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Citizenship

I moved to a rural village in Senegal and this is what I found

Olivia Orosco

I now live in Pelel Kendessa, a sprawling village nestled in the mountains that separate Senegal from Guinea. I’m the eldest of seven siblings, each of whom is louder than the last. I share my hut with birds and the occasional mouse. I can often be found chopping corn with my father, playing soccer with my friends, or passing out under my neighbors’ mango trees.

The day I first heard my new name, Abdul Godri, we piled our luggage into the bed of a beaten-up old pickup and climbed in to sit on top of it. I should’ve known it was about to get real when we ditched the van. Paved streets are a rarity in the south of Senegal, and we sped down a dirt road littered with potholes and giant mud puddles that just beckoned tires to get stuck in them. Hour after hour, the truck swerved to avoid these as I said adieu to my fellow Global Citizen Year fellows, each finding his or her new home. Suddenly, it was raining–perhaps raining isn’t the correct word–suddenly, it was pouring. The high stalks of corn confused my sense of direction as we arrived at my team leader’s village and I grew nervous.

Soaking wet and shivering, I said goodbye to my last friend and got back into the truck feeling alone in a country whose many languages I could not understand.

I remember someone telling me that the road to Pelel from Dindefello (my team leader’s home) is rough. Not only was it rough, I think it actually may have changed my definition of the word ‘road.’ As we started down this road, I couldn’t help but feel terrified for where I was about to live.

Let’s pause for a quick flashback. Seven weeks ago, I first read the name of my village. Pelel Kendessa. I rolled it around on my tongue, horribly mispronouncing it, and sprinted to the map of Senegal on the other side of the room.

Now, some maps are too small to be extensively detailed. This a perfectly valid excuse and I give props to the poor guy who has to fit a name like Lake Chaubunagungamaug in a centimeter of space. Before me, however, was a 9 sq. ft. map of Senegal. My friends beamed when they found their respective villages printed neatly in electronic font. When I saw where I was placed, however, my heart sank.

There, in the bottom right-hand corner, freshly written in pen, was my new home. So small and remote that it didn’t even deserve a spot on the map. If you were to find the middle of nowhere, odds are you’d be pretty close to Pelel. Alright, it’s a bit of an exaggeration, but as I stared at Senegal that day, that’s pretty close to how I felt.

Now where were we?

Oh yes, I was clutching my backpack with such terror that my knuckles turned white. And then something incredible happened.

Almost simultaneously, the sun came out and the truck stopped. And my life turned into a Charlie Chaplin skit. A group of women, fifteen strong, was yelling at the driver, demanding a ride home from the market. The driver’s protests were drowned out and, one by one, they began to climb into the truck. A space that five of us had shared uncomfortably that morning quickly accommodated ten as well as various goods that the women had purchased. Someone passed me a bowl of beans. Someone else passed me a baby. There wasn’t enough room for all fifteen; it didn’t matter. The remainder climbed on top of the truck. And the ride of my life began.

By the time we ended up reaching Pelel, I was laughing along with the women. It was impossible not to. We stopped in front of the wooden fence that marks my home–then so foreign to me–and everyone climbed out of the bed. I was the last one to jump down into the mud when I realized something was wrong. All of my luggage was gone. I turned just in time to see my backpack disappear over the fence. Just as I was about to let out a protest, I felt a small hand clutch one of my fingers and pull me along with surprising strength. “Come, we go home.”

And home we went. I found my bags lying neatly in front of a hut and a family waiting for me with a name.

Six weeks later, I now call these my hut, my family, my name.

Looking back as I write this, I can’t help but laugh at how ridiculous and childish my fears seem. What was there to be afraid of? No running water? Fine by the end of the first day. No electricity? Actually nice by the second night. No toilet paper? I don’t think twice when I reach for the bidet.

A few weeks ago, my friend said something that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind since: this place humbles you. I’ve been laughed at for–among countless other things–my basic understandings of French and Pulaar, my inability to touch hot objects, and the way I draw water from the well. Nobody cares about my high school report card. Nobody thinks the name of the college on my t-shirt is impressive. Nobody asks what I want to be when I grow up and get a real job in the real world. Instead, they ask me how I slept, or whether my family is healthy, or command me to eat, or invite me to dance, or any of the millions of other things that all happen in the span of a day.

And it’s beautiful. Overwhelmingly beautiful. Women who sing when they work in the garden and balance loads of water, laundry, and rice on their heads (often at the same time). Men who hold hands with one another when they walk. Children who have no toys but laugh at ear-splitting volumes. The sheer nature of the place.

It’s beautiful and it’s here and it matters.


This article was written by Jackson Harris, a 2016 Global Citizen Year Fellow living in Senegal. Read more about Jackson's experiences during his bridge year on his blog .


The views expressed here are not necessarily those of each of the partners of Global Citizen.


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