Field Notes: Senegal (Vol. II)


There we were: about 8 people sitting in dark red plastic chairs talking in 2 languages next to a cement brick home, a thatched fence and some goats in rural Befel, Senegal. Included were several buildOn staff like the Field Coordinator, the Construction Manager, the other Trek Coordinator, and one of the organization’s top leaders. The group spoke about project management in school construction and I sat back, in love with the moment. There were leafless baobab trees nearby and kids’ giggling in the distance. While goats hopped between our legs, I scribbled down some numbers and ideas and then cracked open my journal beneath my mosquito net that night.

I had to write this down: this wild work shift of mine. Just weeks before, I was shuffling around the assembly floor handing out the January newsletter near the finish line at the Jefferson North Assembly Plant. The plant sits on the east side of Detroit and proudly builds the Jeep Grand Cherokee. I was the plant’s Communications Lead. How hilarious, I wrote, to be here now in this precisely different circumstance: working surrounded by jeeps to working surrounded by goats.

We met next to this house, my host family’s house in Befel, Senegal.

We met next to this house, my host family’s house in Befel, Senegal.

Before I started with buildOn, I was constantly wondering what else I could be doing with my passion for international development work, with my all of my honed professional skills, with my life. It certainly wasn’t cars and industry, and the restlessness about me created a thirst and impatience to ease this wonder. One night my best friend sent me this job posting (captioned “YOUR DREAM JOB!”), the next month I had my first interview, and the next month I was with the goats in our meeting in Senegal.

This type of abrupt, intense change was really the first of many throughout my time in this job. Lots of things can change quickly on Trek. Folks get injured, a car breaks down, and suddenly the school your team is building with the community has 10 columns and 4 rows of bricks. It’s altering.

This was an empty space and within a week it has the foundation and walls of a future buildOn school in Befel, Senegal.

This was an empty space and within a week it has the foundation and walls of a future buildOn school in Befel, Senegal.

For those that know me, oddly enough, they’ll say I hate change, and truthfully, they’re not entirely wrong. So there is a deeply personal murkiness I must push through in order to accept, unpack and live out changes, especially as they happen on Trek.

But here I was out here in the village under my mosquito net in Senegal amid the murk. As I was writing, I started to understand this change I was living, coupled with the forwardness of time. When I really sunk into the incredible swiftness of my shift from the Jeep plant to the buildOn school construction meeting, it made me feel limitless —

How could my potential be capped?

If I could be on the assembly floor one day and under a baobab tree the next, where else can I go?

And most of all — how will I continue to transform?

That’s what really gets me about change because when it happens, there’s a sense that anything is possible, good or bad. There’s a feeling that I’m both in control of my destiny, and simultaneously have zero control of any outcomes. A sense of the multitudes of ourselves and the complexities of this world. Then there’s this beautiful balance in this enormity that rests, however softly, in these murky polarities.

That soft balance is what I find more and more since I began this job. It happens on Trek, it happens when I’m back in Detroit, on airplanes, in hotels, in my car. It’s small moment by small moment of still presence despite every change circling me. And I find it when I breathe and look around. The feel of the painted assembly line floor beneath my black flats, to the sandy ground of the buildOn school worksite below my sneakers. The sound of the hurrying of Jeep side doors hung from a conveyor belt, to the 15 roosters that welcome the Senegalese morning every day at 4 AM. Jeeps to goats.

When I gathered my sense of presence that night in the mosquito net, I tried to capture some of the day so that I could greet that softness of change I was feeling.

From that day, I wanted to remember:

The circle before groundbreaking.

The frenzy of hard work.

Being surrounded by nothing except sand, hay, trees, goats, donkeys, horses, cows, compounds and lots of people.

Oh, and the moon illuminating the night completely.