Beautiful sunset in Salim Sarr, Louga

Dear Senegal,

I don’t know how I made it through this one. I really don’t. It’s kind of hard to imagine you’d be sitting int he waiting lounge at the airport with all one, two, three pieces of excess luggage checked in…at virtually zero cost. Something that should have otherwise been at least $300 came down to a tip of 10,000CFAs, the equivalent of $20. It’s at times like this that I re-resolve to continue proclaiming “I’m blessed”, or as Nikki Minaj would say, “No, I’m not lucky, I’m blessed.” Aside my friend’s brush in with your police force – who have apparently (and ironically) decided to use the Holy Islamic Day of Friday to arrest individuals who don’t have their national ID cards on them, and then consequently exact a bribe of 10,000CFAs (Ha! Come try that one in Ghana!) – everything went as well as can be. Funny what 10,000CFAs can do in one night huh? Anyway, who am I to call the kettle black? I got a couple of favors in myself, right?


So, I always knew you were special. Not because of the fact that you’re probably the most liberal predominantly Muslim country I’ve come across (so far), or due to the fact that you’ve one of the most modern yet traditional societies out there, but rather because you hold a special place in my life. Right from the first day I learned about your existence after my dad returned from an information and communication technology (ICT) conference, you stuck out to me. Back then, it was more like “What is this country which dares to have a better ICT sector than Ghana?” Yes, I was a die-hard Ghanaian then, and in many ways I still am, but now I’m more GhAfrican than anything else. Now, I’m happy your ICT sector is as strong as it is, otherwise living and working within your borders would have been ten times more difficult than it ended up being. (Psst! Hear that Ghana? Step up your game on the ICT front!) Yep, you’re definitely one of a kind. And no, for those friends who had themselves convinced I’d be getting myself hitched to a Senegalese, that’s not what happened. Although, I must say I haven’t gotten this many marriage offers in a long time! (Sorry though Senegal, Ghana still beats you on that count.) No, Senegal’s special purpose in my life was way more than I even thought. Senegal gave me…me.


The Big Takeaway: Trust

As with any new experience, I encountered a new me. I once read somewhere – I believe it was Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love – that when you’re undergoing life’s trials and everything seems to be in the dumps there’s one person who’s forever cheering and egging you on (aside the Big Man Upstairs that is). That’s the future you. The one who persevered through it all and who ended up with an innate strength (s)he never knew existed. Looking back on my time with you, I realize it was that future me who whispered words of comfort into my ear during the stillness of night. The one who breathed laughter and joy into my being when I thought I would die from the sheer exhaustion of trying to make it from one second to the next.

Alhamdulilahi, with this experience, I finally see clarity upon paths once marred with confusion. Now I could probably tell numerous tales about what/who I saw, heard, learnt, did, met while in Senegal. But I’d like to spare you the task of turning pages upon pages of musings. Bottom line, there was one major – make that GIGANTIC – takeaway, and the lesson, boys and girls, has to do with TRUST.


The Great Baobab

Trusting Allah (God)

During Ramadan last year I blogged about my need to learn to trust God, the process, life, whatever you wanna call it. I’d once more chanced upon myself kinda-not really-almost trusting God with my affairs. How so? Because this time, He did the one thing that finally gets each of us slamming on those breaks and taking a moment to breathe in nothing, no-one, but Him. As they say, it’s at the moment when you (think you) have nothing, that you have everything you need. By jostling my life, he re-routed me from a path that I’m now certain could have only led to more heartache, disharmony and probably more tears. You know how you have one of those moments where you’re like, “NOTHING can top this! I done seen it ALL.” Yeah, I had me one of those. After that, everything else was a relative breeze. I learnt patience (AGAIN), I learned to take a moment and (re)evaluate. And above all, I learned to put my trust in HIM.

Now it would be rather simplistic to say all we gotta do is trust God, and all’s good and dandy. We’re social beings living in an increasingly complex world. Ceteris Paribus, the element of trust always plays out with other people. They could be your family, your friends, your laundry man or woman, your co-workers, even a virtual stranger. Some analysts compare one’s gauge of trust to the “one minute first impression” time-frame. Within those 60 seconds (sometimes 30), and for whatever reason, experience or notion you might be influenced by, you decide whether or not to trust someone. Crazy init? Thing is, there’s also the “don’t judge a book by its cover” rule and that applies both ways. People might not always end up being who you assume they are. But give it time (and enough opportunity to interact) and you’ll eventually find out. Nobody can hide their true self(ves) forever. C’est simplement impossible.


A beautiful piece of art in Dakar.

Trusting Others

So anyway, in addition to trusting God and the powers that be, we are usually faced with the question of trusting others. Which, as most probably know, is almost always more easier said than done. Like the gentleman I approached at the airport about possibly letting me use his luggage allowance said, “How can I be sure you won’t do a number on me?” My response at the time was: “All I can give you is my word, and considering we just met 10 seconds ago, even that might not hold the weight you desire.” Which is probably true for many a correspondence, friendship, relationship and interaction.

To trust is to take a risk, to give the benefit of the doubt, to offer yourself up on a platter and pray and believe the other won’t skin you alive.

For most of my existence I’d say my trust gauge worked pretty well. But when you live in an all girls’ school for four years and interact with a small, close-knit community of friends for the longest time, it kind of throws that gauge off a bit.

At MHC, graduation is often referred to as “leaving the bubble” – sometimes adding “and venturing out into the big bad world.” I used to laugh when that insinuation was made. Yes, we’d be leaving M&Cs (milk and cookies), the beautiful dorms, the expanse of green, but we’d still have the friendships that got us through most of the dumps, right? Yes and no. True friendships last – and I’m so blessed to have found many of those – but in life, some paths need to be walked alone.

Trusting others. Looking back, I was a tad too naive in my first couple of weeks after moving to Dakar. I’d figured, ‘hey, we’re gonna be living here for a while. Might as well establish a friendly tone with our grocer, butcher, baker etc.’ Yes and no. Things need to be gradual. With the occasional prodding from my roomie, I soon reverted to giving out names that certainly weren’t mine when asked who I was. Sometimes the trust gauge hits a high red on encountering someone. With that person you know to take practically everything with a pinch of salt and make sure that any transactions are written in ink and signed by both parties. That was me and my “landlord”. My internal compass just kept pointing at “danger”, and like I said, eventually everyone takes off the costume to reveal themselves. I soon switched gears from chirpy, cheery tenant to obstinate bargainer with him. I also think I ended up scaring him a bit. Point is, he learned not to mess with us; whether we were two girls living alone in a foreign country or not.

Then there are those other times when the trust gauge doesn’t quite turn out right. And again, that could go both ways. It either proclaims someone as trustworthy who really shouldn’t be given a license to be around you in the first place, and/or you discount the very person who’ll end up being your fortress through life’s storms. I encountered both gauge malfunctions during my time in Senegal and it goes without saying that each encounter was a learning opportunity. Once again the adage “Love All, Trust Few, Hurt None,” is burned to my brain. On the one hand, betrayals of trust – especially those where the other person has no idea their game has been uncovered – could do quite a number on you; make you wanna recoil into your shell and keep yourself hostage for days, months, in some cases, years on end. It stings, without a doubt. But it also makes you wiser and fine tunes your trust gauge in the process.

I’ve learned to not only listen to people’s words and observe their actions, but also to pay heed to my trust gauge, instincts, intuition, or whatever you’d call that persistent voice inside.

Sometimes you might discredit someone based off of another person’s foibles, or maybe because a piece of crucial information is lacking as you make your decisions (judgments?) concerning that individual. What you lack in hardcore information, you make up for in intuition. If you turn out wrong – malfunction alert! – you adjust the data and depending on circumstances, either mend or sever any strained ties. You are the sum total of the five people you interact with the most – you need to watch who and what energies you give permission to enter your space or little universe. Don’t kid yourself, people affect people, and whoever you’re interacting with the most – whether in-person or not – is altering you with each encounter, whether you realize (or like it) or not. This is an entirely new level of “peer pressure”. At the end of the day, you never really know, so even with this, it takes a bit of trusting God to make it through.


Trusting Oneself

And then there’s the final one and perhaps, the hardest aspect of trust: trusting oneself. Human beings are fickle, but we seem to be the most fickle with ourselves. Sometimes it’s because we neglect to be in relationship with ourselves, focusing more on the outside and neglecting the person who’s -whether you like it or not – gonna be sharing the same bed with you from beginning to end: you. At other times, it’s because we’ve made so many “mistakes” or false starts in the past that we’ve automatically wired ourselves to second guess ourselves. In some cases it’s because we don’t consider ourselves worthy of trust because others don’t. Ultimately it comes down to the ‘you’. “We are what we repeatedly do”(Aristotle) and “Never expect people to treat you any better than you treat yourself” (Bo Bennet) In this post, trusting oneself could be substituted with “believing in oneself”. Anyone can claim to believe in themselves, but even the most confident, self-assured individuals encounter those roadblocks of doubt.

Having been pulled over to the curb numerous times for this particular misdemeanor, I’ve come to realize that doubt is an important element of self-development. Without doubt and its buddy “failure, there would be no growth. We need balance in all things; doubt keeps us from tipping over into that zone called conceit or self-satisfaction.

“No decision is more important than your own resolution to succeed.” (Abraham Lincoln) – In any circumstance, you reach that point. The crucial second when you either decide to give up or press on. There might be many times when you encounter a crossroads, but from my experience, there’s only one resolute point where the course of things are drastically changed in any given situation. I’d asked myself numerous times while in Senegal, “What am I doing here?” That question was most frequent during the first phase of my time there. I guess I’d place it right after the honeymoon period of adaptation when you’re transitioning from tourist/visitor to local. As it turns out, the “what” didn’t end up being as important as the “who” – Who am I choosing to be right this moment? – Each day I had a decision to make. To be a positive person who rolled with the punches and maybe even found some humor in my “misfortunes”, or to be a reluctant person who kept looking back and wishing I’d taken any other path than the one I was on. Perhaps 80% of the time, I chose to be person one. The remaining 20% of the time, I was either that discouraged or feeling too sorry for myself to get up and pick. I will say though that each time I picked option one, I encountered numerous other “whos” of myself that I’d never imagined existed. Believing in yourself isn’t merely philosophical mambo-jumbo. It’s your most valuable survival (and success) tool. I believe trusting oneself exhibits a certain level of belief in the process of life and in the fact that God saw you worthy of being part of His universe. Get that? He could have made a zillion yous, but he made only one. That has to count for something, right? Trust in that. Likewise, exhibiting self-confidence sparks the same in others. They also begin to trust you (probably to the degree that you trust yourself). Eventually, it all comes full circle.


It’s Not Goodbye, It’s See You Later

Like I said, I could go on and on and on, about my experience(s) in Senegal and if I had to, I would do it over again in a heart beat. If for nothing at all, for this moment of retrospection. All in all, it was beautiful. With all the joy, struggles, pleasures, pains, gains, losses, love, mosquitoes, beaches, faith, culture, identity, heat, “winter”, fashion, food, friends, work, creativity, opportunities, inspiration, beauty, deception, trust, sand dunes, water, coupures (power cuts)…everything. Senegal, you re-wired a lot of things in and about me and gave me clarity on others. For that alone, it was beautiful. As your people say when someone’s leaving off to another place, “Balma Akh” (Forgive me). For any faults or injustices I might have committed knowingly or unknowingly. In the same vein, Senegal, I forgive you. For the wall gecko that scaled my bathroom walls and for the mosquitoes that wouldn’t give me time of day. For losing my phone a week before departure. Everything. I look forward to another Senegal chapter in my life, inshAllah. Until then, it’s not goodbye, it’s see you later.