When I told my host mother I was soon to leave Senegal, she paused for a second and said she would cry an awful lot. I was sure this was a true sign of her appreciating me. She took a second pause and told me to send her 500 euros as soon as I would get home. I was left wondering if she actually cared about me leaving, or if she was more concerned with asking me for money. On a later occasion I was again seeking acceptance, and more importantly praise, from my host mother. I surprised her with a bottle of Fanta, which is usually her favorite drink, but on this day I was only given a stiff upper lip as a thank you. Leaving me yet again to think about what I must have done wrong to not receive her praise.
For me, the need to immediately assimilate to the Senegalese culture and then receive a clap on the shoulder for my good efforts was important. To be praised for my cultural adaptability. That praise never came. Or at least it was minimal to what I had been used to. It is not to say that I was accustomed to always being praised for my efforts, but I was definitely accustomed to receiving feed back of some sort. The most natural example would be the education I have received. Where after each test the teacher would always write in red ink what needed improvement. These comments always said it so bluntly want we did wrong or right. But attention was mostly given to the few praising words that the teacher had slipped into the evaluation, to compensate for telling you what you did wrong. This constant feedback becomes compass of sorts, a guiding tool. And the positive praise becomes a prime motivation. A motivation that is slightly addictive. To always seek positive reassurance from someone other than yourself.
However throughout my seven months in Senegal I have found few that could satisfy my unconscious need for positive reassurance. People tell me when I manage to make decent cup of tea or look at my with a surprised face when I open my mouth and other words than French comes out. But other than that, little reminds me of the feedback culture that I am used to. A culture that can often seem to deceive people by throwing around overly positive praise. However in many ways it has been a breath of fresh air to experience the more subtle forms of reassurance and be treated with honesty.
I can compare my experience to how I see children are given praise and reassurance within my host family. Children within my family are seldom given praise but often given corporal punishment when they step wrong. The things, which I used to receive praise for as a child in Norway, such as behaving well at the dinner table or learning how to ride a bike, are taken for granted by the parents in my host family. The limited praise is an honest way telling the children that every child is expected to behave well at the dinner table or learning how to ride a bicycle. And there is no need to praise what everyone is expected to do. However the children’s development does not pass unnoticed by the parents. If a child fails to behave well at the dinner table, he or she will suffer from a quick slap on the back. By correcting inappropriate behavior, this form of feedback is no less valid. You could argue that this form of feedback is overly focused on the negatives and not giving enough praise for the positives. But still, it is an honest form of recognizing the development of the child.
Recently I came to have the similar experience to that of my host siblings. On an evening after dinner time my family had huddled up on a double size mattress, in the bedroom of my host mother, to watch soap operas. The children were scattered around on the bed and my host mother was reclining in the corner of the bed. Armed with the remote control and a very serious face. A face which I seem to never be able to decode. From my host mom’s behavior and facial expressions have I never been able to figure out if she likes me, or more importantly if she has accepted me. But that day when we were sitting down to watch TV I happened to block the view of my host mother, spoiling her special soap opera moment. Unaware that I was blocking her view I sat with my back against her trying to pay attention to the TV. And not before long I received a firm slap on my back accompanied with one angry host mom telling me to move my ass out of her view. It was a slap I appreciated, as then knew for sure that she had accepted me and was comfortable enough to give me a little slap when I did something wrong. Something she would not have been comfortable with when I entered her house as an unfamiliar guest months before. The slap of recognition was in stark contrast to what I was accustomed with. My host mom never felt the need to recognize or praise my efforts to learn Wolof. She never felt the need to pretend that she was impressed my by me speaking Wolof. It was her honest way of telling me that I was only doing what I was supposed to do. But my host mother also had the honesty to tell me when I did something wrong. Never sugar coating the reality, but rather giving me a firm correctional slap telling me that she cared enough about me to correct my behavior. That was all the acceptance and praise I needed.
My host Mama, the king of the house.