My People

Grace Mannix - Senegal


March 4, 2015

Somewhere along the lines of growing up I heard the saying, “You become like the five people you spend most of your time with.” I initially questioned the validity of this statement, but soon caught myself proving that there is some truth behind it, i.e. occasionally saying things a friend would always say, or having a certain outlook on things that I wasn’t sure was entirely my own. I suddenly became more conscious of what pieces of which people I was holding on to, and I started thinking more about who I was spending time with, who I wanted to spend time with, and whether the effects these people had on me were positive or negative.

I was raised in a very fortunate suburb of Philadelphia. Police officers do spontaneous seat belt checks and drunk driving checkpoints. There are fireworks hosted at the high school every 4th of July, fall festivals, Christmas tree lightings, and you’re unlikely to find an unoccupied baseball field in the Spring. We even have a shopping center dedicated to fan-favorite restaurants like Five Guys, So Fun! Yogurt, Panera Bread, and Chipotle. The point I’m trying to make is that my hometown is very sheltered. It felt like, “Everything is right here in front of you, what else could you possibly need?” I felt overwhelmed with how much cushioning there was. As nice as it is to be comfortable, I think we can agree that too much of anything is detrimental.

I have a 15 year old brother named Mbaiye. He kind of comes in and out of the house as a teenager does: goes to school, comes home for lunch, tends to the sheep, and hangs out with his friends. He has an older brother studying in Dakar, and a little brother named Bamba. His dad has two wives, one of which lives here and cooks the best chebujen (in my opinion). Our interactions consist mostly, if not always, only of acknowledging each other’s presence when we see each other. “Absa, nanga def?” “Mbaiye, ca va?”

My Tonton Barera is usually seen doing handiwork, fixing broken pipes or taking care of the animals. He also has a wife and four kids to provide for. He loves to talk with his friends over three rounds of ataaya every afternoon, like every other Senegalese man does. In the earlier months of my homestay, there was friction. He tried to play power games with me. As much as he wanted me to sit there for three hours and listen to conversations in Wolof, I didn’t have the patience or the taste buds. He would command rather than ask, but as time went on we learned how to meet in the middle.

I have two grandmas, one of which has always been a bit nicer than the other; her name is Heidi. Every morning around 10:30 she sits outside the local elementary school to give the kids snacks during their break between classes. She doesn’t have a husband or any kids, but she takes care of a three year old named Awa. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Awa and I are the same person. I might be 18 by American standards but I’m a toddler in Senegal. Awa and I are learning Wolof at the same pace, but since I’m technically the oldest kid in a house where the class system has a significant presence, she looks to me when someone is picking on her. The three of us trust each other.

There are so many people living in my household, to dissect the relationship I have with each family member would be a book rather than a blog post. I just am realizing that with some, there simply isn’t much to say, which is fine; with others, conversation flows eventually, but with a few, nothing needs to be said at all. I’m gathering also that no matter the type of bond or connection had with another person, it derives from having some level of a mutual understanding, a type of common ground.

More than anything, I think living in the polar opposite from where I had been living for so long has given me an opportunity to think, to reflect, and to question. Considering how Senegal has scenic beauty as spotty as reliable internet connection, my thoughts and wonders have revolved around other people. My experience has been built not by what I’ve seen or done, but who I’ve seen and done things with. As true as it may be that “You become like the five people you spend the most of your time with,” it doesn’t take everyone else into account. It doesn’t account for the little brother that would walk places with you after dark, the uncle that kept coming in to check on you when you were sick, or the grandma that wished you a peaceful sleep when your mom was away. If I were to modify the statement knowing what I do now, it would be: “You are not just who you spend time with, you are a product of everything in between as well.

Grace Mannix