Saturday, April 6, 2013

Leaving Nafadji

"You get a strange feeling when you're about to leave a place...
like you'll not only miss the people you love 
but you'll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, 
because you'll never be this way ever again."
-Azar Nafisi 

How do you leave a place you love?

I woke up yesterday morning in my hut in Nafadji with a pit in my stomach, afraid of the goodbyes that ensued. My few days back in Nafadji to spend time with my friends and family had come to an end. I could barely sleep that last night, and when I woke up, I knew I did not want to drag out the goodbyes. I didn’t think I was going to last very long before I started crying. I wanted to pack up my things, strap them to my bike and say my goodbyes quickly, like ripping off a band-aid. As I was packing up my bike, Mbamoussa insisted that I stay to drink millet porridge. I sat there drinking porridge with my family for the last time, and I couldn’t fight the tears that were coming.

When a person leaves a place indefinitely in this culture, people shake that person’s left hand. Giving your left hand is an emotional gesture since it means you don’t know when you will ever see that person again. I didn’t want to do this ritual and kept trying to give my right hand, but Mbamoussa grabbed my left hand and said “mbe lun do (until another day)". Tears were streaming down my face as I hugged all my kids, not knowing when I would see them again and feeling so sad that I wouldn’t be able to see them grow up.

As I walked my bike to Kaba’s house, villagers approached me to say goodbye, shake my left hand, and give me blessings for my trip home. I said my goodbyes to Kaba, and as I was biking away, she called me back and gave me the ring she was wearing as a souvenir. I’m going to miss her.

Me and Kaba
I continued on my tour of goodbyes with the people I was closest to and saved the most emotional goodbye for last. As soon as I entered Fily’s compound, tears were welling up in my eyes again. She’s my best friend in Nafadji, and we had just spent the last few days together cooking, drinking tea, and playing with her daughter Margo (my American mom’s namesake). I said goodbye to her husband Mourikee and told him that I want him to email me photos of Margo every now and then. He’s a teacher in another region and has a laptop.

Fily insisted on walking with me out of the village. She took my bike, and we walked along the red dirt road leading out of Nafadji. As we walked and cried, I told her how much her friendship means to me. When I first got to Nafadji, she took me under her wing right away. I remember on my second day there, she grabbed my hand and told me we were going to hang out with her friends. I was always in awe of her stylish outfits as I was perpetually grungy in village. We passed the days with hilarious activities, like selling meatballs door-to-door or hiking out to the seasonal puddle to do our laundry. I don’t know what I would have done without her in Nafadji. I made a lot of friends there but none that I felt as close to as her. So here we were walking out of the village together. We passed the Nafadji sign, and she kept walking with my bike. We walked and walked, and I asked her if she planned to walk with me all the 30 kilometers to Saraya. She said she just wasn’t ready yet. Finally, after a lot of walking and crying, she stopped. We hugged and I promised to call her often, and I biked away.

As I biked the stretch from Nafadji to Saraya for the last time, I felt heartbroken. I had just left a place that was home for the past couple of years. I biked away not knowing when I would get to see these people I’ve come to love again. Instead of listening to my iPod on this last ride, I replayed my “Best of Nafadji” memories in my head. Here’s how I spent my time:

Playing Hair Salon:
Fily, Sounkharou, Founee, and Asu braiding my hair

Going out to the fields with the kids:

Playing with homemade dolls:
FantaFounee and Asu


Cooking with Fily:

Surviving the heat:

Shelling Peanuts:

Being Fily's Bridesmaid:
Fily and me at her wedding

Hanging out with Fily and Margo:

Playing with Sira:

I arrived in Nafadji not really knowing what I had gotten myself into or how much I would get out of this experience. The first couple of weeks, I questioned why I was there and how I was going to survive two years in this tiny village. A couple of years later, it feels terrifying to leave this place. Living here has not been easy, but it has become home. I will miss my friends and family here immensely, but I will also miss the person I have become here. I’m not the same person who got out of the Peace Corps car in Nafadji two years ago. I can carry water on my head now. I can share a hut with rodents, lizards, cockroaches, and other creepy crawlers. I can cook traditional dishes over rocks and sticks. I’ve developed many bizarre skills that I never knew I wanted to learn, and now I’m afraid of losing that when I go back to the US. I hope I’m still as resourceful there as I have become here.

I’ve spent the past couple of years dreaming of Thai food and Pumpkin Spice Lattes, but once I can finally get those things regularly, am I going to appreciate them? Will I start taking all of these things for granted? I hope not.

I hope when I’m sitting in traffic in Seattle, I’ll remember how I used to bike 30 kilometers on a bumpy dirt road to and from my village while getting attacked by tsetse flies. I hope when I take hot showers, I remember pulling water at the pump with the ladies of Nafadji and going back to my pit latrine to bathe with a bucket and cup. I hope when I’m overwhelmed by the options at the grocery store, I remember how possible it is to survive on rice and peanuts alone.

Living in Nafadji has changed me in ways that I probably don’t even realize yet, but I do recognize that it has been a defining experience in my life. Leaving was painful, but I know that I will be back one day to visit my friends and family. Nafadji, mbe lun do.


  1. Damn, Girl.....that is eloquent and moving. Thanks for sharing......and I am still so bummed that I'll miss you here. XO/Kevin .....

  2. It would be so amazing for you to take all this emotion and put it into a book. You have done what so many people dream of doing, but know they really don't have the courage to follow through. Stories like "Wild" are so amazing because a tap into that feeling of anxiety doing something new and scary. You that that in droves! I am very proud of what you have done and look forward to watching you take these experiences and help other people as much as you helped the people in Nafaji.

  3. Marielle--I had to wipe the tears from my eyes after reading this. It touched me very much and thank you for putting it all into such poignant words and pictures. Your journey here was an extraordinary one and thank you for sharing it with all of us. xoxo Mom

  4. Marielle,
    You should know I have been reading your blog religiously and enjoyed every line. Your courage, compassion, and insight as you relate these stories has been so moving. You are an excellent writer! Though you leave your friends and family in Nafadji--who sound like incredibly special people--I am confident they will always be with you.
    I look forward to making a Seattle trip soon so I can hear about it all in person.
    Take care,

  5. Thanks everyone! Mom and Dad, can't wait to see you in less than 2 weeks!

    Kevin, I'm bummed that I missed you. Any more Seattle trips planned this year?

    Jaime, great to hear from you! I hope to see you soon! It would be great to catch up! I read your published article on Big History, and it was amazing. You are such a talented writer! Hope you are doing well!