Updated: Jul 25, 2021
Dust. The first thing I remember, and the thing that encapsulates it all, is the dust. Or, little bits of sand really. It sneaks through the cracks at the doors. It clings to my thin legs that awkwardly navigate the streets. It lingers in the air above a parched playing field in front of an elementary school. Even the school seems to be one with the dust.
The dust clears. I blink. My fingers are firmly interlaced in O’s warm, soft hand. Her little fingers determined not to lose me as they drag me along the labyrinth of streets. O’s bright eyes shoot me a glance – they are energetic and mischievous all at once. They are mirrored in her smile. A young woman of thirteen, she is stronger in ways that I’ll never be. Her animated voice trills on, a stream of woven Wolof and French, as she recounts the innocent drama of a thirteen-year old’s love life. Should she text the dreamy boy from school, the mere mention of whom fills her voice with anticipated yearning? Her joy and the normalcy of her question juxtaposing the unfamiliar dusty maze we move deeper into.
All of the sudden O’s hand brings me to a halt. We have reached our destination it seems, the purpose of which I had never been too clear on. Apparently, we are at a millet grinder. O patiently waits her turn before pouring a plastic bag of millet for grinding. A cloud of dust is added to the already thick air. She exchanges a coin in payment for the grinding service. Then we are on our way through the maze as before, the conversation on adolescent romance resumed.
My time in Senegal, like my time in so many places before and since, was crowded with emotions, each trying to hold my attention the longest. While what I remember now is but a slight slice of what I once experienced, it is a part of how I understand who I am today. The feelings were – and honestly always have been – strong. I guess that’s just how I process the world around me.
There was JOY in the lively discussions of politics and culture with O and her family. Joy in running along the glass-mosaiced seaside balcony of a resort whose name is long forgotten. Joy in the gasps for air between excruciating laughter with friends under an endless starry night. Joy in the glowsticks fabricated during one brownout night that brought an eerie glow to the faces of friends crowded in a living room.
There was NAIVE confusion in the stares that lingered too long for comfort and the leering whistles from shadowed doorsteps. Naivete in my understanding of the teary tale of a friend cornered one dark night in the shadows of her own home.
To wrap up my feelings into one neat package is as hard as it would have been to navigate the labyrinth without O. In some ways, I am still understanding my feelings now as they come to light with new life experiences. But regardless of what they mean to me today or ten years from now, they taught me how to keep my head firmly between my shoulders, not looking down, but looking forward with one eye on the past. Sometimes, to remember rubs me raw. Other times, to forget is worse.