Writer and war widow Artis Henderson finds peace through Rotary

As a Rotary Scholar in Senegal, Artis Henderson enjoyed writing her memoir sitting under a red hibiscus tree, where she could hear the sound of women singing.
Photo Credit: Illustration by Michael Byers

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. 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 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. Making it through the day felt like a 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 month-long  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 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, I flew to Senegal to study West African literature at the Université Cheikh Anta Diop.

On a sweltering afternoon in Dakar, I headed downtown in search of a wedding band. 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. 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 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.

I arrived during a violent, restless time in the region. 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.

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.

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. Moussa, the oldest son of the house, was my age, also a journalist. 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. 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.

By Artis Henderson

Adapted from a story in the April 2014 issue of The Rotarian