Madeline Ripa - Senegal

December 1, 2011

“ C’est quoi?” (“What is it?”) I asked, in response to what my new host mother had just told me. When I first arrived at my new home in Palmarin, my French had been less than mediocre and my Serere was non-existent. Consequently, “C’est quoi?” became a popular phrase. I would sit while my family moved around me getting the finishing touches done for our meal. It was simply easier for my mom to ask one of my siblings for a spoon than ask me…a virtual stranger who wouldn’t understand what she was saying anyways. I was constantly sent on guilt trips for having to be treated like a guest in my new home, but the communication barrier made it difficult to be otherwise.

In the mornings, my usual breakfast of a baguette, butter, Nescafe instant coffee mix, powered milk and sugar appeared in front of me as I sat down. I saw my mom take a small metal tin into the next room and magically reappear minutes later with hot water for my coffee/sugar drink. When I was finished she would then wave me off to work with a hearty “bon voyage!” and a smile.


On a Saturday morning around three weeks later, I slept in an extra hour. When I finally rolled into my parents room/eating room…no one was there. I waited, and then waited some more. I began to realize how dependent I still was on my family for something as simple as breakfast, despite my improved language skills. Around 20 minutes later my mom returned home from a trip to the beach to collect firewood. “I didn’t know when you were coming and now you’ve had to wait! Come with me.” she said, and took off with a purpose.

I followed her and watched as she explained in a fast dialogue of French how to light the kerosene tank to heat water, where the bread was kept, how to open the drawer without it getting stuck to retrieve the Nescafe, sugar, milk, and butter. She even showed me how to clean up when finished. I can honestly say that I had never been happier to be allowed to sweep a floor.

It had taken all of 10 minutes to show me how to prepare and clean up breakfast, and it seemed that a small burden had been lifted off my mothers’ shoulders. “See, Penda! That’s good. Now if you want, you can come help me cut onions for lunch” she said, looking pleased as I finished sweeping the final bread crumbs off the floor.

I followed her out to the cooking hut, reflecting on the fact that with something as simple as figuring out how to get myself breakfast, I had become a part of the family.

Madeline Ripa