When I was 24 years old, my husband and I moved to Guinea, West Africa. It was a monumental life step for us. Flying across the ocean was a big, turbulent step. Packing all of our belongings into six large trunks was a big step. Learning French, saying goodbye to our families, and surviving those first days of culture shock were all really big steps.
Stepping off that plane and taking in the thick humidity, the vibrantly colored traditional outfits the people were wearing, the different languages swirling around, the reality that this was our new home – these were all part of an unforgettable, dramatic change. Life was suddenly very different! I no longer had the convenience of a Walmart down the street or the freedom to jump in my car and drive to wherever I wanted or needed to go. I couldn’t swing through Dairy Queen for a blizzard when the temperature climbed and I had a craving.
If I were to guess, I’d say that experience, that first-time-in-Africa, full-on culture shock place where I was for the first few months after we arrived, would probably rate at a 9 on the 1-10 scale. 10, of course, being the most dramatic change, the most difficult, the closest you can come to wanting to be sent back to mommy… and good American candy bars. Now don’t get me wrong, I loved those early hazy days in Africa. As picturesque as it may sound, I woke up under our mosquito net and I loved the feeling. We had arrived. We were finally in Guinea. The place we had been reading about, planning and preparing for, and even dreaming of. I woke up with a sense of excitement and adventure because I knew this was where we were supposed to be. But nevertheless, we were far from the home we knew, and the adjustment was not going to be easy.
Fast forward four months and we were evacuated out of Guinea in just a few days due to political unrest. What we couldn’t fit in our suitcases we left for our African friends that we had grown to love and respect. Leaving was harder than we could have imagined, and leaving under those circumstances, bullets flying and people fearing for their lives, was a heartbreaking and sobering experience.
One quick flight later, and we had arrived in Senegal, a neighboring West African country. We tried our best to quickly plant our roots, never having planned to live in Senegal. We continued with our French language studies, this time out of the classroom and around the kitchen table with a local language helper. After a few years of living in the capital city of Dakar, we moved to the southern part of the country commonly referred to as the Casamance region. We moved into a village to work with a small local church, teach English, and help out with a variety of community projects.
Moving is a big deal. Up to that point we had moved somewhere around 11 times in our young marriage. This move required us to board a 14-hour overnight ferry that would take us near the village we were moving to.
The boat trip was rocky and people were sick. I was petrified that we were going to capsize. With every wave I kept questioning, “Was that bigger than the last one?” Sadly in 2002 Le Joola ferry (different boat, same route) did capsize and 1,863 people died. That’s more casualties than the Titanic, and yet, not many people know about it.
The next morning my fears quickly vanished when I found myself eating a warm baguette and drinking café au lait while watching dolphins jump the waves alongside our ferry. It was breathtaking. It was exciting because we were moving to yet another home… and we were almost there. And we had survived the overnight boat trip. Something I felt very brave for doing.
Sitting inside our white cement village home, a half-completed house with an African family sharing the same courtyard, I was able to take a deep breath after our cross-country move and our adventurous tales at sea. As I caught my breath and took a look around, I felt so overwhelmed I didn’t know what to do or where to begin. I couldn’t unpack because we didn’t have any closets or shelves. I didn’t have any friends I could call to come help me. I didn’t speak much of the same language as my neighbors (my level and their level in French only took us so far) and aside from my husband, there wasn’t an American in sight.
Over the next year we slowly morphed into who we needed to be in the village. With time, grit, sacrifice, and the help of our previous experiences in West Africa, we adjusted. Our adjustment was beyond the physical longing for a cheeseburger and a friend who spoke English, and it was beyond us learning the local greetings and having to swallow a fish eyeball with onion sauce on it. We morphed into who we needed to be as friends and neighbors to those around us. We learned by watching and we learned by asking a child-like amount of questions about everything we didn’t understand. We opened our hearts and our doors even when it pushed us, yet again, outside of our comfort zone. We allowed our neighbor Yassine to adopt us as her children, and we tried not to shy away from being corrected when we crossed those cultural boundaries that were so foreign to us. We learned what community meant in that context and how to integrate into the local way of life.
Boarding the plane that first took us to Guinea, Africa served as a high speed time capsule into a world and a life that we will never forget. It offered us six years of life lessons on how to adapt, how to survive, how to make friends, how to dance to the beat of the drums, and most importantly, and the thing I’m most thankful for, it taught us how to embrace the challenges, the change in plans, and the unfamiliarity to find a full and vivacious life outside of the comfort zone we had always known.
*This is an essay I submitted for Real Simple’s Ninth Annual Life Lessons Essay Contest. The theme was “What was the most dramatic change you ever had to make?” While I didn’t win (sure would have been nice to win $3,000…), I sure enjoyed the opportunity to think through and write out my answer. I thought I’d share it here on the blog with you, so at least someone can read it! What about you? What would your answer be?