A Life-Changing Year in Senegal

by Ellen Rowland • More.com Member { View Profile }

I am not a risk-taker by nature. Most people would say that’s a ludicrous statement. I am, after all, living in Senegal, Africa, on a one-year family sabbatical. I agreed, reluctantly, to accompany my husband, a self-taught architect, to a country where there are no building codes so he can construct an earth architecture house with no constraints.

Though he has researched this alternative building method with passion and aplomb, I realized early on in his presentation to us that this was really about a basic need to play with dirt, which appealed wildly to our two small children. He has always tended to color outside the lines, which to him were blurry to begin with, however, this particular divergence seemed to be the manifestation of a mid-life crisis, albeit an admirable one. Relieved that it hadn’t involved a size two, twenty-two year old blond (my antithesis) or a long unquenched desire to play electric guitar (my nemesis), I agreed to support him. I heard the adventurer that I long to be say, "Sure, honey, that sounds exciting. Let’s do it." What I was really thinking was, "over my dead body." And that’s exactly what I envisioned: my malaria-stricken form, sweaty and prostrate on the bed, surrounded by my teary children reaching out to touch me one last time, their small fingers widening the holes of our faulty mosquito net. These macabre visions are unfortunately nothing new.

Where my husband sees the beauty and potential in the open flow of living something unknown, I imagine the thickness, the dark what-ifs that we may not have control over. I can’t help it. As hard as I try to dive into life the way he does, I am more likely to be waiting at the side with an outstretched fluffy towel when he resurfaces. But I trust him, his instincts and talents, and so I almost always acquiesce to the bigger decisions in our lives, like moving to Africa. I credit myself with at least recognizing the value of being led out of my comfort zone from time to time. It’s the smaller, seemingly insignificant choices that always pose the bigger problem for me, the ones that are my decision alone, that don’t effect anyone else. I tend to be the one who sits on the sidelines and watches, who stays behind (because someone has to), or if I do go, to be the slightly resentful designated driver.

For this particular adventure, I volunteered to pack for everyone, not out of kindness, but because I was terrified of what might be forgotten should anyone else do it. My knowledge of Africa had been limited to insurmountable images of sick, skeletal children, flies buzzing at their sticky eyes, razed, burned villages, women in dire need of a sympathetic god. But my husband assured me that Senegal is a diverse, democratic and stable country where we would be welcomed, a country of progress and equality. Don’t get me wrong. Everyone there is less fortunate by our standards, but tragedies are managed, and gorillas (both Pongidae and human) tend to exist in the more tropical regions of Africa, far from our arid and peaceful destination. Nonetheless, I wanted to be prepared. So into the suitcases went insect repellent, anti-malarial, anti-itch, anti-nausea, anti-diarrheal, sunscreen, vitamins, toilet paper (you never know), clothes, flashlight, candles, matches, enough peanut butter for a year, and several Burpee seed packets of our favorite fruits and vegetables in case I felt like gardening. All of this preparedness and reinforcements against the unknown gave me comfort.

But despite turning all the possible scenarios over in my head, there was nothing in that suitcase to help me deal with the news that came on the night of my 44th birthday. Three weeks after we arrived in Senegal, in January of 2009, I received a phone call that one of my closest friends had died suddenly of a coronary emballism. She was 43. The tentacles of grief reached all the way across the Atlantic Ocean and I felt impossibly far away in my loss. It wasn’t as if I could call all our mutual friends and say, "please tell me it isn’t true," and cry on the phone with them. So I booked a ticket to return to the states for her funeral. I had to say goodbye, be with those friends and our memories of this wonderful friend that was taken so early from us.

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