Thursday, June 16, 2011

Everyone's Invited

Greeting people is central to the Senegalese culture where everyone is included.  If I’m walking through the village, I need to stop and greet everyone I see along the way, whether or not I’ve ever met that person before.  Here’s a sample greeting translated into English:

A: Good Morning!
B: Unsi or Umba (female and male acknowledgment of greeting)
A: [Say last name of other person]
B: Unsi or Umba. [Say last name of other person]
A: Unsi or Umba
B: You’re with tired (directly translated but it is used as a greeting and thank you)
A. Unsi or Umba
A. Did you spend the night in peace?
B: Peace only
A: How are you?
B: I’m in peace
A: How is the house?
B: The house is in peace
A: How is your father?
B:  In peace. My father greets you.
A: How is your mother?
B:  In peace.  My mother greets you.
[insert other family members here]
A:  How is your work?
B:  In peace.
A: See you in the afternoon
B: Unsi or Umba
A: [Last name of other person]
B: Unsi or Umba. [Last name of other person]
A: Unsi or Umba

In Malinke culture, people greet each other by saying each other’s last name.  This is difficult for me since that requires me to memorize the last names of 800 villagers.  Luckily there are only about 10 names to memorize, but it’s tough to know who’s who.  Most people approach me yelling “Dumbha!” and if I don’t know their last name I always have to ask, and then they look sad that I didn’t remember.  They’ll sometimes tell me I should remember them next time, and then I feel like a horrible person when I forget again!  I’m getting there though.  I know a good portion of the last names and am learning more each day.  I’ve found that a good way to recognize people is by their teeth.  People here have very unique dental patterns.  Missing teeth.  Protruding teeth.  Rotting teeth.

You may have noticed from my sample greeting that the word Peace is in there quite a bit.  Each greeting has a standard response and if I deviate from that, people will usually laugh and correct me.  “Peace Only” is a safe bet as a response to most questions though. 

The positive part to this is that there is a very strong sense of community in my village, and everyone greets everyone else multiple times a day.  It is easy to feel welcome in this type of environment.  The frustrating part is that conversations here tend to be very circular, because one person asks about different things and the other responds that everyone and everything is in peace and then vice versa.  I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation with more depth to it than that while greeting someone. 

With this strong sense of community comes the concept of sharing everything.  You cannot eat something in Senegal without offering some to everyone around you.  If you peel an orange, you better hope there are enough slices to go around!  The nice thing about this is that I get offered pieces of food all the time, but I can never eat a snack in public if I don’t intend to share.  Eating is a communal activity, and families eat from the same bowl.  My family is divided into different eating groups.  Usually the children eat together with one adult there to monitor them.  Some families divide the men and women.  I eat with my host sisters, and each of us claims our own section of the bowl.  You never veer into someone else’s food section, and only the right hand goes into the bowl since the left is used for bathroom.

As with the orange, if you are eating a meal and someone walks by, you always invite that person to join the bowl as well.  If I’m ever out around lunchtime, I’ll get invited to lots of lunch bowls.  One day, I had 3 different lunches! 

Sitting around and drinking tea is a frequent pastime in the village.  The tea they drink here is not the kind you picture in the US.  They fill up a teapot with green tea leaves, and usually half the kettle is filled with sugar (now you understand a potential source of the dental problems mentioned above!).  They then pour this sugary green tea mixture into what looks like a shot glass.  Each tea set has at least 2 of them, and they pass the tea back and forth between the shot glasses to create white foam on top of the tea.  They continue doing this until the foam is thick enough, and then they offer a shot glass to one of the people sitting.  People don’t linger with their tea.  When you are handed the shot glass, you usually slurp the tea up fast and hand it back to the tea maker to fill up for the next person.  Everyone drinks out of the same shot glasses, and they are passed around until the tea is gone.  If anyone is walking by, they are offered this tea as well.  If I’m walking around the village, I am usually asked to sit and drink tea on various compounds.

This aspect of community, sharing, and acknowledging everyone has been an adjustment for me.  In the US, people pass each other in the street all the time without saying anything.  I really enjoyed taking walks in the US to think or reflect on things, but here you can’t daydream while you’re walking, because you may miss greeting someone.  I’ve spaced out quite a few times and not seen someone I should have greeted, and then that person will give me a hard time for not greeting them.  If you forget to greet someone, they usually get offended and wonder if you’re mad at them.  Reading under a tree in a heavily trafficked area means that I will be looking up from my book every few minutes to greet people.

The culture of not leaving anyone out extends to housing people as well.  I’ve never seen a homeless person in Nafadji or in my homestay in MBour.  If a child doesn’t have parents, another family takes them in.  In my current compound, there are at least 4 unrelated boys who live here who have families in other villages.  They are college (middle school) students, and since their villages don’t have a college, they live on my compound during the school year so that they can attend school.  Compounds are large, and the idea of the nuclear family does not exist here.

Anywhere I go, I’m offered a chair to sit in, tea to drink, food to eat, etc.  I went to watch the college soccer game a few weeks ago and most people were standing, but there was one bench.  The bench was already full, but the men on it squished even closer together and insisted that I sit down.  Even when people hardly have anything, they offer to share.  As weird as this culture seems sometimes, it feels nice to be included.

1 comment:

  1. They say that all the important lessons of life can be learned in kindegarden. Sharing a big lesson for a lot of kids. We have so much to share but rarely do it. Your neighbors have so little to share, but make sharing an integral part of their lives, even if its only a few moments of their time. Its eye opening eh?
    Thanks for the wonderful insights. I learn something from every blog.