I often thought about the day I would leave my village in an abstract, “that will never happen” kind of way. I was always too far away from the actual day to try and spend energy on thinking about it or too close to the day to want to think about it. I qualify the “leaving village day” on the same level as those other momentous transitional events that are often an inevitable part of the future, but when they finally arrive the reaction is still shock, bewilderment, and a mix of non-coinciding emotions (sad/happy, excited/terrified…etc).
It has now been two weeks from today that I left my village and now that the realization of leaving is finally starting to sink in, I have had time to think about just how far I’ve come from that first moment I knew that Peace Corps was exactly what I wanted to do…
The day I decided to join Peace Corps, I was 20 years old, newly returned from the abroad trip that opened my eyes to the world, and standing under the Jesuit banners strung throughout Creighton’s community hall proclaiming all of things I had slowly started to believe in over the last few years of college, most ardently, Men and Women for and with Others. There was a young blonde woman with a winning smile who had set up a recruitment table for the Peace Corps. There was something about her, maybe it was her attitude, or the depth I saw in her eyes, or her calm self-confidence, but whatever it was, I wanted it.
I haven’t looked back from that moment. Through the applications that I thought would never end and then finally being accepted, to the fear of leaving the people I loved the most in the world for 2 years, to boarding the plane to Senegal with 53 other strangers for a 27 month assignment in a world I knew nothing about with people I knew nothing about, to getting dropped off in a village full of mud huts and people staring at me as I watched the Peace Corps car disappear in a cloud of red dust down the bush path, to the many other minutes that became days and then months and now finally years that have changed my life. Years that I will never forget. Those beginning obstacles launched me into my life full of adventure, self-discovery, and a rollercoaster of emotions that chucked me deep into the darkest places of hatred and anger I fearfully discovered inside myself and then just as suddenly catapulted me up and away with joy, a refreshed hope, and a love for this place and these people that was so secure I didn’t ever think I could leave or be angry again.
The day I left village was a culmination of everything finally realized and expressed, both on my side and the side of my host family, that this had been something profound, a time that could never be repeated, and a bond we will remember for the rest of our lives. In a culture that is slow to show emotion and affection, even on the last day, I experienced a new side to the people I had been living with for two years and a new side to myself. I also realized how much love and respect had been built between people who couldn’t have been more different. Before, we had inhabited two completely separate worlds and slowly, through patience and a willingness to overlook each other’s cultural faux pas, we learned to share one.
I had known the day was coming and I had tried to prepare myself in a way that would be the least harmful to my family and to myself. I didn’t want to cry. I wouldn’t cry, I told myself. Before this day all of my emotional tantrums and breakdowns had been done secretly behind my locked hut door or on one of my many walks into the woods on the outskirts of the village. No one had ever seen Mariama Camara cry and I didn’t see why it had to change.
The day before I was supposed to leave, I prepared my goodbye speech to the village. Many of the men were still out in the fields, but my host family was present, as were most of the women in my village and the elders. I had prepared the speech ahead of time, hoping that if I had it all written out and practiced I could read it and be done with it. When there seemed to be a sizeable crowd, I stood up and everyone grew silent.
I have known these people and spoken in front of them for two years now and yet my hands were still shaking. Everyone’s eyes were on me. I began by thanking them and telling them that my work here was over, but that I knew there was still work to be done. They would be getting a new volunteer in the next coming months.
So far, so good.
But then I got to the middle of the speech…
You have become my family and my friends and even when I wronged you, you did not show it. You have showed me respect and hospitality in my two years here and for that you will be in my heart forever. I know that I will have a home in the village of Sinchurio Samba Foula until the day that I die and I will always call this home…
That’s where I broke down. And then my village broke down. I struggled to control myself. Come on Whitney pull yourself together. But as I listened to my host mother sob and even saw Ibrahima wiping tears from his eyes, I couldn’t quite pull it all the way together. I managed lamely to finish the rest of my speech about continuing the agroforestry work here in the village and forgiving and asking forgiveness of everyone in the village as is the tradition in Pulaar farewells. Then I abruptly told everyone I was going for a walk and would be back shortly. I left the women wiping their eyes and Mari nodding that she had understood me.
The rest of the evening was just as memorable because I was able to have story time with many of my favorite women and children in the village.
The next morning, my bags were packed and when I walked outside my family nervously greeted me and asked me when the sept place would be arriving.
9:00, I said.
Okay, said Mari and she twisted her hands. Come and eat your gossi ,Mariama, you don’t want to be hungry on the way to Dakar.
You know what? Who wants coffee? I exclaimed. Let’s have bread and coffee before the car gets here. I ran into my room and gave my brother Boye the money to go get stuff to make a breakfast that would keep our minds off the coming sept place.
Earlier I had called one of my friends who is a driver at the garage. I trusted him to give me a fair price and to be a safe driver and even when he couldn’t drive me himself, he always put me with one of his relatives also in the business who was just as good hearted and wonderful as he was. Today it was his younger brother, Sergay, who showed up with his sept place and pulled into the compound.
I greeted him and asked him to take some coffee before we loaded the bags. Ibrahima jumped on his motorcycle in order to collect my brothers who had been sent to the cotton field early that morning. I had requested they be let off work to tell me goodbye.
I had already cried once before when I gave my goodbye speech to the village. I really didn’t want to do it again, but even as I watched the mournful faces of my family look at the sept place and understand what it meant for all of us, I felt telltale tears pooling in my eyes again.
My brothers finally came back from the field. The two youngest aboard their father’s motorcycle, and Sidou, the oldest, running behind. News had spread through the village that a sept place had come to pick me up and my favorite people were now streaming into the compound to say goodbye. There were many children there, my friend Hawa from across the path, my tocara and her parents, the women’s president and her husband, one of the chief elders and right hand man to the chief. My brothers busily started hauling my bags to the car. And when the last bag was loaded it was time to say goodbye.
I turned to face the small crowd that had gathered around the sept place.
I won’t forget you, I said, trying to sound strong. And it will be fine because I’ll be in Dakar, not at home in America. I’ll be back.
But even with my reassuring words people were crying. I offered each person my left hand, in the traditional farewell goodbye that means, I have to come back and right this left handshake. I was doing fine, until it came time to say goodbye to my family. I looked into Boye’s eyes who had been standing quietly watching everyone say goodbye. He looked so sad.
I had never given my brothers a hug because as I have said before, Pulaar culture does not hug and is not really affectionate in that way. I had never seen hugs traded between the family, but now I was going to give them an American goodbye. I don’t think I could have done it any other way. A handshake for me in that moment wouldn’t have sufficed.
So leaning down, I gave Boye a big hug and told him I would be back. To my surprise, he threw his arms around me and hugged me back. It was amazing how natural the hug seemed to be in that moment, even for a boy who had never given or gotten a hug within the boundaries of his culture. This made us both start to cry.
One by one, I gave each of my brothers a hug and they all returned it fiercely, as if they had been hugging since the day they were born. They were all crying.
Mari was sobbing and I threw my arms around her. It was a more awkward hug due to the fact that she was crying so hard and because she is so short, but she managed to hug me back and tell me to get to Dakar safely and peacefully.
And then there was Kumba. Kumba, my baby girl, the one I didn’t know if I could ever leave. She still didn’t understand what was going on, but was worked up by all the crying. When I told her to come to me, she ran away, thinking it was a game.
Kumba! Mari snapped. Give Mariama your hand, you won’t see her again!
That sobered her up and she slowly came towards me. I picked her up and she threw her arms around my neck. I hugged her for a few moments and slowly put her back down.
Be good, I told her. Keep reading your books, you hear!
And finally, I made my way slowly over to the chief. He had been sitting where he always sits beneath his shade structure, watching everything unfold. He hadn’t spoken or done anything, and now as I approached him his eyes were drawn down.
I outstretched my left hand and he put out his own. When he finally raised his head, there were tears in his eyes. He looked so sad, that it made me cry again.
We clasped hands and then he said, Just go.
I nodded and turned toward the car. I got in and Sergay, the driver, took his cue and jumped in beside me.
The last thing I saw as we pulled out of the compound was my brothers crying, Mari hugging Kumba to her, and the chief sitting back behind the crowd, silently waving goodbye.