Today there is no clip-clop of hooves on the street beneath my balcony. The sandy streets of Yoff are enveloped in a muffled calm. It’s the first Friday of the Holy Month of Ramadan and shops here are mostly closed. There is no late morning mortar and pestle pounding of garlic and onions, no lunchtime sizzle of fish frying in oil, no after lunch clang of dishes being washed, no afternoon mint tea being boiled and poured. Only a few children, too young to fast, jump and play on the corner. It’s about an hour until sunset and people have made themselves scarce, reclining on mats to the gentle click of prayer beads on a chaplet. A soft strain of singing comes from the Layenne Mosque a few blocks of way.
Fasting. It’s a good exercise, to feel the absence of something. More than the absence of food or water in my belly, I feel myself missing the way the long, carbohydrate-heavy lunch hours here break up the time, the chaos of fifteen people around a single bowl of rice, the shouting of greetings and jokes to friends across the street. I am already starting to feel the absence in advance of the web of connections that has made this year so special. The homestay families, who all met last weekend as our students gave speeches in Wolof about the meaning of their experience. The “Independent Enrichment Activity” (IEA) mentors (tailors, dance teachers, yogurt sellers turned into language professors). Each of my students and the way their phone calls pepper my day (what time is class again today? do you want anything from the market? my stomach feels weird again…). Our neighbors and friends. I am starting to feel their absence in advance.
I am finding myself closing off my relationships here, one by one, until I only have Babacar’s family and a few close friends left to say goodbye to. Our students have already stopped work at their service site placements, language classes, and IEA’s. This Sunday we will head to Toubab Diallaw, a coastal clifftop retreat space, where we will have some room to reflect on the year and talk about the realities and challenges of returning home. We call this retreat “Transference” (in the hope that much of the learning from Senegal actually makes it back across the Atlantic). Transference is a reflective space, the calm before the flurry of excitement that is everyone’s return home and summer travel plans, a brief time of family togetherness that will fly by before each of these students starts at Princeton in the Fall.
One thing you don’t often hear about Ramadan is just how good the food is. The ndogou, “break fast” meal, involves eating sweet Tandoori dates from North Africa and drinking hot, sugary kinkeleba tea right at sunset. This is followed by bread with tuna or cheese or mayonnaise or olive oil or sardines or peas with sausage or oily onion sauce or chocolate spread. The whole family gathers in front of the TV to watch the special “theatre sketches” on television at this time of year. A magnificent bowl of ceebujen that appears at 9 PM for another wonderful Ramadan ritual, second dinner. A midnight snack leftovers of ceebujen, third dinner. A 5 AM potato omelette before sunrise, a magical pre-fast meal called xedd.
Everything changes. This clear-headed, peaceful, reflective time of year always stuns me with its beauty. The Ramadan rhythm of Senegal is so different from what we’ve experienced all year, and yet every absence quickly finds a way to be filled. I know (from years of working as a Dragons instructor and countless heart-wrenching goodbyes at airports around the world) that once students step into airplanes their minds will go racing on into bright futures and new friends and reconnecting with family. The ache and anguish of leaving friends in Senegal will quickly be filled with something else. “Yoff” people will be no less loved and no less missed, but our ways of being with them will change. We will find ourselves Skyping with them on Eid al-Fitr (korité) in June, following their social media feeds, dropping in for a week on the way home from France, meeting up with a homestay sibling in New York City.
There is a quote from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road that always sums up leaving for me: “What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
And some mornings in New Jersey, each of these Bridge Year students might wake up with Senegal nostalgia, craving oily crunchy rice and hugs from children who, somewhere across the world, are already growing up into women and men. Some nights before they go to bed they’ll be hit with the grief of living in a society where people pass each other on the street without making eye contact, a society that hides children and the elderly and loves to hoard and (despite its abundance) forgets to share, a society where kids get shot at school and black people are 3.5 more likely to get shot by the police than white people, a society where rules are hard and fast and making friends with the lady at the counter isn’t going to get you anywhere, a society with more cars than people, where snow sometimes falls, where relying on others is bad and efficiency is good, where you can wear anything you want, where 8:00 am means 7:59 am…
Sometimes, students might think back to the time where they told their old Senegalese host uncle that in the United States teenagers have to move out of their parents house at the age of eighteen. They might remember how he paused and looked at them for a moment like they were crazy, before deciding this must be a joke and laughing incredulously. And the memory of his face breaking into a smile will be beautiful in a comforting way that hurts a little bit at the same time.
So, to sum up the bittersweetness of goodbyes, here’s a quote from Miriam Adeney: “You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart always will be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.”
Some logistical notes: Our group will be at Toubab Diallaw from May 20-25, after which Henry will depart early to the airport to attend his sister’s graduation (congratulations Sophie!) and the rest of the group will return to Yoff until flying home on May 31. Students will have limited internet access during “Transference Time,” so expect things to slow down on the Skype and social media fronts. To all friends and family of Bridge Year participants— thank you for lending us your beloved children. We know you are eagerly awaiting their return home with familiar food, hugs, and favorite activities.
We ask for your love, patience, and understanding as these amazing and complex young humans prepare to enter back into your homes. Know that in a day they might be cycling between many different emotions, from elation to confusion to grief to irritation. The process of re-entering a home culture can sometimes be even more challenging than the daunting task of going away from home. Babacar and I are extremely proud of all the learning and growth we’ve seen on this year. Each participant has accomplished a lot, and it may take years for them to fully understand what this year has meant in the overall scheme of their lives. Thank you in advance for honoring the people they have become, for giving them space to process, for witnessing and listening to them as they conclude this rite of passage. I can say with all sincerity that this Bridge Year has been one of my greatest joys as an educator.