Sweaty feet roved the dusty alleys, moving my body to the rhythm in the street.
It was a symphony for the senses– vibrant fabrics, the distinct aroma of incense rising,
fly-covered fruit, hagglers’ shouts, and a bustling energy that only the market could
provide. The muezzin began his call to prayer, as greetings and blessings passed
through my ears; “Maleikum Salaam,” I responded, the language rolling off my tongue,
and I knew that if I was ever at a loss, I had learned to speak in smiles.
If you were to ask me in that moment how I felt, how I was, I would tell you
in two simple Wolof words: “mangi fi.” They mean, “I am fine,” though directly, they
translate to “I am here;” I hardly see a distinction. I was there, alive, nestled in the warm
embrace of West Africa. In that moment I carried confidence, adventure, opportunity,
independence; I felt the country as I engaged with its people, absorbed its culture, and
immersed myself in the present. Of course I was fine− in fact I might have even been a
bit better than that. Enveloped in awe of where I stood, my eyes gazed down at my feet.
In worn New Balance sneakers, I had dragged my heels through the rocky slopes
of the Fouta Djallon. Each breath I drew seemed more of a pant and each movement
I made was accompanied by a strong burning in my calves. As an individual driven
academically, yet failing to grasp any degree of athleticism, I was not destined to run
the lengths of football fields, nor swing the bat and bring myself home; but the time
had arrived when I would succeed physically and push myself through the canopy of
baobabs, to bathe in sunlight and touch the clouds. What my mind had pronounced
impossible, my body defied, conquering both my doubt and the thousands of feet to the
summit. On that trek my feet taught me perseverance and called on me to recognize the
strength that I possess within.
Those were the feet that had shuffled through the village, with gris-gris wrapped
around my ankles, to a scene set for song, dance, and thanksgiving. “Right, left, stomp,
clap, pause, stomp, jump”; my legs had learned the routine, but it was the audience I
had to keep on its toes. I felt my belonging there, in the traditional dance circle where
creativity flowed, as surely as I felt the soft ground beneath me. There I was free
to release all inhibitions, to let my feet guide me, to pour myself into the thrill of the
moment and to shine. With each movement, my feet taught me to believe in myself,
inspiring me with self-confidence and comfort in my own skin. My pride swelled along
with the roar of the griot’s drum, until I could no longer contain a smile… I bowed.
And those feet had lain bare in the golden sand of a Sufi darah, sinking beneath
me as the children of Ndene gathered to teach me their chants of peace. I was a
foreigner, but far from a stranger in their eyes. As they shared the intricacies of their
creed, I found personal value in an unfamiliar faith and felt at home in a world so
different from my own. Then I was told to gaze at the bottom of my feet and observe
that, regardless of religion, race, or beliefs, our soles are all the same. On that day my
feet became for me a symbol of the importance of world citizenship and a reminder to
always actively seek social justice and equality.
My sweaty feet have long since reached the end of my journey in Senegal; no
longer do they wander out of the sun and into small rice shacks where I would sip
spicy café touba and slide my hand into lunch, the oil rolling from my fingertips. Now,
those feet most often find themselves laced up in thick L.L. Bean boots, a staple of
Northeastern collegiate wardrobes, yet the influence of my experiences in the land of
thiéboudienne and marabouts continues to follow at my heels.
In a society privileged with material luxuries, I am careful to walk a path of
teranga, always giving of myself, and of zikr, acknowledging the beauty around me.
Cognizant of the opportunities available to me, my feet remain ever mobile, carrying me
to the Bolivian Amazon and the deserts of the Middle East to consistently learn from
other walks of life. In time, my feet will stride down long hospital hallways to perform my
first neurosurgery; they will guide me through unforeseen adventures and retrace my
steps to visit old friends over seas. Yes, my feet will travel beneath me, and they will
leave their imprints on this earth.
Michael Rothbaum is a sophomore at Cornell University, studying Comparative Literature and Spanish in the College of Arts and Sciences. He is interested in pursuing a career in neurosurgery and hopes to marry his love of medicine with his passion for travel and international service learning.