Explaining Myself

Charlotte Benishek - Senegal


December 2, 2011

The preferred form of public transportation in Leona is the “auto,” a pickup truck from the 1960’s (and rarely a slightly later model) with a sort of frame affixed over the bed to facilitate squeezing the maximum number of humans inside (and on top) for the journey. Like the locals, this is the primary means of local transportation for the five Global Citizen Year Fellows living in the region of Louga. Usually the trips are relatively silent, aside from the lengthy Senegalese greetings as people enter or exit the vehicle. However, one evening Kaya, Megan and I climbed into an auto for what we expected to be another relatively calm (and uncomfortable, that goes without saying) ride home from a larger town where we go for internet access. However, this ride turned out to be special because nearly every common social interaction I have with strangers in Senegal occurred during the ride.

Immediately when we climbed in, an old woman demanded to know our names and where we were from (which village, not which country). From there it was Ana sa yaay? Ana sa baye? Ana sa maam? (How is your mom? Your dad? Your grandma?). Upon hearing that my last name was Pulaar (a minority ethnic group that makes up about 25% of the population of Senegal), the question from another woman was Yow degg nga Pul? (Do you understand Pulaar?). I had to explain for seemingly the thousandth time that although my host family is Pulaar, I am learning Wolof because most of my village speaks Wolof. This was followed by Yow am nga jekker? (Do you have a husband?). Deedet, amuma jekker. Man xale laa. Dama bugg jang rekk, bugguma jekker. (No, I don’t have a husband. I’m just a child! I just want to study now; I don’t want a husband.) We female fellows have mastered that response from months of daily practice.

Finally everyone seemed to settle in for the 45 minute ride. I took out my camera and shot some video. Immediately when one of the young men saw the camera, he said foot ma, demanding that I take his picture. I have learned that this demand is not just “take my picture” but rather “take my picture then show it to me.” Since he was in the opposite corner of the truck, I badly faked taking his picture, attempting to turn it into a joke, and quickly stowed the camera back in my bag.

Just then the woman who had asked us about our families noticed that my ears were not pierced. This too happens on a daily basis. Of course in the US it’s not a big deal to have intact earlobes, but in Senegal it is a travesty. Every little girl has her ears pierced within days of birth. I tell the half-truth that I always do, Suma yaay daf ma tere (My mother forbid it). Usually this response confuses the other woman into silence, but this woman continued to insist that I pierce my ears. I just repeated my response until she wearied of fighting me on the topic.

As that conversation ended, the auto pulled into a village. We shuffled positions as people got on and off. This left Megan seated beside a mother and young child. Megan began to make faces and talk to the child. After a while, the mother extended the child to Megan and suggested in Wolof that Megan take the child back to the US. This happens surprisingly frequently. I have pondered it a lot. As best I can figure, most people have no concept of our lives in the US and simply don’t realize that it would be a very bad idea for a college student with no means of income and precious little free time to adopt an infant.

As frequently as I am annoyed and frustrated by the Senegalese questions for and demands of me as a toubab, I remind myself that it is only motivated by curiosity. These interactions also provide a chance to show off my Wolof skills to people who are not used to toubabs speaking Wolof at all. Like it or not, I know I’ll be taking many more auto rides (and having to explain myself many more times) in my remaining four months here.

Charlotte Benishek