I Want to Hold Your Hand

Russell Bollag-Miller - Senegal

October 8, 2011

I have a great seat. Arguably the best seat. The PowerPoint presentation is in perfect view. I have a fan angled in my direction. I have a nice chair. Arguably the nicest chair. I understand a little Wolof…

Well, arguably no Wolof.

So maybe a six-hour discussion (in Wolof) about variations in onion farming is not going to be the easiest thing to sit through. My father has taken me along to his work on my first day in my new village of Mberes. He’s a very kind man and I really appreciate his intentions, but by the end of this meeting I am really struggling. I’m beginning to wonder how long a person can survive without water before they keel over.

I leave the meeting with a desert in my mouth and with thoughts about doing horrible things to at least six different breeds of onions. As we walk to a restaurant for lunch, my father’s best friend Maganar starts to chat with me in broken English. I am less than thrilled to be speaking to anyone at this point. As we walk, I notice that something is a little off. I realize that my hand is being held by a 6’7” black man who is asking me if “Bohstan hass cold wevva.”

One of the many cultural idiosyncrasies that I’ve witnessed during my time in Senegal is that scores of men, young and old, can be seen strolling down the street holding hands. This is a common display of friendship between two Senegalese people. The only peculiar thing about our interlocked fingers to Senegalese eyes is that mine are white. Through my American eyes, this image simultaneously forms two ideas in my head. One is, “is this guy gay?” and the other, “will people think that we’re…..gay?”

I am by no means homophobic. But as a straight American guy, this thought is triggered instantly and uncontrollably. I steal a quick glance at my hand just to check and sure enough, my hand is still united with Maganar’s.

(Again, this guy is a solid 6’7” and I’m about 5’9”, so for a good mental picture, just imagine an average sized person holding hands with a toddler.)

As the surprise of my hand’s new companion sinks in, I see that Maganar isn’t making a big deal and I remember that I’ve met his wife and kids so…this can’t be that weird I guess. We talk and hold hands all the way to the restaurant and my previously negative disposition switches to cheery and conversational.

This experience introduces an interesting difference between American and Senegalese culture. In relation to the rest of the World, I think it’s safe to say that America is relatively accepting of homosexuality. Senegal is far less accepting than the U.S., but it is very normal to see men, women, and children of the same gender holding hands. This is an interesting and ironic cultural variation. Though the United States is “more accepting” of homosexuality than Senegal, two men holding hands in the U.S. will more often draw more negative attention.

Though my first hand-holding experience has been a little awkward, a part of me enjoyed the comfort that it provided.  However, no amount of hand-holding could distract from what’s in front of me.


My lunch came with a side of onions.


Russell Bollag-Miller