Two days ago, I cried for the first time since leaving the States. It was because of something ridiculous. And although the honest assessment of my emotional state that the tears provoked wasn’t ridiculous, the triggering incident certainly was. Let me back up first, and recap the series of events that culminated with me sitting on the side of a deserted road, unable to control the rush of saline solution, tear lipocalin and lysozomes spilling from my eyes.
It started early in the morning. I trekked to the NGO “office,” where the only wi-fi/internet access in ‘Ndem lives. I was feeling slight pangs of homesickness, nothing that a quick Skype chat or email exchange couldn’t remedy. As luck would have it, all means of Internet access were down. “Oh this happens all the time,” the office coordinator informed me. “This is Africa, you have to be patient, it will come back eventually.” Two frustrating hours later, I was still unable to contact anyone over seas. I’ve never felt so far from home.
I left the office, and stepped out into the glaring sun. As I made my way back to my room, I had the distinct misfortune of running into at least five different people. I say misfortune only in the context of being in a fairly bad mood. You see, the Senegalese (particularly here in Ndem) are infinitely polite and friendly, and when one runs into an acquaintance the typical exchange goes as follows:
“Assalamu alaikum!” (Peace be with you).
“Waleikum-salam.” (Also with you).
“Ca va?” (Is everything going well)?
“Oui, ca va bien.” (Yes).
“Alhamdulillah!” (Thanks/praise be to God).
And so on and so forth-it is expected, to not comply would be considered odd, and certainly disrespectful. For the most part, I enjoy this interaction; it is typically warm and welcoming. Not then. I fought the urge to scream, “Ca ne vas pas du tout! It’s so hot that the whole village feels like No Exit . There is no shade. I didn’t sleep because it is HOT, and I thought a bat flew into my room again. I spent half the night imagining it fluttering back and forth, and eventually tearing through my mosquito netting to attack me. I think there is a hornets’ nest in my bathroom. I miss my friends. I miss my nieces. I miss my sisters. I miss my parents. I hate millet cous cous (the dietary staple). I just finished the last book that I brought with me. AND THE INTERNET DOESN’T WORK. AGAIN” With each successive greeting, the list of annoyances and my aggravation continued to grow. Obviously (and thankfully), I did not share any of this, and by the time I reached my house, I was practically swimming in an ocean of self-pity.
What happened next, I will refer to as the “prelude” to the impending breakdown. It happened after lunch, (all the meals here are communal). I was lingering with some of the other women, talking and finally moving on from the morning’s frustrations…or so I thought. Then, as I was getting up to leave, Berta, one of the girls that I am closer to, pulled me aside to “casually mention” that I can not wear shorts to go running anymore, or at least not the kind specifically intended for that very purpose. At that moment I was sure I was going to lose it. I could feel my face getting hot with embarrassment, indignation and anger. My first thought was, “You have got to be kidding! They are not even short. I am running on the road, not through the Daara, why do they even care?! I am not going to run in pants in this heat. I’m twenty-five years old, I will wear whatever I choose.” All of these thoughts, and others similar, raced through my head. Typing them now, I realize that they sound like the protests of a spoiled child. At the time, all I could think about was that I didn’t need to be here, and if anything threatened my daily run- I would bail. In my defense, I was tired, angry and not thinking clearly. I struggled to suppress any sign that I was upset, and told Berta that I’d figure something else out as far as running clothes were concerned.
I was afraid that she noticed my eyes begin to water, so I quickly mumbled that I was tired, and was going to read a bit. I have this unfortunate habit of tearing up whenever something even slightly disturbs my emotional equilibrium. I have always been this way. It is rarely sadness that provokes said tears (it’s usually anger or fear). It is an involuntary reaction, but one that I desperately try to control. For now, the best I can do is explain that I am not actually sad or crying-and if I were it would look and sound entirely different. In other words, “real” crying, which is something that I practically never do, it is a drawn out experience, and it is much less pretty. That wasn’t what happened. I went back to my room, took a deep breath and reminded my self that I was the guest/visitor here. It was my responsibility to figure out what was acceptable and act accordingly, I did not have the right to make waves, simply because I felt “justified” in doing so. Then, I cut a pair of nursing scrubs into longer running shorts.
At that point, I should have just called it a day, and caught up on sleep. Instead, I went for a run. About half way through, I came upon three or four shepherds-they could not have been more than ten years old-but they were responsible for herding a massive pack of sheep, goats and cattle across the road. As I approached, they made a path, and I continued through. Everything seemed fine.
The way back was a different story. I reached the herd, which was still occupying the entire street, and made my way through with much greater difficulty. This time, I was panicked. I was sure that I would be impaled by one of the cattle, or maybe bitten by a goat, or some other animal-related catastrophe. In retrospect, physical pain would have been a legitimate cause for tears. That’s not what transpired. Instead, the shepherd boys started following me down the road, shouting in rapid fire Wolof. I have no idea what they were saying, but I was sure it wasn’t good. The whole scene was entirely ridiculous; a massive flock of animals, four little boys yelling and waving sticks, and me, running. It was also completely overwhelming, and the last straw.
By the time I was out of sight of the shepherds, the tears were already pouring out. There was nothing left to do except let them go. And so I did. I cried, but not because a few little kids bothered me while I was running... I cried because I miss home. I cried because I’ve seen things in the past two weeks that break my heart. I cried because I feel alone here. A lot. I cried because this is going to be a lot harder than I thought, and I’m only a few weeks in. I cried because I was exhausted. I cried because I needed to…
And then I got up. And I kept going.