A wee look into my time in The Gambia, West Africa. Though this adventure did not quite turn out as expected, I am still immensely grateful for my time spent in this warm, welcoming country.
A wee look into my time in The Gambia, West Africa. Though this adventure did not quite turn out as expected, I am still immensely grateful for my time spent in this warm, welcoming country.
“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.
Apologies for the lack of updates. It has been an absolute whirlwind of emotions these past few weeks as I have finally received medical clearance to go to The Gambia.
On May 23rd I will be departing from Washington D.C. to begin the adventure of a lifetime. As tomorrow marks exactly one month out from making my way to staging in D.C., I will pen a more in depth post about all of what I am feeling at this moment, at the beginning of it all.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of you once again for the tremendous amount of support over the years. It means the world to little old me, and makes up a great deal of why it is I do the things that I do and embark on the adventures I am so fortunate to have. Thank you!
When I awoke this morning it was not the nuthatch, finch, and chickadee songs coaxing me into wakefulness. It was not the early spring breeze, peaty and warm, billowing in my curtains, tossing back my sheets, and tangling in my hair. When I awoke this morning it was not a gentle awakening. What heralded today’s morning, what electrified all of my senses into wakefulness, was a panic attack. This is the first panic attack I have had since beginning my final semester at university nearly a year ago, and I almost forgot what these attacks felt like. Almost, but not quite.
I used to think that nothing could be as stressful as three critical deadlines (amounting to nearly 10,000 words written) within ten days. Or losing my luggage containing all of my underwear when I returned to St Andrews to begin my final year, and what kind of omen that represented. While I knew there would inevitably be challenges to adjusting to postgraduate life, I was actually looking forward to a respite from academia for a time and distancing myself from the stress that became my closest companion at university. I had no plan for my life after graduation, merely a vague “that way” direction. The details of this journey — the precise route, rough or smooth terrain, and whether I would have companions along the way — was something I did not care to mull over for very long.
My philosophy for approaching life after university was to be free spirited, laissez-faire. I vowed to simply laugh at any bumps encountered along the way and to repeat my new personal motto,”C’est la vie.” I was proud of myself for not having a concrete plan, as it meant that I had achieved a small personal victory: to relax and to not be so fixated on the minutia, as in the past when things did not unfold according to plan I would completely shut down. This new attitude also meant that I could commit myself to whatever weird and wonderful opportunity presented itself in my post graduate life, chasing new horizons and new experiences in the way that I believed I was meant to do.
What I had not considered in all this time was how not having a concrete plan could adversely affect me, and perhaps welcome back the stress I thought I had bid farewell with the stone walls of St Salvator’s Quad. As much as I like to appear a spontaneous, “go where the wind takes me” sort of individual, these wild-hearted traits are not intrinsic to who I am, but rather a conscious choice I make nearly each and every day. At my core I am organized and I am meticulous: as much as I have come to treasure the spirit of adventure, routine makes me feel calm and whole. This is why the uncertainty bound to my new life — the life of a newly minted yet wholly clueless graduate — began to chip away at me as summer slowed into autumn and autumn stilled into winter. For brevity’s sake I will refrain from rehashing all of the negative thoughts buzzing about my mind during this time, as I discussed them at length in my previous entry. All I will say is that the worries of wasting my time chasing dead-end dreams and anxieties of not being “enough” began to fade when the wildest of my “wild card” options — volunteering with the Peace Corps in The Gambia, West Africa — beckoned me to embark on the adventure of a lifetime.
Since graduating from St Andrews and accepting this invitation from the Peace Corps, the tone and content of this blog will shift to encompass the details and the spirit of my Peace Corps journey. This is why the panic attack I suffered as today’s morning alarm and its cause are significant. Though I hazard over-sharing, I aim to be truthful and to document all of my experiences along this journey: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Last month I was told that I would not be granted medical clearance to serve in The Gambia. My Peace Corps journey effectively ended before it even began, and that certainty of purpose I was reaching for had vanished.
When I was in junior high, I had a teacher who intentionally failed me on several assignments. I gathered all the courage a twelve year old could muster and questioned him about his grading, for I was confused as to why I kept receiving such poor marks though I always answered questions correctly and exceeded curriculum expectations. He looked me in the eyes and said simply, “You need to learn how to fail.” At the time I was outraged. I believed that it was not his place to instill such a lesson, especially if his “teaching” reflected poorly on my transcripts, transcripts that I thought would determine my future. I also could not understand why success was something to be punished, especially in the context of a student-teacher, child-adult relationship. I wonder to this day why this teacher felt that discouraging the success of a bright child who is eager to learn was something he felt the need to do. And what this teacher perhaps never anticipated is how his “lesson” has stayed with me for over a decade later, and not in a wholly positive way.
Looking back, though, I realize that this teacher was right. Failure and I are not intimately acquainted. There have been moments in the past five years that felt very much like personal failure, and those experiences have admittedly been detrimental to my self-esteem. Yet I have learned from these moments how to be self-sufficient and strong, how to gather up my pieces, stitch them back together, and continue on the path I have laid out for myself. Most importantly, as I have gotten older I have learned that there is indeed a difference between mere disappointment and outright failure. So, this teacher was right; I do not fail often, mostly because the hiccups and roadblocks I have encountered in the past five years were not catastrophic, but merely moments of disappointment that encouraged self-growth.
I am relaying this story to you because this idea of learning to fail immediately came to my mind when I received word that I might not go to The Gambia. This was the moment that truly revealed to me the difference between disappointment and failure. Yet while the news has quite honestly devastated me, as the certainty of purpose that came with my invitation to go to The Gambia seemed to turn to ash in my hands as I read the reason for denying my medical clearance, it is not how this has affected me personally that makes me feel as though I have utterly failed. Rather, it is the thought of the teachers I will not be able to support, the children I will not be able to tell stories to, the community members I will not be able to befriend, and the experiences I will not be able to share with my friends and family that has me feeling like I have failed, for I have failed them.
One of my greatest ambitions in life is to live meaningfully, and I believe that the path towards doing so entails cultivating rich, diverse relationships across the globe with the goal of cross-cultural sharing and understanding. I believe that all of us have an integral role to play in the making of this kind of world; mine, so far as I know, is to tell stories about where I have been and the people I have the privilege to call “friend.” While this is not a world-changing or even life-changing part to play, I like to think that something as simple as sharing a story can indeed have an impact, no matter how small it may be. The denial of my medical clearance for the Peace Corps, and the ever-looming reality that I may very well not go to The Gambia thus makes me feel as though I have not fulfilled my duty, that I have failed the people that I know and those who I have yet to meet.
The panic attack that heralded my day was my response to a vivid nightmare about the Peace Corps denying my clearance I had in the moments prior to waking. In my dream, I was at a tribunal that would decide whether my appeal against this denial would be granted or not. No matter how ardently I pleaded, how persuasively I argued, the Nightmare Council would not grant my appeal and told me that the Peace Corps had no use for me. The stress of my waking life had finally infiltrated my dreams. The raw emotion I felt in the dream — the impetus for my “good morning” panic attack — emphasizes just how important my future with the Peace Corps is to me, and how desperately I wish to go to The Gambia to offer support in any way that I am able. And so I felt the urge to document my struggle with this turn of events, and just how it affects the purpose that I thought I had finally achieved.
Currently I am waiting to hear if the appeal I made to the Peace Corps medical board was successful. It is my hope that the letters of support from three physicians, in addition to a personal appeal I penned myself outlining my experience with the condition in question and my passion for service with the Peace Corps, will be sufficient to validate my case. However, I was warned that appeals are rarely granted, and even when they are, they often come too late. Several people have been asking me whether I am excited to begin this new chapter in my life and how it is I am preparing for life in The Gambia, yet the stress of this situation has made me mute. How can I be excited if this dream, a dream of a meaningful life, is slowly drifting away from me?
Lately I have found the idiom “when pigs fly” to be rather suitable for describing the current state of my life. With this news from the Peace Corps, it feels as though what I hope to accomplish in my life really will only occur “when pigs fly.” I have begun to think that I should not hope so ardently that my appeal will be granted and that I should strive to create more concrete contingency plans. 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. And yet…
While wandering aimlessly around the city one evening, all of these thoughts muddying my clarity of mind and weighing heavily on my heart, I happened to glance up and see an illustration of a small winged pig sitting dreamily on a ledge, a beautiful blue sky to his back. Much like the message in my chocolate telling me to go to The Gambia in the first place, I am a firm believer in the universe sending us little reminders of what it is we are meant to do when we are unsure of ourselves. The wee flying pig that I saw that night seems to me that the universe has given me a sign to keep hope alive.
Misneach – An Irish word meaning courage
Surrounded by songbirds lamenting the waning warmth of summer and with a steaming mug of coffee by my side, I settled down to read Brian Doyle’s The Plover one crisp September morning, not really knowing what to expect. Doyle’s hero Declan O’Donnell, narrating from an erratic and darkly humorous stream of consciousness, chases the endless horizon of the Pacific. The aim of his voyage: to escape civilization and in some ways himself. Yet much like our own lives his journey does not unfold as intended, as a small nation of misfits and eccentrics accompanies him aboard The Plover.
The word misneach resounds throughout the novel like a chorus, serving as Declan’s modus operandi while he struggles to overcome his own weaknesses and loneliness. As my eyes flitted over this word and took in Declan’s interpretation of its meaning — “don’t drown, stay with the ship” — I felt as though I had been turned inside-out.
During my time as a literature student I spent countless hours chipping novels away to their bare bones. I find myself more critical of contemporary novels as a result, and it is rare that I find a book that grabs me by the soul and commands my greatest attention. Yet Doyle’s The Plover did just that, leaving me utterly captivated. When we unexpectedly stumble upon a novel, a film, or a piece of music that resonates with our circumstances at that time — or seems to understand the most hidden parts of ourselves — it is in these moments that I believe in Fate. The Plover struck me so keenly because with the meandering and maddening voice of Declan, Doyle effectively captures what it feels like to be rudderless. And that is exactly what I was: adrift.
Like a plough horse — whose whole existence is focused on hard work and driving relentlessly for a goal — cannot cope with idle ease, I too was restless and upset without something to work for. I had no goal to strive towards: no job prospects despite my education and enthusiasm, having to defer my graduate school plan as a result, and living each day 3,000 miles away from my closest friends. I began to doubt myself once more, questioning whether the goals I had set for my life were too grand, too fantastic for someone like me.
It was around this time, misneach quietly drifting through my mind like a whisper, that my mother suggested I apply to join the Peace Corps. I recalled a very keen desire to do so in my early teen years, devouring any book I could get my hands on about the volunteer experience. Yet in the wild turn my life had taken during that time — deciding on a whim to move to Scotland for university — I had all but forgotten that serving others had once been a great ambition of mine. A small, fragile shaft of light began to creep out from behind the clouds I had been under. While I have never volunteered before, I began to see the Peace Corps as a way to not only rekindle this love of helping others, but to marry it with my passion for international travel and learning firsthand the intricacies of another culture nurtured during my time in St Andrews. But most importantly, it was the opportunity to have a purpose once more.
So I diligently worked on an application, yet not without trepidation. The doubt that had plagued me throughout the summer — the doubt that told me I was not good enough to live the life I dreamed — lurked over my shoulder as I agonized over my mission statement. Why should such a reputable organization like the Peace Corps accept me: a person with little career experience, a person who only knows how to be a student, and a person who has never done anything as adventurous, daring, and selfless as this in her life?
Once again I was proven wrong. On November 29th, 2016, I received my invitation to serve as a teacher trainer in The Gambia, West Africa beginning in May 2017.
In the beats before opening that letter I felt my little heart steadily slow until I was unsure of whether it was truly beating. Much like my acceptance into St Andrews, I believe this moment will be seared into my memory as a day in which my life changed irrevocably. Unlike St Andrews, however, I did not feel the same heart-bursting and soul-lifting joy. I ascribed this hesitance to several benign excuses cluttering my thoughts: “I truly wanted to serve in Mongolia and not The Gambia, where even is The Gambia, it is probably too hot in West Africa for a Michigan-born and Scotland-raised girl like me, and do I even have the skills necessary to be an effective teacher trainer in the first place?”
Yet I began to realize how all of this empty postulating and excuse generating was merely done to bury the true issue at hand. The more the rejection emails, the loneliness, and the absence of direction in my life weighed on my heart, the more I regressed into the person I was; the person I vowed I would never be again. In resettling myself into my armchair, surrounded by my books, I had chosen comfort and safety over living a full life: dirt and all. Rather fortuitously, I had fished a Dove chocolate out of the wee bowl atop my mother’s work desk, as I had been wandering the city for the day and had returned for that fateful interview the hour prior. Dove chocolates are known for their cute and uplifting messages written on the underside of the wrapper, silly and meaningless in any other circumstance. The two words scrawled on my wrapper, however, stopped my heart completely.
With these words in my palm and misneach ringing in my ears, I knew then what I had to do.
In four months I will be off to Washington D.C. for the staging event, then I will board a plane destined for a country I could never have foreseen myself traveling to, much less living in. The next two years will be spent amongst heat and dust; I will most likely be without electricity and running water, and I will be even further out of contact with my friends and family than I have ever been. Am I scared silly? Yes. Do I regret my decision? Not in the slightest; misneach, after all.
The thought of being an enthusiastic and supportive teacher trainer yielding a positive impact on the community in which I am placed serves as a balm for my doubts and fears. However, it is what the Gambian people may offer to teach me regarding their history and their culture that truly excites me about the years to come, and makes up the heart of my motivation to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer. To teach and be taught in return: this reciprocal relationship and educational opportunity beyond my books or the university class strikes me as one of the most enriching aspects of the Peace Corps experience, and speaks directly to my curious and passionate soul.
As J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in The Fellowship of the Ring, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” Deciding to accept this invitation from the Peace Corps and commit to living a life so unlike any I have ever known will amount to the most courageous thing I have done to date. However, what it is I wish to do with the time I have been given is to learn, to love, and to live meaningfully. So cheers to new adventures and to the beginning of chapter two.