Food, Family, and Witch Doctor?

Alec Yeh - Senegal


October 7, 2009

Today was our culture orientation, and wowee, did we learn a lot. So many new ideas, new concepts, new values, just a whole different way of life that I find so fascinating. We began with food and lunch. So first off, much of the time Senegalese eat on the floor with a huge communal bowl. You first wash your hands in a water basin. Then you come and sit at the mat without shoes. You wait for the host to give the signal that it is okay to begin eating. There’s always certain foods in the middle that’s there to share, like a whole fish, or a big carrot. You must share those. You can take some, but you must put it back. Now you eat with hands a lot of the time. With my family, we eat with spoons, but you do eat with hands. So we ate with our hands, and it’s so weird. You make balls of rice and fish and carrot and cabbage and just stuff it in your face. Remember, no left hand! By the end of the meal, my hand was actually burning from the habañero juice. And I had food all over my face. It’s a lot harder than you think. The rice isn’t like asian rice. It’s not sticky, it’s greasy. I can’t wait to come home and cook this and have an actual Senegalese meal with you guys!

After lunch, they enjoy tea. It’s not cups, it’s like shots of tea. It’s SO sweet and caffeinated. But it’s just a shot of it. You enjoy three shots of tea, with at least 3o minutes in between. It takes around 2 hours, and you can do things in between. But they generally enjoy at least 2 cups, if they don’t have time or if they’re trying to cut back on costs.

Then we moved into Senegalese values. La Famille was the first. The idea of family here is wholly different from ours. We think of our mother and father and siblings. But here, it’s a network. It’s a huge huge network of friends, families, neighbors, anybody really. When there’s a marriage, it ain’t about the couple whatsoever. For example, Victoria’s host family just had their daughter married. But the daughter was in France and her husband, Italy. The two families must send their men to the mosque for the actual ceremony. And then the women prepare and have a huge party at their house. It’s a gendered celebration, one that doesn’t even have to include the couple. The idea of family is essentially, if one’s in need, then you gotta help them. The saying goes “Nit, nitay garabam”, meaning “A person is another person’s best medicine.” Essentially, no man is an island. It’s a beautiful concept. That’s why their divorce and suicide rates are so low. Always have family around.

There’s Kersa and Teggin. Kersa is respect and Teggin, social status. Kersa is just the value of respect for other people. For example, women curtsy when meeting somebody. Teggin is the idea the older you are, the wiser. There’s also Fayda, the concept of self-respect. There’s a point where you can be so respectful, that you have nothing left. You have to be able to balance Kersa and Fayda. The saying goes, “Fayda mooy jaay doquar.” It’s about a street vendor who let’s people try his product, but by the end, he has nothing to sell. Gotta make sure you got them apples at the end. Teranga is one of my favorite ideas. It’s hospitality. They have a belief that when one visits you, that person is choosing your house, out of all their friends, to visit. THEY’RE giving YOU a gift by visiting you, so you must deserve for them to visit you. That’s why the Senegalese are so hospitable. There’s Muña, which is patience or acceptance. Their idea is essentially don’t dwell. Just let it be.
Once you let it be, your at ease and your happy.

The next part is one of my favorites. It’s their superstitions. They believe in what they call Dëmm. It’s a witch or sorcerer. They identify sorcerers when somebody, say, compliments you on your watch. And then it breaks. Then they suspect you of being a dëmm. They’ll avoid you from then on. But the worst thing that could happen is if somebody openly accuses you of a dëmm. You are then forever shunned, and your children shunned. They believe that the mother passes it onto their child. They believe in spirits called Jinne, both good and bad. That’s why after compliments, they always say “karr” or “mashula”, which is their version of “knock on wood.” They have Rabs which are animal totems that protect you from bad Jinne. They also carry a gris-gris, which is an amulet. And NOBODY can touch your gris-gris, or it loses it’s effect. If you do have bad luck, you can go to a serigne (wolof) or a marabout (french). It’s a witch doctor. They may even perform an exorcism. But there are actually three types of marabouts. They have the witch doctor, a Quranic teacher, and an Muslim brotherhood leader. This is what I find most fascinating. Remember how I said there were a lot of child beggars? Most of them aren’t actually beggars. Their Quranic teacher puts children on the streets to beg to show them what it’s like, to teach them humility. I find that so fascinating. And if you see an older beggar, they may be begging for their brotherhood. It’s a truly fascinating concept.

Okay, I know this is a lot of culture. But last one, my favorite, polygamy. So like I said, my host father is a polygamist. It’s fascinating since he has another family. The way polygamy here works is that you can have up to four wives, but no more. You HAVE to spend equal time with all wives, have sex with them the same amount, or the wives can cite negligence and get a divorce. Many times, the wives live in separate places. My host family’s counterpart lives in another neighborhood. But sometimes they do live on the same complex. A lot of the times the wives don’t get along. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they’re considered as part of that “family” network I was telling about, sometimes they’re just ignored. When they have children, they’re all considered siblings, not half siblings. I found out my host family is actually pretty complicated. So the mother, Saly was actually previously married. She had two of her oldest sons that no longer live at home, and then Adja. Then she had Jatu and Amadou with El Hadj. But then all the children have more siblings from El Hadj’s other wife. They all seem pretty fine with the idea, and Saly is actually the second wife, and has been for over 2o years.

It’s really fascinating to see how polygamy can function, can work, so well within Senegalese culture. When you think about it, family and love is such a big part of their ideals, that polygamy actually seems to fit into their lives. Even though perhaps I don’t believe in polygamy, I can wholly accept it and understand it within context of Senegal. You never know, I might just come home with four wives.

Alec Yeh