Write a blog post, they said. About whatever you’re experiencing, they offered. Oh, if only it were a singular thing. If I was to package the past few weeks into one word and wrap it nicely with a bow, the word would be “emotions”, and the bow would struggle to contain the rough edges of the package while managing to serve its purpose and look presentable.
So here is a snapshot of what one would find should they be brave enough to loosen the bow and unwrap the package.
I have felt relief in turning to Danielle with a major frustration from the day and realizing that she felt the same way.
I have declared, and at times genuinely believed, that the fan is our only source of love.
I have gone to bed laughing so hard it could classify an ab workout (context: Danielle broke the toilet flush handle and put it back in its place in hopes it would fix itself over night).
I have felt awe watching the sun set over the Gambian horizon, fiery reds, oranges, yellows and pinks that turn into deep blues and purples, silhouettes of palm trees in the foreground, and rainbow reflections in the water. Too magnificent a view that I started running backwards once the view was out of sight running forward, soaking in every moment of the sun’s descent.
I have been amused by the reaction I get when I tell people I’m vegetarian. (“WHY?”, “What do you eat?”, “How do you survive?”, and the best for last, “I’m so sorry for your loss.”)
I have felt an inexplicable mix of emotion sitting on a beach this weekend along Gambia’s coastline. Exhausted from the heat, painfully aware that it was a “tourist” beach, and caught in the obnoxiously loud tug-of
-war in my head between wanting to enjoy the experience and wanting to live as modestly, humbly, and locally as possible.
• I have felt confident and proud in being able to greet, barter, and hold basic conversation in the local language. Guess who can count to 100 in Wollof?!
• I have felt honoured to be given a Gambian name (Aisha), one that has started to sound more familiar than my own.
• I have felt annoyance, anger, and frustration toward other toobabs (foreigners) I’ve met here for perpetuating stereotypes (entitlement, ignorance, all the works) that I’m trying so hard to break. Go ahead, comment again on the “lazy culture” here, I DARE YOU.
• I have felt both grateful and fearful for Gambian rains, which provide much needed relief from the heat, yet wipe out entire fields of crops, and in turn livelihoods, when they fall after the traditional rainy season (way to go, global warming).
• I have felt loved when Auntie Awa, whom I’ve met only once before, pulls me into her lap the moment I walk into her home and starts rocking me like the 22-year old baby that I am. “My baby Aisha, ne ne tooti ne ne” (baby, small baby).
• I have been touched when Maryamma not only described her sister’s love story to me when I asked, but brought me the wedding albums to look through the next day.
• I have been surprised by just how much I’ve learned and understood from reading report after report, manual after manual, feeling useless all the while. (e.g. In a meeting when someone raises a concern that it’s difficult to compress all of the information into a 3-day health training, you refrain from suggesting that the training should be extended to 4 days, like the smart-ass toobab that you are. You know better. You know that the cost of food and water are increasing while the organizational budget has remained the same. You understand that adding another day to training means paying for/accommodating two extra meals for all participants.)
• I have woken up from a bad dream, scared and unable to stop crying, and called my parents at 4.45AM in the morning, just so I could hear their voices.
• A creature of habit, I have felt familiarity in knowing that every day at 1.30pm, we will go down to the small shop beside our office and Uncle Saware will make us our lunch sandwich on fresh senfour bread while we ask him about his day.
• I felt valued when friends and family take time out of their busy lives to write, send me quotes and daily voice notes.
• I have felt independent in being able to do the 25-min walk to the office instead of having a car pick us up every day.
• I have felt guilty about buying bottled water in a country where an organized garbage disposal system, much less recycling, has yet to exist. (We ended up investing in a water filter that we’ll donate at the end of our time here).
• I have felt embarrassed when we were caught eating our lunch by the steps outside our office, and asked by our colleagues, “Is this me-time?” (We had meant to get fresh air, but it was perceived as isolating ourselves from the rest of our colleagues. This was remedied by learning how to say “Come eat with us” in Wollof, and having lunch inside no matter the temperature.)
• I have longed for friends who understand without explanations, and hug without asking.
• I have felt understood when someone told me exactly why I was feeling the way I was feeling when I couldn’t find the words or the reason to articulate it myself.
• I have felt uncomfortable, privileged, and filthy withdrawing large sums of money from an ATM (for rent) in an open public place.
• I have felt at home during bumpy car rides, along red muddy roads, wind blowing my hair every which way, listening to the latest Afribeats.
• During our first week, I have felt the most useful counting out leaflets for a training session.
• I have felt confused about how my time and work here will fit into the rest of my life.
• I have felt overwhelmed by access to Internet after days without tuning in. Going from powerless nights spent reading with a flashlight, or sitting around a table swapping stories in candlelight, to walking into the office, WiFi clicking in and notifications spilling in left, right, and centre.
• I have felt accomplished cooking Gambian bean stew and earning local culinary validation.
• I have felt trusted when NSGA’s in-country program manager tasked us with interviewing staff and local
partners to create a strategic plan to guide the organization’s operations and expansion in the years to come.
• I have struggled with striking the balance between connecting with home and being present here.
• I have been inspired by the Love4Gambia run, an annual tradition in which a Canadian runner runs across the Gambia alongside a Gambian support team, 424km in 17 days (averaging 25km a day), to raise money for health education programs for Gambian youth.
• I have felt safe being able to go for runs around our neighbourhood in Old Jeshwang.
• I have felt challenged when Ish joked that we were running the “girly” route, and like a boss when I ran his route, at his pace, refusing to stop until he did. SO worth the soreness.
• I have felt grateful for books and friends that tell me exactly what I need to hear, when I need to hear it. Case in point:
“Each of us is lucky to be alive and to be surrounded by people we care about. There are a thousand million ways it could be otherwise. But somewhere an opaque reason met an impossible chance, and we are all here at the same time. It’s such a lucky thing, it’s hard to believe.” – James Maskalyk, Six Months in Sudan
• Last but not least, I have felt like myself in being able to loosen the bow and pen out all of these emotions – the good, the bad, and the ugly.
To my fellow interns, and anyone else for that matter, loosen your bows sometimes. It’s okay.
Mathura Mahendren is a Public Education Intern with the Nova Scotia Gambia Association in Kainfing, Gambia.