. Television is bad. Reading is good. Muslims are bad. Christians are good. We categorize things to death, but does that help us accept these things for what they are and create harmony in our lives and the lives of others? Absolutely not. In Senegal, I saw an incredible ability of the people there to just let things be. If a cell phone ran out of minutes, it simply meant that we wouldn’t make any calls for a while. If we didn’t have running water for a day, we adapted. The people of Senegal experience difficulties just as any other people on Earth do, but I admire the grace and acceptance with which they see the people and circumstances that surround them. 

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Senegalese people live with a purpose and intention that I do not often see in the United States. When they decide to get new clothes, they take time selecting fabric, feeling the best texture and choosing one of the many beautiful designs available. Then, they go to a tailor and have their measurements taken, leaving the fabric for the tailor to complete in their own time. Things are not rushed. You get the outfit when you get it, and you are grateful for its completion when the tailor finishes. How often in our day to day life do we get angry, frustrated, and indignant about things beyond our control?

I remember an incident one day, during my first week in Senegal, that I was especially frustrated and angry about the situation that I found myself in. I was trying to use an internet cafe to make my first contact with home since leaving, and the internet was not working. Although that was mildly irritating, I was made more frustrated by the fact that I was having an unbelievably difficult time understanding the people in the cafe, and thus I did not know why it wasn’t working or whether it would work again soon. I was getting increasingly frustrated; I was frustrated with the computers, the people, and frustrated with Africa. I longed to be understood, to have things go my way. In retrospect, I see that the Senegalese people in the internet cafe were also trying to use the computer. Their communications were important, too, yet they did not seem nearly as exasperated about it as I was.IMG_3288

I realized how little I gained by being upset about my circumstances, and how much I could have gained had I used the opportunity to get to know the people around me a little bit better rather than drowning in my own annoyance. How often do we forget the humanity of others, choosing instead to remain rigid and unfaltering in our ways when we could be models of grace and love? We become impatient and frustrated, and we miss out on the beauty of life and of one another.IMG_4870

Looking back on my three months in Senegal, this is what I miss most. I miss the acceptance of people and of circumstances. I miss interacting with people and knowing that they saw me as perfectly human above all else, that they valued the time spent with me more than any errand they had to run. The dirt roads, the bucket showers, the cockroaches – those things were part of my experience, too, but they are not the most significant things that I have taken from my time in Senegal. I have taken away an appreciation for the gifts we are given. We can only live this life one day at a time, and the people of Senegal acknowledge that in a way that is filled to the brim with the grace of Christ.

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