Nit nittay garabam: Man is man’s medicine

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As I slid down the hillside, rocks and dirt and plants tumbling underneath me, I remember a scream so loud, it couldn’t possibly have come out of quiet, peaceful Miriam. The dust settled, and my feet found their footing on a rocky ledge. I looked around trying to find her. Where was she?

She wasn’t that far behind me — a boulder almost too big to wrap my arms around separated her body from her foot, her left leg pinned underneath.

Miriam and I had first met about six weeks earlier in the terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare airport waiting to board our flight to Dakar, Senegal. We were going to study international development, me for a semester, Miriam for a year. Connecting over email, we had decided to go a few days early, before classes began, to explore the city we would call home for the next several months.

We spent those first few days wandering around the capital, often wary of what would soon become routine. We cautiously took the blue and yellow cars rapides to get from one place to another, without the confidence that would soon be part of our daily commute. We debated before sitting down at what would become our favorite restaurant in the middle of the open-air market, plastic table cloths covering wooden picnic tables, women stirring large pots of thieboudienne, simmering rice, vegetables and fish. At night, we sat in the hotel room, unsure about wandering around after dark, unaware of the many nights we’d soon spend dancing, singing karaoke and walking the city streets well into the next morning.

Where I was anxious and cautious, Miriam was bold — quiet perhaps, but not reserved. She was enthralled by the culture and life around her, no matter how different it was from her own. She was also extremely patient with me, encouraging me when I felt hesitant.

As the weeks went by, and we settled into our lives with our respective host families and weekly classes, Miriam only became more at home, responding to the world around her with unending curiosity and positivity, whereas I struggled with homesickness and culture shock. In time, we both became more adventurous, wandering farther and farther from school and home, planning weekend trips to other towns and cities, even considering making the trek all the way to Timbuktu.

That’s how we found ourselves on a breezy Saturday in mid-October, with a group of other study abroad students on Îles de la Madeleine, an uninhabited island 4 kilometers off the coast of Dakar. It’s both a national park and the westernmost land in Africa. The chartered boat dropped us off in the crystal clear turquoise water of a sandy-bottomed lagoon, the captain assuring us he’d be back in six hours or so to pick us up.

After a few hours laying in the sand and swimming in the shallow waters, a few of us decided to explore an unmarked trail up the steep embankment to the top of a wide plateau. As we wandered around the brush, we could see sprawling Dakar to the east, the vastness of the Pacific Ocean to the west, as haunting deep blue water crashed in waves over black volcanic rock below us.

Someone pointed out a cave in the distance, and we scrambled down to a rocky ledge to check it out. We sat and listened to the booming waves fill the cave over and over again; we watched birds flying into their nests to feed chicks; we looked for ocean life in the swirling tide pools. Soon we began to make our way back to the lagoon, drawn by the lunch and friends waiting for us. As I climbed back up the steep embankment, behind Ella, another study abroad student, I took one step to the left and the rocks began falling out from underneath me. I slid with them, my entire front-side scraping down the hillside as I frantically tried to get a foothold. I finally hit the rocky ledge and stood up, with some minor scrapes and scratches and one cut that would later require a few stitches.

I looked up and saw Ella on top of the plateau, silhouetted in the bright African sun. It was then that I heard Miriam’s scream, again. We rushed over, five students in all. As we removed the rock and laid Miriam down, I could hardly process what was happening. As much as I wanted to sit down and sob — reeling from the reality that I caused a rock slide, that we were on a remote island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, that my friend’s leg was essentially destroyed — I couldn’t. No one could.

Ben, who was premed, quickly told us to block Miriam’s vision as he attempted to put her leg back together, one hand at the knee, the other at the ankle, muscles, tendons and bone fragments spilling out between the two. The image of her leg, looking more like a dead animal you pass on the road than a human limb, will never fade from my memory.

We needed something to stop the bleeding, a tourniquet of some sort to tie off the wound, Ben said, as we all looked at each other clad in nothing more than bathing suits and sandals. (Where were my sandals, I was wearing sandals?) One detachable bathing suit strap worked right above the wound. Once Ella had scrambled back down the hillside, someone grabbed her sarong, and we used a rock to apply pressure at the femoral artery up at Miriam’s hip. Ella then ran back up the slope to tell the others what had happened and use a cell phone we hoped had service.

Then we waited, taking turns holding the limb together and using our bodies to shield Miriam both from the unrelenting sun and the view of her broken leg. We gathered rocks to prop up her knee, trying to keep her as still as possible. There was such hopelessness in her voice that first hour. She kept asking us questions, trying to make sense of what happened. In response, I recited poetry; we sang songs together.

As the time passed, she somehow regained her positivity, telling us funny stories of her childhood, asking us to share our memories in return. She told us about her grandparents’ parrot who drinks tea with them and her fifth grade class pet ferret. We swapped prom and college stories, we joked about our siblings, roommates, parents and friends, as if we weren’t a world away from all of them.

A few times I didn’t think I was going to be able to handle anymore, and yet Miriam always had a way of refocusing on a funny memory that would bring a smile to her face and make us all laugh, encouraging us to just hang on a little longer. “Your calm disposition saved us all from despair out there on the island,” I wrote her in an email months later.

She was the girl who put smiley faces in all her emails, even the most mundane ones coordinating travel arrangements. The one who stopped and talked to anyone who asked her to, patiently communicating through both French and Wolof (the national language), never furrowing her brow or sighing in exasperation. She was the one who had committed to an entire academic year away from home, family and friends, whereas I could hardly imagine making it through the semester. The one who jokingly wrote, “I just went on a giant hike and didn’t break my tibia!” in an email years later, reaching out to wish me a happy birthday, reminiscing about the night I turned 21 on my host family’s rooftop, as we all clinked glasses and ate cake.

Five hours after I’d first felt the hillside slide under my feet, we were standing back atop the plateau, watching as Miriam, strapped to a stretcher, dangled from the helicopter hovering above our heads. There were more people with us now: our study abroad program director; a Senegalese doctor who came by boat, climbing up the cliff from the choppy water; and two French paramedics who happened to be the only other people on the island that day, who spent the last couple of hours checking Miriam’s vitals and giving her water. They’re also the ones that called friends at the French military base, accessing the only helicopter in the country. As the helicopter flew toward the city, we followed Miriam to the hospital, hiking back to the lagoon (me, now wearing Miriam’s sandals), and getting back on a boat headed for shore.

She was supposed to stay in Senegal, not me. I triggered the rock slide. Why did I get to walk away unscathed, while she was rushed home on an airplane the next day, an external fixator holding her leg together, her other foot unknowingly broken as well?

Even before the accident I had spent weeks longing to go home, uncomfortable with heat rash, mosquito bites and the carnivorous diet I daily consumed, forgoing years of vegetarianism. As we traveled in crowded buses to school, I often felt like I was suffocating, every last inch of space filled with people, animals, bags and dirt. At my host family’s there was no place to escape, every moment filled with communal dinners, neighbors’ visits, TV blaring popular music and dance videos. Each night as I lay in my own bed in a shared room with my three young host siblings, the oscillating fan providing brief reprieve from the dense heat every 30 seconds or so, I tried to convince myself I could do it. I could stay.

After the accident, this feeling only got worse. I was desperate to feel the comfort of home. I longed for people who told me they were sorry about what happened, who didn’t scold me for climbing the hillside and causing the slide. All I wanted was to be alone in a place where solitude was culturally taboo.

But slowly, it got better. I still took those weekend trips with other friends, squeezing into sept-places and bumping along dirt roads. We still went dancing on the weekends and searched for fresh watermelon, mango and cold bisap juice on the way home from school. We played soccer in the street with my host brothers and attempted to debate world politics in French with our host families. Before I knew it, the semester was over, and I was headed back to the U.S.

Landing back in Chicago, Miriam was the first person I saw, her smiling face looking up at me from the wheelchair in the arrivals hall. She held up a puffy winter coat as I stood there shivering in sandals and a jean jacket, the warmest clothes I had with me.

We piled into her parents’ sedan — four people, three large suitcases (one Miriam’s, two mine) and a wheelchair. It felt oddly comfortable to be squished up against the car door, bags and people filling every last inch of space. The sheer proximity of people and things soothed me as the cold and reverse culture shock began to set in. Where I once wanted my own space in Senegal, here I craved the nearness of anyone and anything. Where I once longed to return home, here it all felt foreign: the English on the radio, the orderly traffic, the frigid winter air and Christmas decorations.

We drove to her parents’ house, as I told her about the rest of the semester, the times I sat peeling fish as they came off the smoker with ladies in the village as part of my “environmental” internship. The daunting task of standing in front of 70 students, attempting to teach them English. I told her about dancing on the beach with my host brother and his friends, the heavy drum beats filling the ocean-scented air. I told her about the weekend travels we took to the Gambia and Saint-Louis, the bike rides, animal parks and marriage proposals, genuine or otherwise, we all received on a daily basis.

She told me about the plane ride home, the multiple surgeries she’d already had, with more to come. She explained her decision to avoid amputation and hope for the best as the doctors performed bone, muscle and skin grafts in an attempt to heal her leg and help her walk again. I listened, in the cold night of winter, longing for the warmth of not just the Senegalese climate but its people.

I told her how much we missed her, and how I would lay awake at night under my mosquito net replaying the rock slide in my head, wondering what I could have done differently, how it should have been me, not her that left. But she stopped me, with a furrowed brow and in the most stern voice she could muster, she refused to let me go on. Every time I wanted to blame myself, she was the one who wouldn’t let me. I told her how, in the months that had passed since the accident (it was an accident, I reminded myself again and again), I tried to embody as much of her spirit as possible. Entering into each situation with positivity and grace, curiosity and excitement, forgoing hesitation, skepticism and anxiety.

We’ve since lost touch, separated by time and place, life changes and choices. But the last emails I have from her, ones I received years after that fateful day, are still signed with her signature smiley face and a Wolof proverb, a lesson we both learned from our brief time in Senegal. Nit nittay garabam: Man is man’s medicine.