When I moved in with my host family, one of my biggest concerns was being polite in a culture that was completely foreign to me. This challenge was complicated by my extremely limited language skills. I can’t say whether or not I stepped on any toes in my first few weeks here, but I was shocked to feel that everyone I met was being incredibly impolite, not just to me, but to each other. The one thing I just couldn’t understand was how demanding everyone was. People would see that I had a nice necklace or laptop or pair of sandals and say “Give me your (insert desired item here).” No matter how often this happened, I always responded with a startled and defensive “No!” If I came home carrying a black plastic grocery bag, ubiquitous to Senegalese boutiques and markets, my three-year-old niece Maman Corka would run and snatch at it, yelling “Give me banana, give me banana!” Family members and total strangers alike would say “Get me a drink,” and I was expected to drop what I was doing and go get them a cup of water.
It wasn’t until a few days ago that I really understood the cultural perspective that creates this behavior. Maman Corka was dancing in the foyer, holding a plastic package in one hand and a partially eaten cookie in the other. Teasingly, I held out my hand and told her to give me her cookie. To my utter shock, she gave me the cookie she was in the middle of eating. She pulled another cookie from the package, she took a tiny bite, I asked for that cookie, and she gave it to me. I can’t imagine a child in the United States willing to hand over all their goodies just because I asked for them. It was then that I learned that the Senegalese way is to give you what you ask for because it’s assumed that you wouldn’t ask for it if you didn’t have greater need of it than its owner. You’re expected to do what people ask of you because, eventually, you’ll be the one asking, and you want to be treated the same way.
And as for fully-grown adults demanding that I give them my nicest things, I found out that that’s meant as a compliment. It’s taken some getting-used-to, but now I respond by smiling and saying “Thank you, but I need this right now.” When a random kid comes into my house and says “Bring me some water,” I get the boy his water, content in knowing that I could walk into any house in Senegal and be treated the same way.