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Photo by Celia Mitchell (2015/16 Semester Photo Contest Entry), Indonesia Semester.

Photo by Lizzie Heffern, Senegal Summer 2017

I’ve spent much of the past ten days processing my month in Senegal; trying to make sense of how I ended up in such a beautiful country, in the arms of the most welcoming hosts, and with the greatest group of co-travelers. I’ve been reflecting on what I want to take away, and there’s one lesson in particular that resonates with me that I learned while living with my host family in Temento Samba.

In the days leading up to this round of homestays, the entire group was anxious, and for good reason. Our instructors told us that our host families would speak only Pulaar, even though until this point we had been learning exclusively Wolof. Before our families picked us up, Samba gave us a “Survival Pulaar” crash course, covering some basic greetings and simple phrases like “Where is the toilet?”, “I want to eat,” and–as I would soon learn to be the most important phrase when living in a Senegalese household–“I am full!”.

The first hour I spent with my family was stressful. Once we got past the basic greetings, I was lost in all other conversation. My mom, dad, and grandmother all continued to talk to me, saying so much, so quickly, but all I could do was stare back at them with confusion.

That evening, two of my family’s friends came to visit. I greeted them in Pulaar, and they returned the greeting, but then they said something I didn’t understand: “Yufine?”

I nervously stared at them, racking my brain about what they might be asking me. I frantically flipped through my notebook, trying to find this expression. Yufine?, I thought. I don’t think we learned that phrase yet!

The friends looked puzzled too, and one of them finally said to me, “You don’t know ‘fine’?!”

OH, “You fine?”! They’re speaking English!!

I had been so focused on trying to understand Pulaar that I didn’t even recognize my own language.

Not long after, I went to take a shower and was happy to have a few minutes to myself. I filled my bucket of water at the well and then retreated to the fenced-in shower area behind my house. A few minutes later, after I had undressed, I heard a rustling around the corner. Instinctively, I crouched down and covered up, afraid that one of my family members was about to walk in on me. I was relieved, yet still somewhat unsettled, a few seconds later to see that it was only two of the family goats, looking for a drink. They quenched their thirst with my shower water and then eventually wandered away.

A few more of these awkward scenarios played out before the day ended, and I was hyper-aware of how far I was out of my comfort zone. I missed my home in Pennsylvania. I missed electricity, my soft bed, and bathroom doors. Even more, I missed being able to communicate with people.

But as the week went on, I started to settle into life with my new family.

My mom, as any good mother would, made sure I was always full, bathed, and had clean clothes to wear. She fed me entire baguettes for breakfast and would send me off to lessons in the morning with a second hot breakfast to-go. She’d always insist that I take a shower as soon as I got home in the evening. She’d brush and braid my hair, before bed and then again in the morning when it would look too messy for her satisfaction; and one afternoon while I was sitting outside with her, she sent me to my room to change clothes and told me that I needed to wash the ones I was wearing.

My mom also helped me study Pulaar. Every evening we fell into the same routine: After dinner, by the light of my (very dim) headlamp, we’d huddle outside around my notebook, and she would teach me new vocabulary. She started with the parts of the body, pointing to each one, giving me the Pulaar equivalent, waiting for me to write it down, and then telling me to repeat it so she could check my pronunciation. By the end of the week, my notebook was full, and I was writing sideways and in any open white space to keep up with her. She went through different food names, family members, greetings, and even animals, which she taught me by making the animal noises.

The language barrier that had initially made me feel so isolated became less important as we continued to find ways to bond without needing to speak. One morning, I asked if I could help her prepare lunch, and she immediately put me to work. She made sure I saw every ingredient she added and kept motioning for me to take notes and pictures so I wouldn’t forget the steps. Every time a neighbor walked by, my mom, beaming with excitement, would boast about how I was helping her cook that day.

Over the course of the week, I also found ways to bond with my other family members. My five-year-old brother, who initially avoided all interactions with me, started to warm up to my presence. One afternoon, he showed up at my bedroom door holding two toy cars. He gave me one and then sat down on the floor and started playing. We played silently for the most part, with the exception of our attempts to imitate car noises, but I could feel the affection building between us.

My sense of love for my new family grew so quickly and so deep. When I was with them, I no longer thought about the amenities I had in the States. I had something much more meaningful here. For the first time in my life, I experienced what it really meant to find a home away from home.

Now, I’m writing this yak post from my cozy bed in Pennsylvania and can’t help but dream about returning to the place that my former self thought was so uncomfortable. As I prepare to start college next week, where there will be new opportunities to pursue and challenges to overcome, I’m reminding myself of the important lesson that I learned from my homestay in Temento: The most meaningful experiences don’t happen in your comfort zone. The most meaningful experiences, rather, are waiting in the unknown and the uncomfortable. They are waiting Where There Be Dragons.