The Floor

Allie Wallace - Senegal


November 14, 2012

Before I came to Senegal, I was fairly detached from the floor, or as detached as gravity allows. The floor was a convenient place to keep chairs and tables and trash cans and other such useful items. It was a chore, always needing to be vacuumed, swept or mopped. I never gave it much thought unless it was causing a problem. Yet somehow, despite the apparent insignificance of floors in the US, most Americans have managed to collect an array of floors. For example, my house in the States has four floors, and every room has different flooring, requiring different cleaning supplies and rugs and felt pads under furniture feet. All this fuss over something you probably haven’t even thought about today.

In Senegal, the floor leads an incredibly different life. In the morning, it’s swept, scrubbed and mopped. It catches the crumbs from breakfast, and it’s swept again. It’s the counter-top where lunch is prepared and the table where it’s served. It’s a bed, it’s auxiliary seating, it’s a desk, it’s a trash can, it’s the beautician’s chair when it’s time to re-braid the girls’ hair. It’s where my host family prays. It’s my dresser and my hamper, it’s where the laundry is washed. In the concrete courtyard behind my house, it’s a urinal. My host cousin’s enthusiasm for cleaning the floor throughout the day is surpassed only by my host nieces’ ability to dirty it again. Just as the American floor has few uses and many varieties, the Senegalese floor has many uses and few varieties. Here, your options are cement or tile, if you can afford it. In my house here, there’s just one floor, we sweep with traditional straw hand brooms, and we mop with dish soap and an old pair of pants.

I’ve been here for only a few weeks now, but the things I’ve just described seem completely normal to me. We humans are an adaptable bunch that way, we can get used to almost anything in time. But now and then, my adult host sister says something that pulls me back to reality; when we’re crammed into a hot, overfull minibus or feeling our way along dark alleys at night, she says to me (in French) “Welcome to Africa: poverty.” It’s a huge generalization, but for her and her family and the rest of the village, that’s life. So next time you mop or sweep standing upright, eat from a table, throw your clothes in the washer, sit at or above knee level, or walk around your house barefoot without getting your feet dirty, enjoy it. That’s a luxury you’ve got there.

Allie Wallace