I’ve been having a hard time being by myself for a few months now. It started out as this sort of weird feeling, an uncharacteristic thirst for human contact.
I haven’t always been this way, either. I remember my junior fall (September – December 2015) as a time when I truly felt at peace being alone, in no one else’s company but my own. I had forced myself in ways to develop a decent rapport with my other selves, and in a way I had begun to embrace parts of my identity I had thoroughly but ineffectively tried to stow away. Nonetheless, as the semester drew to a close, and as my stomach began to knot up around itself, I started to have this sort of weird desire to be around people. It was I suppose when I was in Senegal when I began to become aware of it. Set adrift in a new country ruled by a foreign tongue, I began to find the presence of my American classmates oddly refreshing in contrast to the sensory bombardment all around me. I at first moaned about having to get up every morning at 7:45 in order to make it to school on time, my mind remembering in small the agonies of high school, but I found the subsequent eight hours I would spend at our house-cum-campus nice and comforting. Even if at times I was distant or removed from class, my mind elsewhere, I still found solace in the presence of other Americans, with whom I could speak freely without pre-thinking, without rehearsing a list of cultural and linguistic considerations.
I would not say that I clung to my friends in Dakar, but I would say that the amount of time I spent around them was markedly different from the amount of human contact I had at school the semester prior. I could go a couple of days without spending a large amount (more than a half an hour) with someone, and I was fine with it. I woke up alone, went to lunch alone, went to study alone, and went to bed alone. I had grown accustomed to this routine, and it had been beneficial for my mental health, to such an extent that I began to wonder if I really was this sort of reclusive hermit of a person, the kind who cringed at the touch of a familiar, who found nothing more loathsome than being in a room full of drunk people of their age.
A lot has happened in the past few months, and I haven’t really been talking about myself or my time abroad in this blog. Well, in my other blog. Last night I sort of hastily bought a domain and switched to WordPress. I wasn’t impressed with Tumblr, and thought that the social networking aspect of Tumblr would help to get my ideas out there, or to find other bloggers like me. I have realized that this is actually far harder than I thought. There is a certain kind of content on Tumblr which is popularized and shared and quite frankly I don’t produce that kind of content. So I moved to WordPress and hope that I do not regret the decision.
As you may know, I am in Dakar right now. I have only a month left here, and I’m quite honestly excited to be back in the United States. Being here has made me realize a lot about myself. 1) I am a fearful person 2) and that is okay. 3) We are not all the same and some of us take on life’s challenges differently than others 4) and that is okay. 5) We must listen to our bodies 6) but we must not be made into their prisoners.
I’ve been having stomach issues on and off for a year now. Conveniently, the issues began to get a lot worse just weeks before I left for Dakar. I remember the taxi ride into Paris on my layover being especially traumatic because I was quite certain I was going to vomit in the taxi driver’s car. I luckily didn’t, but the shadow of my afflictions sort of ruined my time in Paris with my friend, and continue to affect my time here in Senegal.
These stomach issues have, however, brought me closer to God. I have always believed in a divine power, but have a hard time with the very concept of a God. I questioned how I could keep God in my life while also embracing science and reason, two things which we are raised — erroneously — to believe to be at odds with religion. I am still skeptical of organized religion, just as I am skeptical of the historical implications of the Bible, but as I have been dealing with these issues, I have discovered that having faith in God and in surrendering all of my worry, all of my fear, and all of my anguish to Him, I am able to focus more on what is essential, and that is, ultimately, his plan. I am perhaps too superstitious to rule out the existence of God, for I believe that all things are connected, and that there is someone watching over us, pulling the strings.
Senegal is a country of green, beige and blue. Dakar overlooks the ocean, and one can peer out over the water in the direction of the United States and the New World from the Old World’s westernmost point. Dakar is a modernizing city, and has all of the issues which modern Western cities must face. As I walk down the street to the University, past the busy avenues where thirty-year old taxis buzz to and fro, the smog which these cars produces makes my face itch and my nostrils burn. When a particularly old truck passes by a crowded bus stop, expelling a toxic cloud of fumes from its exhaust, the Senegalese pinch their noses and continue with their conversations.
I have been exploring the city more this past week, mostly because I have been in better health. I find that I need to take advantage of these bouts of wellness while I still can, before I get another spell of chronic nausea and intestinal unease, keeping me sequestered away and unwilling to go out and live my life. Every day last week I went somewhere new, and most of the times I went alone. I am often so fearful of being by myself in new environments, but find comfort in comfortable isolation. My friend’s words ring in my head every day I am here: “Get comfortable being uncomfortable.”
March was good to me. Besides the abdominal cramping and doctor’s visits — which I had to pay out of pocket for — I received fellowship after fellowship, securing my spot at the University of North Carolina @ Chapel Hill for the summer, as well as the prestigious Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship. I had applied last year and was rejected, and felt completely defeated for several weeks. I for a second questions whether or not I wanted to continue on this path to academia, but after contemplation, I realized that the academy could benefit from my presence and my research, and that I have much to offer the world. With some refocusing and re-calibration — and much needed assistance from my now-fellow Mellons — I was able to get the fellowship and feel redeemed again.
I am ready to start my senior year of college and be back at Swarthmore, but I am also looking forward to meeting new people at UNC. I am trying to remain present in Dakar and to take advantage of what’s left of my time here, but between my independent research project, my thesis proposal and the preparations for my summer program, I have had a hard time remaining here. I am finding myself frequently distracted and turning inward and I’m not really sure why that is.
My French skills have improved, but not in the ways that I would have liked. It was foolish of me to expect that I would be fluent by the time I left Senegal, and while I am closer to fluency than I had been prior to arriving, I still feel as though my French skills have a long way to go before they reach a satisfactory level of “mastery.” Before I had a hard time hearing and understanding French, and this issue is long gone, although I still have moments where I confuse phrases and have my fair share of misunderstandings. I am perhaps less confident in my French speaking skills, but at the same time, I probably speak more fluidly and coherently than I did before.
The next few weeks will likely fly by, as did this one. Before I know it, I will be setting off for the airport, to say goodbye to this country for what may be a long time. I know that I will return one day, but I am just not sure when. When I do, I hope that I am in a better state — both physically and mentally — to take advantage of all Dakar has to offer, and then some.