A Lesson In Culture

Ariel Vardy - Senegal

October 4, 2012

Like America’s dedication and creed towards freedom, is Senegal’s declaration of Hospitality. Americans appriciate choice and individualism, and thus their citizens like to “mind their own business”. Senegal’s Hospitality is the opposite. So proud are they to host their country, village, neighborhood, and houses, that they will indeed host you— throwing huge pellets of smiles and warmth your direction, expecting you to catch it, and let them, as strangers, immediately into your life. If you are sad, everyone knows, needs to know why, and needs to help. If you are happy, they will take you out for some nice outing, choosing for you where to go.

So proud are they of their country, they will opt towards giving you impromptu tours, showing you their houses, families, and favorite activities. So proud are they of their land, they will stop any concerned soul, and take an hour out of their day to walk you towards your destination if lost, or pay for your solution. “are you thirsty?” “are you tired?” “are you lost?”. They will go eye level with you and ask you how your day was, really genuinely waiting for you to say it was good. They will take you home for lunch, or buy you a cold soda. As a guest, this feels natural and awesome, but it’s interesting to see the dynamic between locals.

They too are hosts to each other, and each expects themselves and others to abide by that. It is very rude to walk down a street without saying hello and inquiring upon their day. They alienate neighbors who do not leave the house enough, or invite people over. Every household, all over Senegal, purposefully makes an extra serving of food so they can host a guest at any time. They will interrupt, and be just as willing to be interrupted for the sake of welcoming a friend to the room.

This is a culture of favors—houses are populated by family members, cousins, second cousins, and friends. Money switches hands at the sound of “please help”, and without the thought of investment or self. The only defense Senegalese have against “favor spending” is to solidify their money in physical, unlendable form—construction.

While only 8% of the Senegalese own bank accounts, only a smaller percent of people go into investment. Instead, the city is still riddled with the physical Cash Deposit Accounts that is Houses. It is the only safe place to keep money, so it could not possibly be given away. Because, on a daily basis, they will really want to give it away. Friends will want to go to America, family members will need money for the hospital, birthdays, baptisms, weddings, and funerals. They do not hold back, helping others as if they were themselves. So you start a wall, add a room, add a toilet, throw in some stairs leading to nowhere, and build a roof for the kitchen, and then move in. As the years pour through, you’ll add the roof for the kid’s room, the second floor, you’ll finish the wall, or buy the glass for a real window.

This is the standard. As much as they are willing help you, they expect that back. Beggars can physically get angry when you don’t give them money. Why would you hold back money for the beggar when based on your clothing, skin color, street food you are holding, and shopping bag, are clearly rich? Rich being that your family owns a car, that you can take out loans for an American college, that you can pay for a completed house within 5-10 years. Why do you walk past them without thinking about how much harder it is to live without a house, without consistent access to food and hygiene— wonders the beggar.

And how do I respond? Those things are all true. My only defense is to wonder if the beggar is a scam, because otherwise, I am obliged to help every beggar I see. Sometimes I buy them an orange if I can, but often I shoo them off. I can’t give money to everyone, which is sad to think about, because some Senegalese really do.

Ariel Vardy