The Pink Mirror

In the Kedougou region of Senegal, in the neighborhood of Lawol Tamba in Kedougou City, in my hut in my host family’s compound, hangs a pink mirror. It’s small, no bigger than an ordinary paperback book, and it hangs at just the right height that if I turn towards it as I walk out of my hut my eyes fall directly in its center.

The mirror is one of only a few purchases I’ve made since arriving to my host community. I’m not sure why exactly I wanted it, seeing as coifing is not currently at the top of my to do list (and, conveniently, everyone here seems to prefer when I pull my hair back in a bun and wear a headband), but one day as my host sister prepared to set off for the market, I handed her a couple hundred CFA and attempted to explain the word “mirror,” prompting a game of charades, lots of giggles, and a nod of understanding.

As the weeks have passed by in Kedougou— as my malaria pill bottle has become emptier, my clothes thinner, and my shoulders darker— I’ve fallen into a constant state of observation and absorption. From dawn ‘til dusk (and not much past dusk because I’ve adopted the sleeping habits of a five year old child) I’m learning. I’m learning how to eat with my right hand without getting rice all over my clothes and face. I’m learning to respond “nam” when my name is called. I’m learning to walk over small shrubs instead of through seemingly harmless puddles which are actually knee-deep mud pits that suck in flip-flops and don’t give them back without a fight. I’m learning to shut my window and door when the sun is setting so mosquitoes don’t invade my hut (mosquitoes are the devil’s spawn. Mosquitoes and potholes). I’m learning to cut onions using just my hands and a knife, cause who needs a cutting board anyway? I’m learning the names of the children who live next door— Mamaseydou, Hadja, Safi, Mohammed, Fatou, Sallematou, Penda, and I’ll get back to you on the rest. I’m learning to get off my bike so my skirt doesn’t get caught on the seat. I’m learning to like mayonnaise (no longer considered the devil’s spawn). I’m learning which greetings to use for which people at which times of the day. I’m learning to breathe deeply and let things happen as they happen, because as Mary Oliver once said, “things take the time they take.” I’m learning how to live in Kedougou, and I’m learning to become Adama Sidibe.

It wasn’t until that afternoon, when my host sister returned from the market, that the significance of the mirror hit me. I had just finished hammering in a nail to hang up the mirror when my host mom called my name. (“Adama!” “Nam!”). As I hurried out of my hut, ducking to avoid hitting my head on the slanted straw roof, I caught a glimpse of my face in the pink mirror. What I saw startled me. It startled me not because my face looked so changed or so different, rather just the opposite. Seeing my full cheeks, my unruly eyebrows, and my little heart shaped upper-lip, the same cheeks and eyebrows and lips I’d seen a gazillion times in a gazillion different mirrors, reminded me, in the most basic of ways, who I was. And I needed that, because somewhere along the way of becoming Adama Sidibe, I’d lost Brooke Donner. In the midst of all the learning— the “what have I gotten myself into” moments and the “I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be” moments— I’d forgotten about the 18 years full of other “what have I gotten myself into” and “I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be” moments I’ve lived. I’d forgotten that these moments were just as valid and important as the ones I was experiencing as Adama Sidibe, and that they, in fact, are the reason I’m here, in Kedougou, learning to become Adama.

So now when I look in the pink mirror I don’t see a forgotten yet familiar face. I don’t see the cheeks and eyebrows and lips of someone I used to be. I see me a few months ago, eating lunch with friends in the second floor hallway of my high school’s New Building. I see me a few years ago, running barefoot down 54th Court, collecting mangoes and stubbed toes. I see me throughout my life, laughing and crying and smiling and studying and sweating. And I see me now, living in Kedougou and learning more than I could have ever imagined. I see Brooke Donner, and I see Adama Sidibe. Who knows what I’ll see in April.