Written on September 6, 2015.
On My First Week in Senegal
Every night, when the clock strikes nine, I creep to the metal door of my compound, unbolt the lock, and stick my head into the dark alley. I scan my surroundings. To my left, a stray cat hisses. To my right, I see a dark figure holding something that I can’t quite make out. I step out of the door and, with only the light of the moon, walk with confidence to my guitar lesson.
Yes, you read that correctly. I get free guitar lessons from a stranger in a pitch-black alley in the middle of Dakar. We sit in the rubble of an abandoned construction project and teach one another music. Well, most of the time, he teaches me. And by God if he’s not one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. Apart from his skill and love for his art, Christopher is patient.
You see, in Senegal, there’s this beautiful concept that many of us Westerners struggle to understand. The idea that, maybe, it is not necessary to constantly work to better oneself or get ahead in the world. Instead, value is placed on meaningful personal relationships and shared company. This is why friends can often be found preparing a single cup of tea (known as attaya) for several hours. It is not important to gain sustenance from the tea, which could theoretically be made in a matter of minutes. The attaya instead represents a forum for meaningful discussion. In Senegal, there is no such thing as a waste of time.
This is just one of the things that I love about Senegal. Also on the list is the concept of “teranga,” or hospitality. Yesterday, we went to Goree Island and, while swimming in the bay, my friends and I were invited to share the food of the locals, free of charge. I was also invited to the birthday party of my brother’s friend, where they insisted that I keep eating, filling me to the point where I could barely walk. My French teacher, Papa Pierre, explained that if a guest leaves thinner than he/she arrived, the hosts have done their job incorrectly.
Furthermore, when walking down the street, I am greeted by nearly everyone I pass. “Salaam Maleikum,” (Peace be with you.) they say. If I reply with “Maaleikum Salaam” (Peace be with you too.), they flash me a smile, often exposing gleaming white teeth. While this is the extent of some conversations, many stop and ask “Na nga def?” (How are you?), to which the appropriate answer is “Maa ngi fi rekk.” (I am here only). If the conversation goes this far, it is likely that the traditional greeting will continue until I run out of Wolof to speak. “Ana waa ker ga?” (How are those in your family?) “Nu nga fa.” (They are there only.) “Alxamdulilaa.” (Praise be to God.) “Sa yaram jamm?” (Is your body in peace?) “Jaam rekk.” (Peace only.)“Alxamdulilaa.” (Praise be to God.) “Tubaakala.” (Thanks be to God). I’ve only ever made it to the first “Praise God,” but my neighbors test me every day without fail.
In two weeks, I will move to my permanent host family in the village of Pelele. I will live in a hut without electricity and draw my water from a well. While I’m quite apprehensive about this, I am confident that it is going to be one of the most transformative experiences of my life. There are so many things that I would like to say about Senegal but simply cannot put into words. All I know is this: I am where I belong.