Someone said to me at the end of opening night of our church Christmas musical, “How different from where you were a year ago!” And it’s true, Senegal feels like a dream sometimes. But in a way, I’m in a similar place now as I was a year ago. Last year in December, I was also trying to figure out a new life I had been thrust into. How to communicate with people, where I fit in, how to live.
How to communicate with people
During my first weekend back home, I went to a party with community members I’d known my whole life. I entered the party, and felt kind of frozen. First of all, I didn’t know how to greet everyone. Instinctually, I wanted to give everyone a handshake with a curtsy and go through a prescribed greeting, but it was so much more complicated than that. Each greeting seemed to have to be personal and different for each person. Who do you hug, who do you not hug? I didn’t know how to act. Mom said, “Just smile and act happy.” Some people didn’t know I had been away, and many wanted a quick version of how my year was. “Was it good?” “How good of you to go there.” “Wow, Julie’s back from Africa.” All I wanted to talk about was power and privilege, theology, language, climate change, the environment, what to do with all the plastic waste created in the world. It seemed that the people at the party wanted to talk about home renovations. I felt like there was glass between us all and I just wanted to break through it! I went to the snack table, eating out of my hand anxiously and with angst because I wasn’t about to go and get a little disposable plate and fork! To my relief, a church member and friend came up to me and told me about when she returned home after a long period overseas as a young woman. She said something like, “It seemed like no one understood, and it frustrated me. After a while, I understood that they couldn’t understand. They hadn’t had the same experience.” When she said that, I felt relief wash over me. Someone understood.
Now, in December, I have reached my cheery voice again (In Senegal people are more stoic in my experience). I am getting better at communicating with people and saying, “How are you?” “I’m good!”. I realize that it is not the worst thing to say, “I’m good!” in passing, even when I’m just feeling, “meh”. I am better at getting excited about pets again. When I first returned, and everyone seemed to be talking about pets all the time, I was like, “what??” because that was just not a thing in Senegal (You should have seen my host brother Pascal’s face when he saw an animal hospital during his visit here). I have not given up on the causes I care about, and many people here have gotten an earful of information and opinions from me. And they (you?) have all been so nice to me when I go off on a tangent, or say something that is considered strange. I have been supported ever since I’ve been back. One thing about being considered strange is that now I am more used to it, so it is not so bad.
Where I fit in
There were several factors that have made it interesting and sometimes challenging to figure out where I fit in since I’ve been back. I was happy to have church jobs secured, and happy to have a home secured with my parents. I had a job and a place. When I got to Senegal, I had a job and a placement, but I wasn’t sure what category I fit into, because I had traits of many different groups. How would people think of me? Child, adult, man, woman, white, volunteer/paid worker, guest, part of a family, temporary but also long-term? What was I? How did I fit into the makeup of my host family and community? Eventually people knew me, and I didn’t always feel out of place. Here, I am again waffling between child and adult. How do people perceive me? There are people here who have known me during different times in my life. Which box can I be put into? Silly, serious, kind, strict, bossy, indirect, direct, funny, awkward, wants help but doesn’t want to be viewed as helpless, intense, lackadaisical, pretty, not pretty, procrastinator, doer, thinker? What am I here? Why am I so many contradictory things? How am I supposed to present myself here?
At this point, I feel more comfortable about my role in the community here, but I also feel like I need to keep forging a way for myself. One of the most difficult is becoming an adult figure in my childhood home (/community), where I am single and live with my parents, but we are steadily getting there. We are supporting each other at our house, and we are all falling into roles in the house, learning each other again. It’s kind of like when a fishbowl gets picked up and set down again, all the particles have to get settled back into place. I am hoping to go back to further my education or do more service in the church, which will upset my fishbowl again, but when I lean on God, it makes it a lot easier.
How to live
When I returned home, I felt like I was in a dream world of air conditioning (which I didn’t like the feeling of at first; it felt so unnatural), supermarkets with anything and everything, even out of season, disposable water bottles, plates, silverware, cups at every event. I knew I wanted to reduce my carbon footprint, but it felt like I was drowning in a world that was insulated from the earth, and drowning the earth in the process. Germs were scary to everyone; everyone had individual cups to drink from. People seemed angered by inconveniences. There was so much un-needed STUFF in my room. There was such a big house to clean. Washing clothes was so easy; it didn’t take hours and muscles. I had wifi constantly (And I didn’t know a healthy way to deal with that). When I went out on a walk outside there was no one there until I got to a busy street, where people stared at me from their cars driving by. If there were people on the sidewalk, it was in special exercise clothes. Just like when I arrived in Senegal, I felt so different again. I felt isolated in the big house; I missed the little kids in my courtyard who would come hang out in my room every time they heard me playing guitar. Especially my host sister and brother, Cécile and Pascal. I would watch little videos of them on my phone and cry, just like I would watch videos of my Arizona family and cry when I got to Senegal. I had to come to an understanding that people around me did not understand, and could not, just like how people in my community in Senegal did not and could not understand my life and culture in Arizona.
Now, I have gotten into somewhat of a routine. Mom and I have made some zero-waste cleaning products at home. When we buy vegetables, we don’t put them in the little plastic baggies, and we are trying to eat less meat at our house. We also turn off our lights and appliances more diligently. I ride a bike to church and the store when I can and try to ride in the car as little as I can. This gives me more exercise and sunshine while also using less gas! I have a reusable water bottle that I take everywhere. I have a bed in the church garden, go swing dancing every Tuesday, and teach recorder lessons to my wonderful & wild neighborhood kids. I make my bed and read my devotions every morning, and get to voice my opinion in politics through calls and signing petitions. I get to cook creatively at home, and I have family and friends to hug every day. There is still a long way to go, and deadlines, cleaning, snacks and wifi are my weaknesses, but I have been improving, and getting into more of a routine. The eventual goal is to continue weaning myself off of excess and live a simple life where I use all my God-given gifts (and save the world 😉 ). But for now, my life is filled with people that I love and that love me. How did I get so lucky?
Thanks for reading! Love to all!
Some pictures of things I’ve been up to here: