Dear Mom and Dad,
You are preparing to come visit me in Senegal in a few days’ time. My family and I cannot wait to see you in person and I know you are more than excited to take this thrilling journey; one that I think is unparalleled in your lives in terms of adventure, or maybe to put it more accurately, access to toilet paper and multiple choices on a restaurant menu. There is only so much I can prepare you for what is in store, but I still feel compelled to share knowledge with you that may be useful for you to know before you arrive in Senegal.
First of all, there are a few key phrases you are guaranteed to hear:
“Salaa maalikum.” This Arabic greeting is used everywhere in Senegal, and wishes you peace. The proper response is “maalikum salaam,” though you will hear varying degrees of enunciation (the young and the shy, like my siblings, tend to mutter).
“Soyez le bienvenue.” This French phrase translates roughly to “we welcome you here.” The expression is of course motivated by the inherent Senegalese sentiment of Teranga, or hospitality, and the fact that most visitors are French-speaking (a remnant of colonialism).
“Jox ma sa xalis.” This Wolof phrase means « give me your money. » Wolof is an abrasive language, sometimes unintentionally, but this phrase seems to me to be pretty accurate in terms of tone. Try not to take personal offense to it. Your white skin will be unconcealable, and no matter whether your pockets harbor a fat wad of cash or a few balls of lint, your complexion betrays your origins in a country that is probably richer than Senegal. I have yet to find a suave way to avoid this demand.
I understand that this will be your first time in a developing nation and because I am rather distanced from it at this point, I can only imagine how much culture shock will cloud your vision of Senegal. You will see beauty in the new or the crumbling architecture, the fields and forests of my village, the strong faces of the family I have come to love. You will also see (and probably smell) the rivers of sewage, mountains of garbage, people living in economic circumstances completely opposite from you. I encourage you to embrace all of it and form your opinion of Senegal somewhere between the two extremes. One week is not enough time to get a true portrait of the country. Also, as a dutiful daughter, I will be showing you a sheltered view of my already-sheltered life here, because as my host dad puts it, you are of the troisieme-age (a nice way of saying “a little bit old and soft”). The best thing you can do is keep an open mind, swallow your complaints, write down what you see, and once you have the time to process all of it, add the experience to your view of the world and your place in it.
Who knows, maybe you’ll fall in love with Senegal and it won’t be your first and last time here. If nothing else, at least we will at least get six days of hugging, chatting, and eating the chocolate chip cookies that you are bringing. I am counting down the days.
See you soon!
Your (hopefully recognizable) daughter