This post was contributed by Sophia Youngdahl via Global Citizen Year.
In the months before coming to Senegal, the thing I searched for the most was clarity. Clarity within myself, clarity in what the heck I was about to do with my life, clarity pertaining to who I would become and what would change over the course of eight months abroad. I don’t quite know what I expected to find in that clarity I so dearly longed for, what type of peace it would bring me. I always found my own definition in the definitions that other people gave me. Like any semi-motivated seventeen year old, I decided that I felt lost and needed to “find myself”. I thought that it would bring me all the answers I needed. I looked at my approaching gap year as my own personal problem solver, like a breath of clear air that would suddenly give me insight as to who I was and what I wanted to be with a burning certainty. I was confident I would come back “found”. Ah, what a relief that would be!
I want to make something clear: I am not saying I was silly and naive and essentially a child before I came to Senegal; I am still silly and naive and essentially a child, just in different ways. I refuse to look back at who I was and laugh in superiority because I have these four months in Senegal under my belt. I am no better than I was then, no worse. More knowledgeable, maybe; more insightful, more critical, most definitely permanently changed. But in no way am I superior to who I was. I still have so much to learn, as I did then and as I always will.
I was wrong, though. Utterly and completely. I haven’t “found myself” yet, and I’m holding out hope that I never will.
I remember the feeling in my gut on drop off day, the day where all the fellows pack up into a bus and are dropped off, one by one, at their homes for the next eight months. That feeling of spontaneity, of not knowing what comes next, the feeling of absolute fear and excitement and maybe a twinge of ‘why am I doing this again?’ I can safely say that the first two months spent with my host family were the most lost I have ever felt. There were good days, there were bad days, there were days in between, and days where I really just wanted to go home. I had no idea what I was doing and half of the time had no idea what I was saying, let alone what other people were saying to me. I was clueless as to who I was or what I wanted or how I could find those things. Everything was just so muddled and unclear and I was just living, just existing.
And now, four months later, after learning more than I ever thought possible, after having mastered French and learning a whole lot of Wolof, after finding my place in my family and learning to love this place and call it home….
I am still lost!!
I am still living, still existing. And I cannot explain to you how happy that makes me.
In these past four months, I have become Adja Fall. I have learned to speak in Wolof, to express myself and have a meaningful conversation and have connections and, most importantly, to joke. I have been introduced to the infectious teranga (hospitality) that is present in all things here, felt its warmth curling around my heart and bringing an unconscious contented smile to my face at moments I have least expected it. I have found a family; a vibrant, loving family, with little brothers who never fail to make me laugh and sisters who have become my rock. I have learned the importance of music, finding a sort of peace in bi-weekly djembe lessons/ jam sessions/ band practices in the city. I have written poetry as if it were as necessary as breathing, found its significance in my life. I have learned to always greet people and shake with the right hand only and to never actually say no when offered food. I have felt the helplessness of homesickness and the absolute longing to be in comfort when shackled by fever. I have been sunburnt to a nice cherry-red, clogged a squat toilet, and (accidentally) called my host aunt, sister, and father one of the worst things you can be called in Wolof. I have had revelations and breakthroughs and mosquito bites and beautiful moments that I will always remember; I have met some of the most wonderful people in the world who have changed me in ways I can not even begin to describe.
And how can I “find myself” in all of that beautiful chaos? Why would I want to?
I have become so many different versions of myself in these past four months. I am constantly changing, constantly learning, constantly making mistake after mistake after mistake. I am almost halfway done with my gap year and I now have even less of a clue what I want to do with my life. And I love it.
My conclusion is this: with adventure comes learning, and with learning comes knowledge, and knowledge brings with it the realization of how much there is to know and the vastness of what cannot be known. With formative experiences, your eyes are opened to all the new versions of yourself you could possibly be, to the different things you come to learn about and be passionate about.
So, no, I have not “found myself” in my gap year. I have only succeeded in becoming more lost; lost in the knowledge I’ve gained, in the love I feel, in the things I have become passionate about, in the people I have met. I mean “lost” in the best way; “lost” meaning that I am happily and consistently changing in all I am learning, in all I am gaining, and because of those feelings have no idea what I want to do in this world. I can’t put any definition to all I have learned because it has been so valuable, so formative to me. I am completely and utterly “unfound”. And in that, I find my clarity.
I will never “find myself” because I will always be changing, whether I am on a gap year or not. I will always learn new things and meet new people and change my opinions again and again and again. To me, “finding myself” seems to be the equivalent of settling for one version of myself, one unchanging definition I will hold to my whole life. We are human because we change, we are ourselves because we constantly add new depth and meaning to that word.
I learn new things about myself every day, change every day. As is the way of life. I feel like there are so many paths tangled up ahead of me, so many possibilities I could choose from, and I can honestly say I have absolutely no idea where I’ll end up. Remember that feeling of spontaneity I talked about earlier, the one I felt on drop-off day? I still feel that today. I always want to have that buzzing feeling with me, in some form or another. Because that is where the adventure lies. This experience has taught me that, and it is one of the most valuable lessons I have ever learned.
We don’t have to find ourselves, and we don’t have to try. As long as we seek to spread love and bring happiness with us wherever we go, in every small interaction, to leave a positive impact on the individuals we meet, then we are living with purpose. We don’t have to seek any definition beyond that. We remain unfound, undefined, learning from others as they learn from us.
So maybe I’m onto something here, or maybe I’m just a mess. Maybe a bit of both. I’ll leave that up to you. These are just semi-cheesy words from an eighteen-year-old somewhere in Senegal, typing under a mosquito net to the hushed breeze of a fan and the chirping of crickets outside her window. Take them as you choose.
Here’s to all my other unfound people out there, whether you’re sixteen or sixty, on a gap year or dropping the kids off at school. There is such beauty in being undefined. Don’t seek to be found; seek to change, seek to learn, seek to evolve. In that, we find adventure, in that we are all human.
Nungi fii rekk, alhamdulilah.
Thank you for reading my thoughts jumbled onto paper.
Sending all my love, always, to wherever you are in the world.
<3 Soph/ Adja Fall