A Letter to My Host Mom

 To my host mom who only speaks Wolof – a language I don’t yet. Here are some things I wanted to say in those early days spent in silence.

Sama yaay,
I still don’t know what to call you. Even beginning this letter I’m not sure how to address it. In my time here you have played an interesting role; you are four years older than me, barely the age of an older sister, but the way you mother people begs the addition of many years. From the moment we met (I walked in while you nursed the baby, you smiled at me without words, do you remember?) I knew you wouldn’t feel like an older sister. I knew you knew how to take care of people. So I hope you’re okay with this being addressed to sama yaay, or, my mother.

I want to talk about the many times you advocated for me in those first few months. I only know that you did this because after you said something, the people would stop laughing and you would give me that nod you give when something is finished. I wanted to thank you for that. In those days it felt like an uphill battle, but you climbed it with me and you never complained.

Right now, your eighteen month-old is in that stage where she imitates other people; I feel the same as Wolof begins to grow into my personality. There are small moments I catch myself imitating you without realizing it. I say “waaw” with your gentle purpose and sometimes I even do the nod. I wash the dishes like you, and your attaya is the one I’m learning how to make. I love watching you glide around the house in the mornings, sprinkling salt into steel pots while the sun disrupts the shadows of the kitchen sink. (That one time the water flooded out of the faucet, we nearly jumped up and down, do you remember?) You are a superhero as you fold your skirt up to your knees and juggle cooking, cleaning, and caring for the baby. Somehow you are always one step ahead of me, but one day I hope to match your pace.

On my third day here I said thank you. I couldn’t say much more than that, but I wanted to say thank you for taking in this random toubab and caring about her as she stumbles and chokes and gets in your way while you cook. “Of course”, you replied, “you’re just like the baby,” and I laughed at that metaphor as it popped up for the 87th time in my Global Citizen Year experience. I continued in broken Wolof: “No, I really have a lot of respect for you,”. You did the nod. “Waaw“.

But here’s what I would’ve said if I could’ve said it, here’s what I want to say everyday when the words won’t form to my contorted tongue: I am so grateful to be here and to learn from you. I like the way you care about people; not only the baby, or your husband, or even me, but the community. I like how you look around the room every ten minutes to make sure everyone is okay. I wanted to continue our conversation that one night (the night we became real to eachother, we sat on the couch and really spoke for the first time, do you remember?) When I finally understood that you’d lived 22 years before that moment, and you understood I’d lived 18. I’m sorry that I didn’t know what to say after you answered the specific questions I’d worked hard to translate, but I want you to tell me more about what it was like growing up, or how you realized that respect was your favorite value. What would you do if you could do anything in the world? Who is your hero? What is most important to you? I’m so excited to know you – to explore our lives that are so similarly full of stories and joy and struggle, and so different in context.

You asked me last week if I missed home. I said I missed it sometimes. What I wanted to say was that homesickness has been the most crippling aspect of this whole experience, but every day your simple smile makes it a little better. I miss home, of course, but there are things I haven’t completed here. There are things I have to tell you that I can’t yet: like how that dress with the purple flowers is my favorite. Or how you leave me in awe with 24 potatoes on your head and a newborn on your hip. Or everything I’ve written in this letter. The life I left for 8 months will be there when I return, but I left it for reasons you help me discover everyday. Maybe one day I can tell you what they are.