When I was in Senegal, I came down with my first bout of chronic gastritis. I am able to name that mystery ailment of stomach cramps and perpetual nausea only in hindsight. When I was there – not to the discredit of the fine Senegalese doctors I saw – I had no idea what was causing me everyday distress in my bowels. From the moment I woke up until I glided into sleep that night, I bore discomfort in my chest, my stomach and my throat. The first few weeks were awkward for me. I was the only boy in the program, but was no longer able to perform the quintessentially masculine mastery over my body. I was distraught, constantly uncomfortable, belching slow, endless burps from an empty stomach, all as I gripped my stomach and responded to questions in my practiced, if a bit inflexible, French. The other students in the cohort pitied me and would offer me anything they had that might soothe my problem. Before the first week was through, my parents and I were discussing the possibility of me withdrawing from my program in Dakar. “I’m not mentally present,” I told them, almost crying as I clutched my distended belly on the red leather coach in the back of our school building. “I don’t think I can do this.”
As you may know, I didn’t withdraw from SIT Senegal. Rather, I sank into a paranoiac life. I began hoarding spicy ginger candies that I could buy for 15 CFA at a little stand around the corner from our school. I would eat at least five or six of these everyday, at any moment when I began to feel queasy and uneasy. I never didn’t have one with me, and I knew exactly which ones I liked (I did not care for the pineapple ones). I wasn’t as adventurous as I would have liked to have been, mainly because I was young, anxious and undeniably foreign, but also because I didn’t know when my body would suddenly turn on me and start calling the shots. I often lived vicariously through the freer women in my program, half-wanting to go with them to eat sandwiches prepared at the dodgy sidewalk café, but always content, nevertheless, in my croque monsieur, my dried mango and my digestive cookies.
There was a girl in my program who left Senegal. Unlike me, she came down with something while we were there. Perhaps it was from food she’d eaten; an apple or orange she hadn’t properly sanitized with eau de javel or an ill-placed, ill-sipped glass of local water served at a restaurant, or her own body rebelling against her because it could. Needless to say, this girl had the fortitude to leave Senegal in the middle of the program, much to the shock of the employees of our program. The director shook his head in disbelief when he told us that no one had ever left the program, not even years prior when the ebola outbreak struck West Africa and stalled study abroad applications. I won’t go into the details about this girl, but I will note that nearly everyone had grown tired of her literal belly-aching by the time she actually departed. She complained ceaselessly about her perpetual nausea, her inability to name and thus fix her problem, and her unending fear of eating anything. She wanted, desperately, to be home with her parents, not because they could fix the problem (her parents, if I recall, were therapists) but because home is where comfort lies. Being sick abroad is absolutely terrible. You can take my word for it, as someone who felt they would vomit any minute while sulking about the Panthéon.
I bring up this anecdote for a couple of reasons: 1) to give some context for what I’m currently dealing with (or trying to deal with) 2) to underline a key point which I’ll make in this post 3) to draw a picture of what it feels like to be in this body.
I bring up this anecdote – of Senegal and the girl who left – because I remember being asked by one of the students after the girl left halfway through our program, whether or not I had overcome my own gastric woes. The question was posed to me after everyone (myself included, I must concede) ragged on the girl [in an admittedly harsh manner] about her endless complaining. I told my friend that my condition hadn’t improved, a response she undoubtedly wasn’t expected. Her face lit up with shock and pity, but I did not accept it.
“My condition hasn’t improved much at all. I just stopped talking about it.”Continue reading “The Chicken and the Egg”
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.
Three years ago, if you asked me what I would be minoring in, I probably would have said History or Black Studies or even Film Studies. I most likely wouldn’t have said… French?
I’ve been studying French for two years now. My first semester at Swarthmore I did not take a French class and sort of just trained myself using all sorts of online resources. I was able to skip the first level of Intensive First-year French from learning the language in a way which to me can only be described as inorganic. Computerized voices uttered words which to me sounded more like garbled tv noise than human language. Questions, likely generated randomly, tested how well I could put together the jagged, undefined pieces of the puzzle which was my comprehension of French grammar and syntax. Rote memorization of words which were ciphers for English.