The art of not doing anything

October 2018

“Take this upstairs and I’ll join you in a few” say my mother as I was standing in the middle of the corridor, freshly awoken and slightly confused. In my head, I tell myself: “Wait, there is an upstairs?” She then points the stairs right next to me, in the middle of the house, as if I did not understand the words she just said. I felt stupid at that moment, but compensated by smiling at her, nodding awkwardly and taking the plastic container from her. I go upstairs, praying that the day I died will not be caused by the absence of a ramp next to the stairs. I reach the top and my first thought is: “damn, that blue sky is beautiful” and my second is: “this floor is very dirty and rocky, where am I supposed to sit?” The look of confusion hits me again. I start to move around for no particular reason, as if someone was leading me like a marionette, controlling me like a The Sims game. Then I find it. I find the mat just like desert men find an oasis. Like a revelation from God, but truly I was just grateful I didn’t have to ridicule myself again. The sister comes in and startles me. She was so tiny I barely noticed her. She tells me to sit on the mat next to her. I say okay. So I sit.

People usually notice that I’m not too talkative at first sight. But at this very moment, I really wanted to converse, to not seem like this odd girl who didn’t talk. Yet nothing, absolutely NO-THING, was coming into my head. Maybe I was just too tired and to be fair, I had a rough morning waking up at 7:30 AM. I look into my head, searching for something to say before looking at her and noticing her FC Barcelona shirt. Great! I love football. “Do you like football?” I ask. “No.” Wow, so much for trying to talk. I go back into my shell. “I play volleyball”. Great! she speaks. She says she plays not far from here, and I tell her I don’t when she asks wether I played too or not. Long silences sat between each question, long awkward silences when both of us didn’t know who should talk first.

Then the mother arrives followed by the youngest sister, then the oldest brother. I can conclude that this is all of my family, and I’m delighted to have a small one.The youngest sister looks at me with a big grin, with her big cute eyes that made me think of a squirrel. The brother doesn’t talk to me. I wonder what he is thinking about, whether his morning was as rough as mine. Awkward silences come again, and now I am in distress. I kept filling my mouth with bread so that I didn’t have to talk and Oh god, am I chewing too loud? The mother asks me one question every 7 minutes and I can’t even remember what they were because they were so futile. I do remember noticing that, in fact, no one was really talkative. They just sat there, looking at the horizon, let out a few words, all over again. And the silence didn’t seem to bother them as much as it did for me. It was like that all day, and all the other days that followed. Why did people just sit there and do nothing? I asked my sister once, what she would do all day. She said: “I cook and play volleyball sometimes”. That is it. That’s it? It didn’t seem to bother her, or anyone for that matter.

If someone asked me to share the main cultural shock I’ve encounter during the first few days, it would be this: Senegalese people are too chill. I thought that maybe I was just a very hectic person. I mean, my real mother (who, by the way, is Senegalese) often told me that I was doing so much, too much. She even told me once: you should sit down, look up to the horizon and think. You don’t have to do anything but breathe and blink”. To me, a volatile little girl living in Canada, that didn’t mean anything. Doing nothing didn’t mean anything. It was lame. But here in Senegal, people are used to doing nothing. When I was “chilling” on the roof after my first breakfast, my mom was laying down still, sometimes examining me, sometimes looking into emptiness. I, on the other hand, was all over the place. I was playing with my dress, caressing my hand, braiding my hair, taping my feet, looking at my nails, unbraiding my hair, cleaning my nails. Looking at the horizon? Never, that wasn’t an option. I was getting worried. When will this end? I couldn’t live like that for 8 months. It exhausted my mental state.

Little did I know that it would take me only a few days to tame nothingness. It was during a religious celebration, where boys and girls are divided, women sitting down with a veil to cover their hair, men with Qur’an on their hands and chanting loudly. Strangely, through all this noise and between all these people, I catch myself zoning out. And guess what? I was looking at the horizon, thinking of nothingness. And the feeling was comforting. When I realized what has happened to me, I just laughed at myself. The habit of “just chilling” had been forced into me without even I noticing.

This morning, during breakfast, I sat down completely calm. I did not check my nails a millionth time, nor did I giggled the bottom of my pink dress. I just sat still, just like my mom was laying down still. I did not rush to find a topic of discussion and truly, my mind was just… at peace. That afternoon, I just “chilled around” all day with my family. I didn’t do much and nothing much was happening either. I felt so zen and at peace with myself. For the first time, my socially awkward persona was able to sit in a comfortable silence despite being surrounded by people.

Now I may understand the reason why Senegalese people are content with doing nothing. I may understand why the word jàmm (peace) is so prominent in their vocabulary. Still, I can’t imagine not doing anything for 8 months. The days are very long here. I set goals to myself everyday so that I can be satisfied with myself. I’m still scared of being called lazy or boring but surely, I will be enjoying zoning outs and horizon stares once in a while. The days are meant to be long, but the weeks are damn short.