The memoir she wrote after her husband died helped her start a new chapter.
In the first month of my stay in Dakar, Senegal, as a Rotary scholar, a friend gave me a piece of helpful advice. “Buy a wedding ring,” she said. I had already learned that as a young American woman in a Muslim country, I attracted a certain kind of attention. One of my first lessons as a goodwill ambassador had been how to bite my tongue. But a ring?
My friend nodded. “That way everyone will leave you alone.”
With my thumb I felt for the empty space on my left ring finger – a place that, even now, I sometimes touch with a start and worry where my ring has gone. I removed my wedding band on the one-year anniversary of my marriage, eight months after my husband, Miles, was killed in Iraq on 6 November 2006. I was 26 years old.
I spent the first year after Miles’ death just trying to breathe. If you had told me then the direction my life would take, I would have scoffed. Making it through the day felt like challenge enough. But by the second year, I’d begun to realize that my life was continuing. For the first time since Miles died, I asked myself what I should do with this new life. The answer? Become a writer. I never imagined that Rotary would provide the key to achieving that dream.
Rotary first took me from my home in southern Florida to Brittany, France, on a monthlong Group Study Exchange with a team of young professionals. That experience gave me the courage to make my next move – to New York, where I earned a master’s in journalism at Columbia University.
Next, the Rotarians I had met urged me to apply for a Rotary scholarship. I told them I wanted to travel somewhere challenging, as far away from home as possible – away from the constant reminders of how my life had changed. In 2010, sponsored by Rotarians in District 6960 in Florida, I flew to Senegal to study West African literature at the Université Cheikh Anta Diop.
On a sweltering afternoon in Dakar, between classes, I headed downtown in search of a wedding band. The streets were empty, and most people were indoors. The power was off; electricity came and went in Senegal. No fans hummed in the darkened stores, and a stifling heat had settled over the capital. Down a narrow side street, I found a jewelry shop with its doors open. An elderly man sat behind the counter, his eyes closed. He leaned forward when I walked in. In French, Senegal’s official language, I told him what I was looking for – a thin silver band – and he reached for a canvas sack and spilled its contents across the glass.
“Where are you from?” he asked as I started to pick through the rings.
I looked up. “The United States.”
The man sucked his teeth and put his rough hands on the counter.
“Then maybe you can explain your war against Islam.”
I opened my mouth to speak, to try to explain a conflict I did not understand. I wanted him to know that my husband had died fighting in the war, and that if he had met Miles, who was kind and generous, then the man would have known that, for Miles, this was never a fight against the Muslim faith. But the shopkeeper looked at me with such radioactive anger that I couldn’t speak. I bowed my head and left the store.
On the westernmost tip of Africa, Senegal faces the same struggles that plague many countries in the developing world. Daily power cuts are a burden to the carpenters, tailors, and other tradespeople who rely on electricity. A day without power means a day without income. Political corruption and controversy also are ongoing problems. A few months before my arrival, the president at the time erected a colossal monument half the size of the Statue of Liberty. It cost US$27 million to build, a shocking sum in a country where half the population lives below the poverty line.
I arrived during a violent, restless time in the region. Nearby Côte d’Ivoire held disputed elections, and civil war flared for the second time in a decade. Every morning, I asked an Ivorian friend at the Associated Press, where I worked part time, if he had news from his family in Abidjan. Every morning, he shook his head no. The Arab Spring spread across North Africa, and in Dakar, men set themselves on fire to protest the regime. Angry students burned tires and blockaded highways as outrage seethed through the city. On the day Osama bin Laden was killed, men threatened me in the street.
But for all its challenges, I was enchanted by everything Senegal had to offer: the voice of the muezzin before dawn, the swirl of color in traditional boubous, the women in the market who taught me my first words in Wolof – nen, mburu, jëre-jëf. Egg, bread, thank you.
Some nights, the thrumming sound of djembe drums filled the air as people gathered to dance on hidden back streets. I once came across a dusty atelier where men painted portraits flecked with gold while others bent silver to the shape of a wrist. The smell of wood smoke and the sea infused the air.
On Friday afternoons, the bustle of downtown briefly paused. Taxi drivers parked and shopkeepers closed up, as every man in the area headed in the direction of the Grand Mosque. When the mosque had filled, the men spilled onto the sidewalks and the streets, lining every inch of asphalt for blocks with their prayer rugs. They removed their shoes and knelt, and for a short span of time, Dakar became a holy place.
In the spring of 2011, during my scholarship year, I received unexpected news: Simon & Schuster was offering me a contract for a memoir I had proposed about the loss of my husband. I wrote it in Senegal, and in that way, the scholarship gave me something I never anticipated: a place to write unencumbered by the reminders of my loss. I liked to work beneath a red hibiscus tree in the garden, where the breeze carried the sound of women singing.
My time in Dakar was a gift. For the first month of my stay, I lived with a host family whose warmth helped with my transition to life in Africa. I arrived during the holy month of Ramadan, when most of the country spent the daylight hours fasting. We gathered each evening after sunset to break the fast, first with dates and sweet bissap juice, then a feast served on a communal platter. Often the power was cut, and in the darkness a hushed stillness settled over the neighborhood. At the end of these Ramadan meals, we ate sugared beignets while Moussa, the oldest son of the house, prepared tea.
Moussa was my age, also a journalist. He encouraged my halting Wolof, and from him I learned to appreciate the frenetic beauty of Senegalese mbalax music and the melancholy sound of the stringed kora. I counted him as my first real friend in Dakar. But in the second month of my stay, Moussa fell ill and died the following week. The family held a funeral, and I wept with the women of the house while the imam gave the eulogy.
A month after the funeral, the family invited me to dinner at Tabaski, known elsewhere as Eid al-Adha, one of the most important holidays in the Muslim faith. After we ate, I sat outside with Moussa’s mother, in silence, through the long, hot hours of the afternoon. At one point she reached over and held my hand. I do not know what it is like to lose a child, but I understand the depths of great loss. In that moment, I realized that this is how goodwill is built: simply and gently, a shared touch between two people. – Artis Henderson