Sunday, January 30, 2011

Love, Loss, and Not Letting Go

Part I - Love and Loss in the Information Age

Being 4,000 miles from home poses many challenges, physically, emotionally, and logistically.  Moving out of my house with little notice and leaving behind people and pets who I love was just the beginning.  Since my arrival, I’ve had to adjust to a daily life filled with cultural and language obstacles.  Most of this I was prepared to face, knowing it may be difficult at times.  I’d made contingency plans for logistics back home, I faced each cultural roadblock as a learning experience, and I continue to struggle with communication issues, but these are all things I was prepared to do because I expected them.

What I was not as prepared for was the unexpected--the real life things that happen to people everyday, but that you don‘t think will happen to you., especially when you are so far from your support system.  I was not prepared for the sudden death of a close friend, my faux-uncle and confident of 20 years, who was diagnosed with brain cancer a few weeks after I left the States.  He passed away soon thereafter, and the memorial service which I was very sad to have missed occurred the same day that the long-term relationship that I‘d left behind, hoping it would somehow be strengthened by a temporary physical separation and an exercise in self-reflection, took an unexpected nose dive and crashed to its ultimate demise.  I was not prepared for my sister to suddenly have serious health problems taking her in and out of the hospital with no definite diagnosis, leaving my family worried about what might happen next.  I was not prepared for my 13 year old dog who I left with a dear friend to develop a malignant tumor that would cause him to be put down, even though I knew in the back of my mind that he might have passed away from natural causes before I returned.  And lastly, I was not prepared to be attacked on the streets of Dakar last week, as an mugger tried to take my purse, leaving me with minor physical injuries, but emotional side effects that might stick around a while.

The loneliness and helplessness that come when you can’t actually be with the ones you love in their time of need, or in your own, take on a new dimension when your support network can only be reached through modern technology.  It’s the “boy in the bubble” scenario (Travolta, not Seinfeld).  I have the ability to speak with people over the phone or on Skype and to chat with people on Facebook and Gmail, which is a luxury Peace Corps Volunteers of the not-so-distant past certainly did not have, but it’s not the same as true human contact.  As the world gets more and more reliant on these communication methods, this is a good reminder that these will never replace the need for a hand to hold, a shoulder to cry on, or a glass to clink.  That being said, this is certainly the next best thing if you’re physically separated so I guess there a balance to be had.  Recently, a friend who was surprised at how accessible I was on-line asked me if I thought being so connected took away from my overall Peace Corps experience and I quickly responded, “No, it’s my lifeline.”   In retrospect, the answer is really YES, it does change the experience, but in a way that I’ve come to appreciate.  Being able to share my experiences, celebrate someone else’s joy, or provide some words of support makes me feel less lonely and less isolated.  My intention when joining the Peace Corps was to use the advantages I’d been given in life to give back to others, experience a world unknown to me, and in the process maybe discover something about myself.  I certainly had no notions of an “Into the Wild” fantasy where I cut off all contact with the outside world.

This ability to communicate with others has opened doors I never would have imagined.  People whom I’ve never met have found me through my blog or through other friends and have reached out to me to thank me for my service or to let me know that they‘ve been inspired to do something new and life-changing themselves.  Old friends who I’d lost touch with are back in my life and are cheering me on through my journey.  Classrooms of kids are being introduced to a part of the world they’d never heard of before and are becoming inquisitive about their global surroundings.  None of this would have been possible had I only the antiquated third world postal system to use for communication.

 Part II - Not Letting Go

Women of my generation have been trained from a very early age what to do in the case of an attack.  In fact, I’d had a refresher just a few months ago during our Peace Corps Pre-Service Training.  Most of the advice you’re given focuses on how to protect yourself from a physical and/or sexual assault and how to alert other people’s attention to what‘s happening.  For a robbery, though, the advice is almost always to let the attacker have what he asks for to avoid being physically assaulted.  Somehow, probably because my robbery took the form of an sudden attack, my instincts told me otherwise.  As is likely the case in most of these incidences, my assailant appeared from out of nowhere.  One minute I was walking down the street and the next minute I was being dragged down it.  The mugger came running at me from behind and tried to grab my purse which was strapped diagonally across my chest.  Since it didn’t just slip off my arm, I was thrown to the ground and my hands immediately latched onto the strap to stop him from taking it.  My grip became gecko-like, and my fingers held onto that strap as if my life depended on it.  Ironically, had I just let go, I probably wouldn’t be as bruised and battered as I am now because our struggle continued for quite some time.  I kicked and screamed and was determined to not let him prevail.  My friend who was walking just a stride behind me saw the whole thing tried to hit the guy to get him to stop, but he quickly elbowed her in the eye and knocked her to the ground.  People from the surrounding compounds came out in droves to assist us and ultimately chased the attacker off, luckily, without my purse.  We were just outside the apartment building where we were spending the night with an American English teacher we’d met when all of this occurred, literally just several feet from the door.  The building guard came out and helped us inside as we were both bleeding and in shock.  We called our Peace Corps security officer and within a half an hour, the Country Director was there to pick us up and take us to the Med Hut (the medical unit at the Peace Corps office) which was just 500 meters away and where the security office was awaiting our arrival.

Although our injuries were minor (scrapes, bruises, a black eye, and sore muscles), we were both pretty shaken up and stayed in the Med Hut for several nights.  The Peace Corps medical officer was great and the security officer followed up on the case first thing the next morning.  Apparently, the neighbors who’d come to our assistance recognized our attacker as someone who lived in the neighborhood and had done this before.  One of the neighbors accompanied us to the Gendarmerie (the national police) to identify him, which was great, because despite the fact that I’d spent several minutes looking at my attacker straight in the face while trying to fend him off I don’t think I’d be able to identify him in a line-up.  It’s strange what the mind chooses to block out.

Unfortunately, our experience dealing with the Gendarmerie was not as positive as our experience with the Peace Corps staff.  The intake officer took one look at us and, before even hearing what we had to say, went on a tirade in Wolof about how stupid Toubab women are for walking alone at night and how we should have expected something like this to happen.  The officer in charge was not much better, as the first question out of his mouth was, “Why didn’t you have men with you?”  Aarrghh!, this patriarchal society makes me want to scream sometimes!  Although they were quick to judge us for the incident, in the end, they did take it seriously and plan to arrest the guy.

The process is interesting.  First of all, the reason we were dealing with the Gendarmerie and not the Police is because the attack occurred in the Village of N’Gor (a small village within the city limits of Dakar) and the Gendarmerie has jurisdiction over villages.  Once our initial complaints were filed, they gave the neighbor who accompanied us an official stamped warrant and asked him to take it to the Village Chief.  The warrant requested that the father of the young man who attacked us bring his son in voluntarily.  When I asked what would happen if they didn’t come in, they responded that they’d round up a group of people to go get him in the night, a veritable modern-day posse.  Wow!  We should find out what came to pass on Monday.  At this point, I’m not sure if we’ll be called back to Dakar to testify in an actual trial or if they’ll just throw him in the slammer based on our complaint.

It’s been several days now and my wounds have scabbed over and the swelling has gone down.  My back, arm, and leg muscles still ache from the struggle, but I suspect that, too, will subside in the coming days along with my headaches.  The initial shock that I experienced which left me a bit nauseous with wobbly knees and insomnia only lasted 36 hours or so.  What remains, I’m afraid, is a overactive startle-response that’s left me panicked three times already.  The day after the attack, my friend and I ventured to a grocery store a couple of blocks from the office to get some food to cook while we were there.  It was late afternoon and although we were on-guard, we felt safe enough walking there from the office as this strip of road was heavy populated and it was still light outside.  This was the same grocery store I blogged about a couple of  months ago that was overwhelming to me when I was in a normal state of mind, so I was a bit over stimulated on this trip and found it difficult to make decisions.  We wanted comfort food, but didn’t want to go through the process of having to decide what to buy and then cook it for ourselves.  This is definitely where a “mom” would have come in handy.  Anyway, that’s the position we found ourselves in, so I was standing at the cheese counter (naturally--all comfort food contains cheese) and the lights suddenly went out.  My knees gave out, I gasped for breath, broke out in a sweat, and collapsed into the side of the cheese case. This sudden change in my environment was so startling, yet power outages are daily occurrences in Senegal. The generator popped on within seconds and I quickly recovered.  Yesterday, something similar happened.  I was able to catch a ride halfway back to my site with the Peace Corps security officer and a team of people who were heading to a meeting in Thiès.  They planned to help me at the Garage and put me in a Sept-Place back to Diourbel.  Along the way, we stopped at another volunteer’s village for a quick visit.  I asked to use her bathroom and while squatting over her toilet, a squirrel jumped from a tree onto the tin roof, clamoring above my head.  The same physical reaction occurred, yet I was precariously hovering over a Turkish toilet.  I guess this was a prime location to have the shit scared out of me, but apparently (and thankfully) that turns out to be just a figure of speech!  I was able to pull myself together.  Even today, as I’ve been typing this story, a group of young kids came into our compound looking for my host-Dad.  I told them he’d just left for a few hours and they said they’d come back later.  I shut the door of the compound when they left, so I could continue writing undisturbed, however, a few minutes later I heard a knock at the door.  My room is quite a distance from the door, so it took my a minute or so to get there and the knocking continued as I approached the door.  When I opened it, the young girl on the other side was not standing where I had expected her to be, but was in the process of climbing up the door to peer over the top.  This caught me so off guard that I jumped back and lost my breath again, hyperventilating and scaring this poor little girl who was just coming back to find out what time my host-Dad would be returning.  Yikes!  I guess I’m going to have to live with this side effect for a little while, but hopefully, it will pass sooner than later.

It may sound silly, but I’m glad I walked away from this experience without having my purse taken.  Somehow, it feels empowering not to have let him have it.  I know I’m lucky that he didn’t whip out a knife or seriously hurt me, but if he’d gotten away with my things I would have felt so much more violated.  There are a lot of strong women in my life and each of them, upon hearing this story, has commended me on not letting go of my purse.  It may not be text-book advice to put up a fight for things that are surely replaceable, but it definitely made me feel less helpless.

Writing about these experiences for my friends and family to read is not the same telling you in person and then sharing a hug, a glass of wine, or a much-needed bowl of comfort food, but it has helped me process what's happened and hopefully will help me move on.

As I know from past experiences, "time will heal all wounds."


  1. From a Mali RPCV -- your post is very impressive. i am amazed at how you are coming to terms with your experiences and working through them so therapeutically. it's inspiring to me in my current trials and tribulations in america. you are going to be hugely successful in your service. obviously the gendarmes didn't treat you right. within the senegalese cultural context maybe you can help senegalese women be more empowered to stand up to those who don't treat them right, and by helping them overcome their insecurities your own physical reactions will subside. you will also learn the other side of senegalese culture not just the gendarmes perspective but the women's perspectives. by holding on to your purse you have proven yourself to be a natural leader in this regard. you are a hero. go with it, channel it to help others as well.

  2. Hi April~ I'm sending you a BIG HUG!! I'm so sorry you had to experience this. I am impressed though at your strength and admire you for hanging on to your purse. You are a hero dear; what a wonderful example you've set for the women there. YOU are exactly what they need; a woman setting an example of strength and courage. NOT a woman needing a man to protect her!! Although, they are good for other things ;)

  3. I'm still reading your blog, even though the cast of characters has changed since PST. It is always fascinating and wonderfully written. A little scary this time, though. You are in my prayers. A cyber hug from me, too! Linda

  4. Hey, girl-- Way to hang in there! I'm catching up after a couple of months of computer down time; enjoyed reading your posts!

    -Jane K

  5. I have been here almost 3 weeks now butI just want to thank you for sharing your story. I am a guy so it is different but you wrote this story in a way that made me feel like I was actually there. I am living in Thies now so do hang in there and as you said time does heal all wounds.