Something I’ve noticed, without fail, is that consistently throughout all places and peoples in Senegal there is a general, wonderful sense of hospitality, welcoming, and concern for others. They call this “Teranga,” a sense of friendliness, hospitality, and respect conveyed by the Senegalese to all people. It’s most apparent in the traditional long greetings given whenever you see someone. In Senegal when making a greeting there is not simply a “Hey what’s up, or how are you doing?” When you greet someone you ask them how they are, how they slept, how their day has been going, how their family is, mother, father, grandmother, etc. and then they ask all this of you as well if not more. It’s the first thing we were taught how to say when we came because it is such an important signal to the Senegalese. It shows you appreciate their culture and language, understand the value of greetings, and caring about how another person is doing. I’ve seen this at home with my own host family, as well as out and about during random encounters and travels.
I had my first ever Christmas in Senegal, and my fellow Fellows Kaya and Megan (or as known by the Senegalese; Fatou and Awa) had their first Chanukah as well. It was simply the best. Despite the overwhelming nostalgia while being so far away from home we had a wonderful holiday. A major part of what made the holiday so special was the openness and generous hospitality of Kaya’s host family.
I traveled the two and a half hour trip to Kaya’s village in Potou by bus and taxi. Traveling in Senegal is never boring, especially by bus. Rides on the beat up old-school Mercedes (yes Mercedes) public transport vehicles are always full of surprises such as police stops, detours, arguments over money, cellphones — or who knows what — onions and goats on the roof, stops for loading grain, engines overheating, and there’s always a crying/laughing baby or two. No space is wasted as these buses are packed full of people literally till they are busting out the back doors, and then a couple more are still smushed inside or hang out the back. It was by this means that I made my way to Potou to meet Kaya and Megan for the best holiday away from home. Weighted down with bags full of gifts and food, I felt like I was bringing Christmas. A woman on the bus inquired why I was traveling and I explained for the holiday. Another woman with a baby climbed onto the overcrowded bus, and in true holiday and Senegalese spirit the woman I was talking to gave up her seat for the woman with the baby. Teranga. Simple small acts of kindness such as this really show the true character of a person and culture. It makes all the difference.
In Kaya’s village I was greeted by a little collage of children some dressed and some not, all adorable. Everyone was warm and friendly and we danced and sang yuza and the kids loved it. Later we went on a tree finding expedition, and after realizing how maybe a cactus was a hazardous choice, we selected a fine branch from some kind of strange, leafless, birch like bush to be our Christmas tree. Then we got to work making ornaments from seashells and scraps of fabric. The result was beautiful, and Kaya’s family agreed. When I visited again weeks later the tree was still up, in its glorified place on the corner table. We even had some homemade presents and of course Christmas isn’t Christmas without a holiday movie, we watched Elf. And in wonderful respect of the holiday Kaya’s family allowed us to have some time to ourselves. Then we caroled and sang and danced some more. And when it was dinner Kaya said her family had never made food so fancy before. It was just for us, to make us feel like welcome guests and to celebrate our holiday. Such a nice gesture. It was my first Christmas, and it was wonderful. I could almost see the snow.
The next day we had our Chanuka celebration, which resulted in a never ending parade of “The Latke Song” and dancing all around. And later came the latkes. I had stupidly forgotten my potato grater and we were a little worried as to how to shred the potatoes and onions. To the rescue came Kaya’s family, what do you know they had a shredder! All was saved. We managed to get the required ingredients, for the most part, and got to work peeling and shredding, mashing and mixing, and frying over the kerosene heated pot. We crossed our fingers and cooked, and the result was delicious. I was blown away by how great they turned out. The latkes tasted like home. I was standing in a roofless concrete compound in Senegal, but if I closed my eyes with each deliciously crispy bite, I felt as though I was back in America, stealing latkes from the kitchen as my mom cooked for Chanuka. It was weird, and wonderful. And it was Megan and Kaya’s first Chanuka, (believe it or not they had never had latkes before!) and it couldn’t have worked out better. It was a great holiday that made us feel like we were with family and friends even though our real homes were so far away. And it was all possible because of teranga, Senegalese hospitality and respect.
My host family as well shows me the same kindness everyday. It started with the way they first welcomed me to the house, with a huge bowl of food just for me. And ever since they have always made me feel at home and like part of the family. There was the exception that in the beginning they didn’t let me do a lot of work, and I am still treated a little like a guest, but now we have for the most part gotten over that. They let me do my own laundry now. And whenever friends come to visit, either for lunch or for a while, they are always welcoming. For meals we are given a huge platter of food just for us and we are left alone to eat and talk. Before my friends arrive my grandmother also inquires to make sure the selected meal is something my friends will like. I always laugh and say “Yes! We all like chep bu gen (fish and rice and veggies, the Senegalese trademark dish) Ceebu Jen nexna torrop!” It’s because of the wonderfully welcoming and open nature of the Senegalese that makes it so easy to become part of the family. Last time I visited Kaya’s village I was sad to leave, I had bonded so much with the family. Though the food and living standard is far better in my home, I also enjoy living in Potou. I miss seeing the beautiful beach, walking around on market day, playing fútbol with the boys, and dancing with the girls. When Kaya’s sister Syenobou said I shouldn’t leave but live here instead, I wanted to cry. So I just hugged her and said I would come again soon. And when I returned to my own village after being away a while, I felt such surprising nostalgia for a place I have not lived in long at all. I missed my family. My grandmother always sitting regally on her matt, the kids with their funny faces and games, and of course the food. I may be miles aways from America, but here also feels like home.