What is Senegal like?
Every family member and friend has been asking me the same question over and over for the past two weeks.
The real question is where would I even start?
It’s impossible to encompass Senegal in one sentence, in a ten minute call and especially impossible to encompass all that Senegal is in a badly written blog post. I can give you my impression so far, with just over a week in my host family. I guess badly written blog post it is!
To start off, my name is Oumy Sarr. On my first day with my host family, they made sure I was an immediate part of their family by giving me a Senegalese name. It might be slightly inconvenient that my little host sister’s name is also Oumy, and that we both jump to respond each time we hear our name, then look at each other mildly confused, then laugh. We seem to have made it work so far despite this.
To tell you everything, a week of learning, I would already have to write a book. So instead, here are some little appreciations I have. Hopefully they give you an idea of where I am, and how I am living.
The first appreciation comes for when we eat. We eat together at most meals from a communal bowl. A huge silver bowl that, without fail, serves all thirteen of us every time. The food is spicy and plentiful, and there is never any that is put to waste. The mother or mother figure of the household generally finds the best pieces of meat and will throw it in your direction, and the direction of other family members. This isn’t considered incredibly kind or out of place in my family, it is simply normal and instilled in day to day life. Just something you do for those around you. The Senegalese value of sharing with those around you, family or not, is something I have seen in abundance this past week with my host family. When I thanked my family for sharing their food, they just responded by saying ‘sharing with others is good. We should all share’. I couldn’t agree more.
My second appreciation is for the numerous and seemingly unending greetings each and every day. In the house, I get up and greet everybody throughout the house, the baby, the kids, the adults and the elderly. When I walk up the street to catch the bus, I am greeted by the shopkeepers, the kids playing football on the side of the road, the people walking down my street; everyone. Can you believe it? It’s normal to acknowledge everybody’s existence here, and moreover wish everyone peace. Salaam alekum. This is my Wolof sentence that has no doubt been
used hundreds of times already. I’ve come to realize it is not only a greeting, it encompasses the value of teranga, or hospitality here in Senegal. It is not only a greeting, it is protection from the rest of the community. They stand with you when they greet you, and you do the same as you greet them. You wish them absolute peace on their day, and they wish the same to you. Malekum salaam. It is uniting and brings a smile to my face each day. Even if I may get strange looks, being the toubab (foreigner) that I am, when we greet each other, it is as if it doesn’t matter who I am or who they are. It just matters that we wish each other the best in our days. It makes walking through the street like a whole social gathering in its own unique way.
My third appreciation is for my learning of the language Wolof. It has been indescribably hard. It is unlike any other language I have seen before, and the pronunciation is wildly different to English. I find myself speaking horrifically, butchering the language as if it was a piece of meat. If Wolof was the sun, it was like I was trying to catch a tan and got stuck with a sunburn. Once again, the process of learning is not easy. What makes this process so much more comfortable is how willing everyone is to teach me, to laugh along with me at my mistakes instead of reprimanding me for them. My family has told me the word for ‘sit’ about a thousand times and each time I ask what it means. ‘Naka lanuy waxee sit ci Wolof?’.There hasn’t been one instance where they have responded with anger, frustration or exhaustion at correcting my millionth mistake. They just laugh with me, remind me, listen to me and continue to correct my next million mistakes. If there is anywhere to learn a language, it is here. If you want to find a joyous and hilarious way to learn something new, I would urge you to come to Thies.
My fourth appreciation comes for the peace. The unity, the care for others. This lies at the core of most Senegalese families I have met. Little time is spent alone, there is always someone at your side. Just to be in another’s company brings joy and comfort. One is never without someone behind them, supporting them. The care for each other fosters a national attitude towards peace that is indescribable in any word other than beautiful. Nowhere is perfect of course, but I have seen another side of peace here, as a way of living, a way of being. My family told me the Christians that live in our community bring food to their Muslim neighbours each Easter, and the Muslims bring their Christian neighbours food each Muslim new year. They said they would never wish to convert their Christian neighbours. There is an attitude that goes beyond tolerance to reach contented acceptance, an embrace of those different. My family tells me that they like diversity, and meeting new people. As my host sister told me, there is no question; I am her sister now. Although at surface I look nothing like them, I am their sister. I thank them for their wishes of peace each day, taking me in as family and protecting me just like they would the rest of their family.
There is so much else to say but words can’t describe all. I have all fingers and toes crossed that I can speak Wolof in a mediocre manner soon. I hope the sweltering heat gives me a break soon. I hope I can continue to get my footing here, figure out how to get around a little better. I hope I can get to know my family better too. I hope I can figure out how to hand wash my laundry properly, and become a pro like my sister. I hope I can learn to make Ataya. I hope I can find a way to make the flies hate me, and stay away from me. I hope I keep finding these little things to appreciate, like the refreshing breeze of the rainstorm that brings relief from the heat and the sweet mango at the roadside.
More to come soon. Until next time and thanks for reading! 🙂