In December I began writing a blog about the roles of Senegalese men, a highly critical piece condemning their absence and consequent effect within the family. Yet during the drafting process, a friend in the village confided in me he would no longer be able to come home from school because he could not afford the transportation fare (the nearest school is 7 km away in Leona, a fare of 150 CFA, roughly 30 cents). After a week of sickness and complete communication failures, the unfairness of his news left me wanting to cry while simultaneously hitting a wall. It was one of my many Senegalese break downs. But what made this different was that it was also a break-open: for the first time I had a personal context to what were before outsider observations. I stood immobilized in my writing after realizing the unjustness of scolding any part of a culture when I may not understand underlying issues. Since my “break-open” I have been steeped in an intense case of writer’s block as I attempted to investigate the intricacies of Senegalese society. I have come up with no answers, a lot of time spent baffled, and a few stories I would like to share:
Sharing is Caring:
In a community where there are virtually no doors forbidding access into family compounds, sharing seems inevitable. Cooking pots travel amongst homes, suckers are yanked from my mouth for others to taste, and the idea of communal responsibility is integral. This mindset manifests in a way that, despite actual ownership, everyone plays a role in what is happening around them. If I am to walk into a home where they are sorting peanuts, it becomes my responsibility to take part. This idea is most evident in raising children. Aunts, neighbors, and other female relatives are all introduced by the Wolof word for mother because everyone lends a hand to push balls of rice into a child’s mouth or pacify a crying infant. The role of mother is so shared that children become transferable. Of the four children that live at my house, only one is of direct biological descent. My nephew, Abdou, was lent to my mother because she needed help with our animals and my aunt received a daughter from her sister-in-law to supplement her own childless-ness. After spending months getting to know my neighbor, I learned of a son living in another village because by the birth of her fourth child she could not afford to take care of him and sent him to live with his grandmother (she still plans to have two more children). Although these kids have a place to sleep and food to eat, it seems they are economic investments to be shared and traded like stocks.
Time is in the Mind of the Beholder
Time seems to be an ambiguous concept and exists in two forms: before lunch and after. At the end of four sleepless days celebrating the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday in the unfamiliar and unbelievably crowded streets of Tivaouane, I was more than anxious to return to my village. Imploring multiple people for the departure time, I encountered the same response every time: after lunch. Further investigation led me to understand that could be anywhere from 3 p.m. to midnight and even that was accompanied with doubts that the bus arrives at all (in a shocking twist, the bus arrived before lunch). In a culture that values personal relationships time is secondary and the idea of tracking it is non-existent. An hour after all the patients at my health post had been tended to, I remained, waiting for an ambulance in the form of a refurbished station wagon to transfer a three-day-old infant to the health center in the nearest town. The doctor casually strolled in to check on the patient; I conversed with Fatou, the pharmacist; we waited. It was typical Senegalese fashion. When the ambulance arrived, the driver chatted with the doctor, loaded the baby and her mother into the car, and returned to discuss religion with me and whether I would give him my watch when I return to the US. When I entered the heath post the next day, as usual I greeted Fatou, only to learn in response that the baby from the previous day had died. I couldn’t help but wonder: if there had been a sense of urgency or prioritization of time, could that baby’s life had been saved?
At a Global Citizen Year orientation-like seminar with all the host families, they were asked to choose the top three values of Senegalese culture to compare with those of the US. Without hesitation, teranga, the Senegalese concept of hospitality, was selected as the most important. This powerful lifestyle is best exemplified by an nguente I attended several months ago. A week after the birth of a baby, this celebration is when the infant receives its name, followed by a lunch of rice and goat and the excitement of Senegalese dancing. Spilling out from a home along the road that crosses through the village, we sat, eating, as trucks full of people chugged along. Yet when those eating rang out in a symphony of forceful requests to join, the passing vehicles actually stopped as bowls were shoved into the arms of those disembarking. If teranga invitations like this seem extreme, pleas to stay are even more vigorous. Yet,I often felt these appeals were driven by cultural obligation rather than sincere desire. However, three whole months before my scheduled departure back to the United States, community members began dropping not-so-subtle hints that I should stay past the planned seven and a half months. As the weeks pass and the hints become aggressive entreaties, I know that the relationships I have formed go far beyond any obligation. Teranga may have helped to welcome me to my home in Senegal, but the people are the reason it will be so hard to go.