Time & Space

Sam Metzger - Senegal


November 23, 2019

Time and space are peculiar and complex topics to ponder upon to begin with. In Senegal, time and space are different from anything else I’ve ever experienced. Time is nonexistent, yet longer and somehow, almost magically, always right. Space is smaller, but only because it is shared. 


Time almost doesn’t exist here in Senegal. Do you have a somewhere to be at a certain time? It doesn’t matter because it’s lunch time and then attaya time and then after that you can go to whatever thing you have. Do you know when the bus is supposed to get here? No, and you won’t know until it’s here because it stops and starts when it wants and follows no schedule. We don’t measure time by numbers here in Senegal- we measure it by what we do. “Scheduled” events are often skewed by arbitrary traffic patterns, prayer times, and however many rounds of attaya your family decided to have that day. My fellow Fellows and I both lovingly and begrudgingly refer to this phenomenon as “Senegalese Time.” And while nothing is ever set in stone in this way, the one thing you can always count on is that there will be a lot of idle time. Especially when it is so hot that maintaining a single thought is impossible, it is common to find people sitting, laying, napping on mats in the shade. A popular pastime is “waxtan”: to sit and have conversations. People enter and leave these small gatherings as they please, because they aren’t organized to occur at any time- they just sort of happen and then stop happening when they are meant to. The wonton and fluid way by which people measure and execute their time in Senegal seems almost as if the country itself controls the clock. Senegal knows what you need and will give it to you when the time is perfect, so it’s essentially useless as a simple human to try and control your own time. Some instances of this perfect, magical, always-right, Senegalese Time include:

  • My friend Sophia took an immediate liking to fried beignets which you can buy from kind ladies at stands on the sides of roads. On several occasions, before Sophia has even had the chance to complete the thought of “I could really go for some beignets right now,” a beignet lady has come strolling in with a box of beignets for sale perfectly balanced on her head. 
  • My host-sister and I went into the city to try and buy shoes one day. Upon our failure to do so, I was feeling both frustrated and thirsty. I dragged my sister to the only supermarket in the city and bought us some juice. On the way back, as soon as we pulled up to the bus station, our bus- bus 6 came. And who should be on it but our grandmother! We got off at a stop I was unfamiliar with and promptly followed my grandmother and sister into a market tucked behind some shops. Walking slowly as I observed the colors exploding before my eyes and the joyous sounds of small boys chasing chickens, I realized that I was being shown a shortcut through this market to our shared taxi garage where my grandmother bought my sister and I some fresh hot beignets. And none of it would have happened, the timing wouldn’t have been right, if I hadn’t insisted on getting some juice. 
  • As soon as I finish my evening walk, I run into someone and either recognize them and join whatever fun thing they are doing, or else make a new friend. 
  • After struggling for weeks to find a new apprenticeship, I was one day in a hurry to leave my village and get to language class. Of course, my host-mom made me stay and eat lunch first. Feeling impatient, I ate as fast as possible, grabbed some juice, and headed out. As I was rushing to get a taxi to take me to the city, I was stopped my some professional looking men. They wanted to know where I had gotten the juice. In no mood to chat, I said I didn’t know. They, however, where in a mood to chat. Despite my desire to rush, I was forced to slow down. In the end, however, it turned out that they were heading into the city as well. I got a free ride and as we were driving into the city, we were talking about what I was doing in Senegal, and what he did for work. He asked what I was interested in and if I wanted something more to do with my time. Being eager to add another apprenticeship and learn more about agriculture sustainability, I was immediately interested. In the same breath, he offered me a chance to be an apprentice at his agriculture company. 
  • Finding a taxi as soon as I start looking for one
  • Getting on a bus and somehow getting a seat right next to a kind woman who offers me one of her beignets 
  • One morning I was looking for the broom to sweep my room. My mom said that my neighbor was borrowing it and I needed to go over and ask her for it. As soon as I walk over to her yard, I see that she is making attaya. Naturally, she invited me to stay and drink some. I did, and it was some of the best attaya I’ve ever had. 

In the beginning of my time here, getting over myself and allowing time to be slow was one of the hardest things to do. Coming from the United States, it is so uncommon to just sit and relax and talk and lay. It is so uncommon to just be still. I was impatient and frustrated a lot. I was bored a lot. However, I have come to realize that this rest and this stillness, even the impatience and the boredom, has been one of the best things for me. It is impossible to put into words how much you can learn by just slowing down and paying attention and noticing what is happening around you and within you. I have learned to not worry about “wasting time,” because I know that the timing is always right. 


Space is shared in Senegal and because it is shared, it is smaller. The idea of “personal space”- whether physical or mental- does not exist. When I am in my room relaxing on my own, enjoying my own quietness while I read or draw, my littlest host-brother comes in and begins to play with my bracelets and pens and water bottle and whatever else he can get his tiny sticky hands on. He holds each object up and asks me what it is called. When I go on long walks in the evenings, my alone time is interrupted by people sitting under trees outside their homes insisting that I come talk to them. My first instinct, my American instinct, is frustration. I think no, I want to walk in silence alone, I do not want to interrupt my thoughts to stutter my few words of Wolof to a stranger. Yet, when I do relinquish my initial hostility and talk to them, I find only the kindest intentions. I am asked my name, how I am doing, how is my family, where I come from, what I am doing. These people who call me over do so out of genuine curiosity. In the U.S., strangers hardly notice other strangers. But it is nice to be noticed; it is nice to have someone wonder about you, and take the time to ask about who you are. When eating, whenever one of my little brothers stands up from the lunch-bowl, he always puts his hands on my shoulder to use me as a crutch to stand up. When sitting in a circle of chairs and someone goes to leave, they brush against the back of your chair as they go. With a family of 9 around one bowl at lunch and dinner, someone’s circle of food is mingling with another’s, elbows are knocking, legs are overlaid, feet are touching. It was uncomfortable at first but now it is comforting- like a reminder that I am a real physical being in this space, and so are they, and we share this space together. When my family is eating lunch or dinner and someone walks through our yard, either to get to their house or to buy ice from my mom, no matter who they are, they never leave without having been invited to come join our family and sit and eat with us. On many occasions, I will walk around my village and be invited to come and have attaya. A chair is pulled up and offered for me to sit. Whether they are family, neighbors, friends, or strangers, I am invited to sit and share a cup of hot, sweet, delicious attaya. In this way, Senegal truly is the land of teranga (hospitality). In Senegal, doors are always open, chairs are always offered, meals are always shared. Every space belongs to everyone.

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My host-dad (Baay-Abdou Ndong) making attaya. 

Sam Metzger