The Bravest Thing She Ever Did

“It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did” (The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien).

In The Gambia, everyone and everything exists ndanka ndanka. This adage roughly translates to “slowly slowly” in English from Wolof, the native language of the Wolof people, just one of the ethnic groups that call The Gambia home. Ndanka ndanka embodies Gambian philosophy and inhabits each moment of waking life in that tiny African country: in the way the people doze in the shade of the mango tree to seek respite from the balmy haze, in the way the sun creeps with agonizing slowness over the red earth. Not only this, living ndanka ndanka alongside the Gambian people constitutes the most important lesson I learned during my short time with the Peace Corps.

As one of the Peace Corps language and culture facilitators so poignantly stated, “In America, time owns you. In The Gambia, you own your time.” I believe that, at this uncertain and “lost” moment in my life, these words were the ones I needed to hear the most. They were needed so that I may at long last achieve the clarity and peace of mind I had so desperately been searching for. These words pierced me right down to the marrow of my bones and, married with the awakening I experienced while living in and amongst the Gambian people, helped me with the most difficult decision I have had to make in my life thus far.

On June third I made the decision to terminate my service with the Peace Corps. I recognized that some personal limits cannot be transcended, no matter how fiercely one tries to overcome those limits and escape their comfort zone. I also had the realization that, as a result of my experience in Scotland, I had been pushing so very hard to live a life of full-throttle adventure that I was not truly the master of my time at all, but a slave to living at a pace that I could not sustain. So I made the choice to truly do the bravest thing I have ever done: admitted to myself that even I have weaknesses, and decided that it was best to return home after spending just two weeks in The Gambia.

While looking over my previous post regarding the possibility that I would not be able to serve with the Peace Corps, the following statement I had written caught my attention, due in part to this clarity I have achieved since being in country: “Perhaps what I need to do is simply pull my head out of the clouds and acknowledge that I should be more realistic about the trajectory of my life and the goals I have set.” What struck me about this passage is how eerily pertinent they would be to my current situation and how I am coping with my decision to leave the Peace Corps. At the time I used these words to justify my all-in existence and my tendency to seek new horizons no matter the cost to myself or others. The reason for this is that I am a dreamer through and through. Many a time has that adage “head in the clouds” been ascribed to me, and at times I think my head has simply transcended the clouds and embarked on an interstellar journey of outrageous proportions.

To the logical person, this trait could be considered a flaw, though I like to believe in the charm of a hopeless dreamer carving their own romanticized path through our frenetic, practicality-laden world and still “making it.” However, I will admit that I am also headstrong with a fondness for impulsivity (“spontaneity” I call it, to make it seem less severe). These two traits, when combined with a penchant for wild dreams, can often cause disaster. I realize now that my previous willingness to ignore the danger of being dreamy, headstrong, and impulsive all at once was a mark of great immaturity, and an area of self-growth that requires the most cultivation. The problem with these three traits playing off of one another is the threat of everything imploding on my rather fragile heart, which is precisely what happened when I arrived in the wholly foreign world of The Gambia.

As I stepped off the plane in Banjul, I labored to quell the feelings of unease and discomfort roiling in my stomach. While gazing out over the sun setting over the dry grasses and baobab trees, I reminded myself to be thankful for this chance extended to me by such a reputable organization, and proud that I — little old Maggie with not much to her except a dream in her heart — had been successful in the intensely competitive selection process. It was then I remembered the mantra of one of my favorite adventurers, Chris Brinlee Jr., and frantically repeated it to myself in order to calm my anxieties about this venture: “celebrate discomfort.” To me, “celebrate discomfort” means to revel in the moments of discomfort — and indeed struggle — that navigating a foreign country and culture present, as such moments make one realize how they have been given such an incredible opportunity for self-growth and to do so while experiencing all the richly varied walks of life in our world. I believe that in this moment one can truly appreciate the beauty of adventure, and feel how great of a blessing it is to experience different cultures firsthand.

Yet I still could not ease the tightening in my chest.

During my time in my village, I threw myself into every possible experience. I practiced Wolof as often as I could, greeting each and every person I encountered on the sandy paths and appreciating their patient smiles when I stumbled over a word. I sat in my host family’s compound throughout the day, allowing the children to help me with my language homework and forging friendships along the way. I woke with the blushing sunrises and chased the great Gambia River on my runs, drinking in the alien yet starkly beautiful landscape of an African country yearning for the summer rains. Yet the harder I tried the more drained I felt, and I believe it is because I knew deep down in my heart that while I appreciated this country and its newness, it was not the place for me.

While I had lived abroad before and knew how to approach these feelings of homesickness and doubt, the type of living I had done in Scotland in no way prepared me for the bare-bones kind of living done in The Gambia. Though simplicity of life was what I had craved, in hindsight I was truly not prepared for this kind of living, no matter how intensely I had convinced myself otherwise. Deeply personal issues of mine reared their head every waking moment I spent in The Gambia and left me feeling anxious and numb. Perhaps years down the line, once I have experienced true living — the kind of living where usually mundane moments become an immense part of my day, and where every task becomes an endeavor — I may be prepared to embark on a journey of this kind. However, taking the leap from my cozy, quiet life in Scotland to the starkness of Gambian life was too much for me to bear.

These issues informed the most significant aspect of my decision to leave, and are something I have been struggling with every day since I have returned. Prior to my departure, I responded to all the comments about Third World living with a shrug. “It will be great,” I said, “I’m looking forward to being Internet free and getting back to basics!” How naive I was. What I was doing with comments like this was trivializing the fact that this is how The Gambian people live day in and day out, yet still manage to lead full and beautiful lives. I was taking for granted the fact that, after two years, I could simply trot back to my comfortable and struggle-free life in America. I was romanticizing their way of life and not taking into account just how difficult it would be for someone like me to adapt to that, as well as ignoring that that is their reality.

In hindsight, these are the kinds of discussions I had in my head in preparing myself to return home. I went round and round, warring with myself about being a failure that I could not handle this kind of living for a scant two years when this is what the Gambian people had to face for their entire lives. I chastised myself for craving the ease with which I did my chores, the restorative powers of running water, and the emotional comfort of being surrounded by my friends and family. Yearning for these things that I had taken for granted, and needed this sharp separation to appreciate, made me feel spoiled, and taking the steps to make my way back to them with my tail between my legs made me feel like a failure that I could not endure such conditions for a mere two years. It made me feel so sickeningly selfish that I could come and go as I pleased, while that was the reality for the Gambian people that had been so kind and welcoming to me.

However, what truly was the impetus behind my decision to leave was falling quite ill one Saturday morning. While the illness itself was nothing monumental — a mere stomach bug most likely caused by a change in diet (though it may have been due to my four-year-old host brother Baboucarr sticking his fingers in my mouth…) — and is a simple fix in the United States, it had the potential to become dangerous out in a remote Gambian village. I quickly became very dehydrated, and in the stifling heat of my small hut, my temperature bordered the degree that would cause the Peace Corps medical office to come and treat me. Yet the illness itself is not what ultimately convinced me to listen to my heart and ask to return home. As I have been abroad before, I am no stranger to navigating severe illness in a foreign country and taking care of myself when resources are limited and my support system is thousands of miles away. Furthermore, the illness I suffered was perfectly treatable on my own, and after hoisting myself out of bed, forcing (very disgusting) rehydration salts into my system, and fighting through my weakness to take a cold bath, I instantly felt better. Rather, it was the simple fact that I could not inform my loved ones that I had gotten sick and that, had I gotten worse, they would have learned about my condition from someone with the Peace Corps, and not from my own mouth.

When I would sit and enjoy the night sky with the Sohna family after our break fast meal, I observed just how intensely they valued their family time. One evening, my host mother asked me what my parents thought of me being in The Gambia so far away from them. While I had always believed I valued my family above all else, I realized in this moment that I had been incredibly selfish, for this path I believed I needed to take — that of the full-throttle adventurer — is a very lonely path indeed. Ultimately, the fact that I could barely even speak to my own family, especially to assuage their fears about me falling ill or that I was struggling personally, simply broke my heart.

Laying on my bed trying to recover my strength after my illness, I had an intense moment of introspection. I realized just how fortunate I was to have all that I have been given: I can complete my chores with minimal effort, I acquired a Bachelor’s degree from a world-class university and have no barriers to pursuing further education even though I am a female, I can run and exercise and enjoy the feeling of a healthy body, I have two parents that ceaselessly support every wild dream I have ever had, I have a collection of internationally diverse friends that have given me an incredible perspective on life, and I am loved by the most thoughtful and good man I have ever met. Yet I had run so very far away from it all in an effort to maintain this romanticized vision of myself I thought I needed to be. And while I ceaselessly berated myself for being a failure, I did the hardest thing I have ever had to do: simply accept that I did indeed fail this endeavor, and ask to return home. For, in the end, this decision was ultimately what was best for me and my health, and would also benefit the people that had been so sickeningly worried about me and my heart the entire time I was in The Gambia.

The most important thing to be said now, nearly three months later, is that I do not regret a minute of my time that I spent in The Gambia. There are moments in our lives where we need sharp contrasts, intense personal trials, and heartbreak to truly achieve a clarity of mind we had been previously unwilling to accept. This is what my time in The Gambia did for me: it made me realize that the way I was living my life was not truly authentic, that I was merely chasing a story rather than embracing all the moments that constitute living, even the ones that unfold ndanka ndanka. I celebrate this intense moment of discomfort in my young life, as it has taught me so much about the value of living, the value of family, and how to live life on my own terms. I will always cherish the moments I had sitting under mango trees, listening to the lilting Wolof tongue drift skywards with the sparks from the cooking fires. And while I have had to “turn at last to paths that lead home” to recenter myself and really work on what my priorities truly are — and cope with the fact that this journey was one of emotional strain but monumental personal growth — it does not mean I am truly willing to give up on my dreams of adventure.

From now on I will take my adventures at my own pace, but always keep the dream of seeing the sun from many a weird and wonderful new horizon alive.

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