Teranga – best translated into English as hospitality – is a quintessential element of Senegalese society. The word is painted with the same enthusiasm and gravity as religious sayings (and oh are there many) on the sides of public buses and the walls of restaurants and inns. Teranga is everywhere and instilled in everyone. If you happen to be in another household around breakfast, lunch or dinner time, you will be sat down on the stool of honor and forced to eat even you have already ate. Refusal is impolite, so at least a spoon of rice they always say, pushing entire fishes and huge morsels of vegetables into your side of the bowl before you can protest. Once you are full and ready to take your leave, Senegalese interpret that as proper manners, that you are only refusing food so that their children (and there always are) can have more. So at least another spoon of rice, they say. Look at how thin you are, they say. Once you are truly full, a quiz commences. You must recite with gushing gratitude, the 20+ Wolof/French/Sereer phrases that mean: “Gosh I’m dying. Please don’t feed me anymore of your incredibly delicious and plentiful food.” Then you may finally leave, seeing that you are now half an hour late to your language class. You bid farewell, pat the kids on their heads and stand up to leave, but wait! You must have the usual digestionary cup of tea, and it’s almost ready they say. So as the polite guest, you sit and wait for about 20 minutes, before you are handed scalding hot cup of sweet green tea that will take at least 3 ice cubes, or 2 conversations, or another 10 minutes to cool. You down it anyways, burning your tongue, and you croak with pain and urgency, that you do really have to leave. You run to class, and you find that your language tutor, daintily holding a cup of hot tea and gently blowing over its surface, only just arrived to the classroom; both of you an hour late.
This has obviously never happened to a punctual people like myself and my tutor Pierre. :/
It’s almost as if Senegalese people think that guests don’t believe that Senegal is famed for its hospitality, and are doing their patriotic duty to prove them wrong. As such, the word Teranga and all its accompanying meals, conversations, cups of tea, iced water, plates of fruit, seats on soft sofas, are constantly shoved into faces of willing and unwilling visitors. Yet, as you walk down the street with a newly made friend, their repetitive mention of the word Teranga can be a potential red alarm for a hustler trying to take advantage of you – those that try to be your tour guide or show you where to eat and change money. These people are sometimes difficult to identify given the universal presence of over enthusiastic locals in every town, but they are concentrated in touristic areas. Isn’t it slightly ironic that Senegalese hustlers exploit tourists by exploiting their countrymen’s hospitality? I sometime encounter the above mentioned types when I venture into the touristy parts of Joal such as Fadiout or Keur Leopold Senghor (President Senghor’s childhood residence), but now I am fluent enough in my Wolof to shut them down. Before, I could only wordlessly walk on and motion to be left alone, while said hustlers would tail me for a few minutes before finally giving up. Now, it’s a practiced and entertaining (to bystanders) dialogue of: “Listen yo, I told ya to leave me alone. I ain’t no toubab. I live here and I might even teach someone in your family at school. GTFO here I know this place, that my aunt’s house.”
If you were wondering, that house I refer to isn’t, in fact, my aunt’s house.
Joal is a sizable town of 40,000, so I still meet new people every day. Nowadays, conversations with new acquaintances evolve around how I am not a guest, but Samba of house Tambédou, of neighborhood Santhey Deux, of school CEM Lamine Senghor, of workshop Diajne et Freres. Needless to say, I’ve had this conversation many times in the market with many skeptical vendors. Foreigners don’t fetch the best prices. When I am asked where I am really from, sometimes I cheekily insist that I have grown up in Senegal all my life and that my parents are indeed black. I then escape before any more conversation can reveal the basic level of my Wolof.
To some extent, I am shying away from explaining my complicated dual citizenship origins to people who lack the privilege to travel out of their country perhaps the entirety of their lives. The moments I feel most foreign to my family and community are often times the moments when I am suddenly made acutely aware of my social, economic and literal geographical mobility. I like to banter with my fellow carpentry apprentices in Wolof. Abdul, Boubacar, Paap, Elage and Lamine are apprentices largely because their families cannot afford to support their educations and would rather they immediately learn a trade. As such, they don’t speak or understand much French. At times, my Wolof would fail me as a joke, pun or linguistic peculiarity is thrown across the workbenches. The apprentices laugh, while my boss patiently translates in French. After the last laughs die down, the apprentices would listen to a conversation about a joke they made, in a language they don’t understand.
Avoiding the question of where I come from is cowardly because the only person I’m trying to fool is me. My efforts to convince my community that I am not a foreign intruder is my attempt to ignore the social and economic differences that exist between them and me. It’s easy to pretend my upbringing at a developed country and my education at elite institutions don’t exist as I drag my sandals through the same sand every else does. Even easier to abuse Bob Marley’s curious influence here to claim in a quizzical tone: “Man ak yow naari benn la.” (You and I, we’re the same.) Yes, I do get caught up as Senegalese Samba, slurping thiakry (couscous) and sow (yogurt) out of a plastic bag whilst carrying my brother in one arm and waving to my neighbors with my other. When I am Samba, I forget that Mohammed and I don’t have the same tone of skin, that contractions in Wolof are only perceived to be contractions to non-native speakers like myself, that unlike my neighbors, I have the freedom to come and – as I will in 2 months – go.
So you can imagine the confusion that beset me as I welcomed my brother to Senegal over the Christmas. A guest entertaining another. But hold up, Jamie wasn’t just going to be another tourist, after all, here in Senegal, Jamie is Samba’s older brother. Before he knew it, he was dubbed Musa by a trinket vendor, and Samba and Musa went travelling about in Senegal. In truth, I was more Jasen than Samba during my travels with my brother, the honestly incredible sight of my brother seated next to me in a sept-place (seven seated station wagons that travel between towns) was enough to remind me that I had another home, 2 homes in fact, outside Senegal. Still, it was puzzling because while Jasen wanted to experience everything Senegal had to offer to visitors and tourists, Samba vilified the tourist experience as unauthentic and exploitative. Thus, our travels reflected such – while Jasen and Jamie explored Goree Island, visited the Bandia Reserve, dined next to the Pink Lake and strolled around Dakar, Samba and Musa navigated the public transportation system, ordered meals in Wolof, lived with Senegalese families in Dakar and Joal and attended a traditional Sereer Christmas festival in the unspectacular agricultural village of Ngeuniene. Thanks Jamie, for risking Malaria and Yellow Fever so your wannabe Senegalese brother could drag your overwhelmed, Christmas deprived ragdoll of a body from one Senegalese experience to another. Kudos.
Attempting to explain to members of my community who Jamie was, finally made it clear to me, who I was within my community.
Moom, mooy sama maag, sama gan la.
“Him, he is my older brother, my guest.”
In my same way Jamie/Musa was the guest and brother of Jasen/Samba, Jasen/Samba is also the guest and son, brother, teacher, student and neighbor of his community. Those identities are not mutually exclusive because I am all of those things, all at once. Jasen or Samba. I became so enamored by my new identity that I forgot that before I became Samba Tambédou, I was only Jasen Lo. The name Samba Tambédou and all the accompanying identities are, like cups of tea and invitations to meals, gifts from my host community to their gan – me. Their acceptance of me, as their son, brother, teacher, student and neighbor is the ultimate display of affectionate hospitality – Teranga. So like Musa, Samba is a guest, among other things, and a proud guest at that. Well, at least until you try to rip him off.
TLDR – Jasen writes of his travel days with Jamie and Pablo, and explores the nuances of what hospitality means in Senegal, realizing that he is a beneficiary of such kindness.
P.S. The pictures taken are from my travels with my brother, but also from my adventures with my good friend Pablo. We ventured to the ancient French West African capital of Saint Louis and walked under the shade of the many trees of the railway city of Thies. Thanks for the days that passed like hours, Pabs. Independent travel days are cool. I wish I had more, but I also wish I wouldn’t. When I returned home, my little brother ran so fast to greet me that he smashed headfirst into my knee. Ay, Hammed.