My Wolof instructor, Pierre, taught me about core African values, one being Fulla. Pierre illustrates Fulla as, “being able to look at someone seriously and say, ‘I don’t like that, don’t do that again’, make sure he or she hears you and then go on with business as usual saying, ‘ok we’re still friends’.

Dominique and me

The other day I put on shorts. I have been avoiding them for a while because when I wear them, I everybody calls me Jaay Fonday, meaning that I have a big butt – a result of genetic traits and a grain heavy diet. My host brother Dominque calls out, “Jaay fonday!” Without turning around I walk to my room and shout a swearword that I didn’t think anyone would be able to translate. But my whole family gasps. My host sister Molly says,”da nga reew” Your rude. I feel the heat. I blush. Dominque slowly turns around walks to my room and asks me,

“What does that mean?”

I say it means you’re no good but he sees right past my euphemism.

“It’s worse than that Justin, why did you say that”.

“Because you called me Jaay Fondee,” I say.

He says, “that’s not that a rude thing to say here.”

“But I don’t like it!” I exclaim.

He continues, “If you don’t like it, then tell me that you are offended and I won’t do it again. Next time, don’t do what you just did.”

At this point, I was avoiding eye contact with him,  pacing back in forth in my room as he stood at the doorway. I was thinking, “What I said was totally justified… totally justified.”  Then, I remember Fulla. I stop, look at him and listen. I am downright impressed and inspired at his integrity.  I tell him that I understand and that I will not act that way again. We go about business as usual. Later that day, at dinner, Dominique greets me as usual by saying, “Guedje Ndiay” in a tone that really says, “I hope you’re doing alright man.”

It’s 3 A.M. My cheeks are wet with tears and my body and hands are buzzing like they do after I have a big laugh or cry – in this case it was a cry. I am trying to hold back groans of anguish because I don’t want to wake Dominque in the next room. Why am I in this situation?

I just thought about Dominique smiling at me. His left front tooth is chipped and a little shorter than his right one. He is flawed and he is imperfect. He is exactly like Jared, my dad, my mom, my friends, my role models, everbody. He is just like me. He is human. And now I can’t stop sobbing because for the last five and half months, I haven’t been treating him like one.

I only hope that when I return to the United States, I will bring back with me the great things about Senegalese culture, leave behind the rest, and not forget, in the midst of all of our differences, the only nation that truly exists – Humanity.