Kaleidoscope

Madeleine Balchan - Senegal


November 2, 2010

Suma yaaye, my host mother, is diabetic. She was hospitalized for not following her diet. Our house, usually bustling with visitors and laughter, became very solemn. Then my older sister Adya got malaria.  Suddenly my sister Ami, who’s 19 like me, had the work of three women to do.

I walked around like an elephant of awkwardness. Teranaga- Senegalese hospitality- means that I’m not allowed to help with any household chores, am served first and separately, and I get a room to myself in a five-bedroom house with thirteen residents. Ami stopped going to school two years ago so she could help with the household chores. I’m not even allowed to wash my own plate.

I came home for lunch between classes and Ami didn’t even pause scrubbing the floor of the boys’ bedroom as she greeted me. After lunch, I insisted again that I’d like to help with the chores; I’m used to doing them at home. She finally conceded. She set three large bowls on the ground and filled the first with water and detergent and the second with just water. She scrubbed every dish in the soapy water and handed them to me to rinse and stack neatly in the last bowl. The pain of bending over was overshadowed by my stupid smile and genuine comfort I felt in finally being able to contribute.

0ne of my brothers walked by and said “That’s so nice, you’re helping Ami because moma’s in the hospital and Adya’s sick.” The discomfort returned immediately. I’m FINALLY allowed to help. I’m so happy. But, why aren’t the boys doing anything? Back in the states, my brothers and I share chores. If mom was sick we’d all be helping out. I couldn’t imagine doing all the housework, let alone cleaning their room for them.

I thought about what Kouja, our Senegalese guide who took us downtown our first week in Dakar, told me about gender roles in Senegal: “Girls need to be nice and men need to make a lot of money. If a girl is nice she can get a man who has money. If a man has money he can get a nice girl.” What exactly does being nice mean – doing the housework with a smile?

The morning after I first got to help with the dishes, I saw Ami doing the laundry. Hands mechanically scrub, splash, scrub, splash, scrub, splash. In the five minutes it took me to brush my teeth and go to the bathroom, she was still working on the same piece of fabric. I thought about the five minutes total it takes me to load the washer and then switch to the dryer back in the states. Both of my parents work 40 hours a week. I can’t imagine that would be possible here, where laundry, cooking, and cleaning are full time jobs. Unless you can afford a maid (which is fairly cheap in Dakar, the equivalent of $100 a month) someone has to stay home and do the housework.

Later I helped Ami take the pieces of the refrigerator apart so she could scrub every surface, a process she does once a month, shattering any “Africa is dirty” stigmas. I don’t remember my fridge in the states ever being that clean.

In Ohio, my parents spend about an hour a night covering the counters with the Cuisinart, mixers, potato peelers, and garlic presses. We sit down at the table with food fresh from the oven, stove, grill, and microwave.

Here, lunch and dinner are both fresh cooked. We started making Ce Bu Gen, the Senegalese national dish of fish and rice, at 10AM for lunch at 2:30. Four and a half hours. Mortar and pestle serve as garlic press and Cuisinart, potatoes and carrots are peeled with knives. As a general rule if it can’t be fried in oil, it’s probably not for dinner. I realized what I already knew: the technology of America allows me to do a lot of things a lot quicker.

There’s so much I’ve been trying to take in lately – in trying to digest it all before posting I’ve ended up with a kaleidoscope post of unfinished thoughts. Maybe you can make more sense of it?

Madeleine Balchan