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Alex Y. Ding Headshot

The Things I Carry: A Bridge Year in Rural West Africa

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SENEGAL VILLAGE
Nicolas Thibaut via Getty Images

The announcement I carried a parasite was met with mild hysteria amongst the inhabitants of Grove Circle. My mother, frenetic as mothers are wont to be, was locked in vigorous debate with my father -- and really, anyone who would listen -- on the merits of hiring a hazmat team to cleanse my entire 400-person West African village. They were long overdue for a deep cleanse, as it was.

While my mother panicked over the live parasite I now carried in my digestive tracks, two continents and an ocean over, I was happily reminded of something Alice Hoffman once wrote: "Some things you carry around inside you as though they were part of your blood and bones, and when that happens, there's nothing you can do to forget."

After three months in rural West Africa, my blood and bones surely carry a fair sum of parasites, bugs and amoebas -- but they also carry something infinitely more interesting: memories from one year in rural Senegal that have now come to define me. These memories -- serving ataya to Baba; spitting rapid-fire Fula dance moves on the Islamic New Year; star-lit poops under a constellation turned upside down; transplanting bassalle, onion in local Pulaar-speak, in the USAID Master Farm; candid cross-cultural sharing sessions about sex and family planning; watching my host mother die -- which I sometimes visit in dream, have come to define me, and the development of my character, principles and practices. They remind me of my capacity to adapt and of my ability to immerse myself into a wildly new environment, finding peace and love where I did not anticipate it. I carry these memories -- and their lessons -- with me wherever I go: how to laugh and communicate across language and culture; how to just be, rather than do; how to find peace in a well-chosen tree, or anywhere; and how to be in control even in moments of apparent desperate chaos and confusion.

I still have three months in the village remaining, but I sometimes dream about coming home. In the dream, I arrive home. I empty my dust-ridden, travel-beaten bag in which I carry relics of my village life as Adama Hawa Ba, feeling profoundly and abruptly empty myself, as if some critical part of me remained in the foothills of JaWelli Pelel Kindessa.

Before Senegal, some restive, fickle part of me thought I was done finding myself -- that I could carry no more, and that my pack was already full. I was wrong, of course. Most of it, whatever it is I'm looking for, is still out there somewhere. Waiting to be explored, built, gingerly examined and taken with me wherever I go, in a pack labeled: "Contents: bones, blood and memories. Carry with care, and remember: contents unbreakable."