Strange Things in Senegal
I have been here only one month, so, by no means I would pretend to be an expert in the country. On the contrary, I feel I am only starting to understand how much I don’t know! I am just beginning to have an idea of how complex this society is…But I already identified some things that may be “Just a little bit strange” for somebody from another place (like me).
Here there are some of the things that surprised me in these past weeks…and there are a few! This article promises to be long!
The public transport is completely different, it may seem that it follows no rules. There are public taxis, shared taxis, minibuses, all kind of bigger buses, horse carts, boats, ferries, even motorbikes! The method is to ask who is going where, nothing is written. Usually there are no schedules, we wait until it is full! The strangest thing that happens to me last week is that I was sited in the front seat of a normal shared taxi and they informed me that it was for two people! So they fitted the smallest young lady with me, and everybody joked about how ‘fat’ I was compared to her and that we could almost not fit in one sit!
There is the very present “Teranga” concept in Senegal: The welcoming culture. Usually, families and friends sit on a big mat in the ground, and they all eat from one plate. The thing is that everybody should feel welcome to eat when is the time. I was visiting the art craft market last Friday, and it was time to eat. I was invited to join them. I hesitated, I did not want to leave them with less food because of me. They laugh at my reasoning, food was abundant, in fact, most of them eat at many different plates already. At the end, I had the big bowl almost to myself!
We can ask a men we just meet “How many wives do you have?” and it will be perfectly normal. Polygamy is legal in the country and widely practised. Men can have up to four wives. This intrigues me so much! In my experience, a couple is complicated enough, I can imagine five people sharing life! I had some interesting conversations about this subject. The funniest one was with a couple that were sited in front of me. The man was saying that he wanted a second wife. I asked to the wife if she agreed with the idea. She say clearly not, and at the same time the husband was explaining to me that his wife has absolutely no problem with this. They were side by side, and each having a different vision of this subject and telling me about it…and ignoring the person most concerned!
My father asked me if polygamy produces a phenomenon of young men without women to marry, but according to the men here, this does not happens. There are naturally a little higher percentage of women than men, they also live longer, and not everybody has many wives. So, it seems to be an equilibrium.
On the other hand, absolutely everybody asks me my civil status. Nobody asks to my male Japanese colleague. I ask another Senegalese colleague the reason and he says that people want to know if women are available, but with man it is different, they may be married and still be available, so..nobody cares about their status! I also notice that being single is perceived as a problem that they offer to resolve, either by themselves or by offering to find a candidate!
We never know who will shake our hands and who will not. Being Islam the predominant religion, there are some customs to respect, and not everybody sees them in the same way. Some very practising men don’t shake women’s hand. So, I try to wait until they offer me a hand before reacting to avoid embarrassing situations. But a few days ago I had my first time giving my hand to the air! There were two men coming to the office, the first shake my hand, so I tried to do the same to the other…but he just bow his head at me. Tricky… Moreover, there are some branches of Muslim brotherhoods that have special hand salutations, and very possibly, I don’t know how to respond! I hope they don’t take it personally and forgive my ignorance.
Wolof is the main language spoken here. I am trying to learn but progress is very slow. From day one, people were a little shock to see I don’t speak it, and they tell me to learn it fast! It is the first country I visit where people don’t forgive us foreigners for being tourists or for being here recently. We should learn before coming, at least a little!
Friends give you a Senegalese name, may be it is an accepting gesture. The thing is they don’t ask you if you want a new name or if you are perfectly happy with your own. It is OK, for some colleagues I am Arame now.
And finally some “wild surprises”: I saw some rats in my environment, but they were really huge! After doing some research I realized they are the Giant Gambian Rats, characterized by a very long tail with a white last part. They are afraid of humans but a little bit curious too. I had a new respect for them, after all, they are African rats, and not the invasive black or brown Asiatic rats. So, we can leave together in peace, even share some food scraps!
One of the big surprises I had on the first weekend here, visiting a village in Dakar, was that sheep have no wool and they look like goats! I saw a few when we were walking around with my colleague and a men from the village that was showing us around. We had a discussion when he told me they were sheep, I had a hard time believing it! But of course, he was right and they are a wool-less breed very common here. It is so hot that I make perfect sense not to need wool! Compared to goats, they are very big, they have a very long tail and a rounder head with typical sheep horns…definitively sheep! In the pictures goats and sheeps.
Well, these are some of my first reflections, I am sure there will be many more to come, not doubt about it! Like the fact that I am completely in love with the huge baobabs that are everywhere! But that’s another story…