Lately a lot of the news coming out of West Africa has been negative – and violent. Terrorist attacks, mostly against Westerners, have featured in the news in the States and across Europe. I can assure all of you that the Senegalese people reject these violent actions in the strongest gest terms
Indeed, these stories do not define Senegal, West Africa, or Africa as a whole. Indeed, saying Africa is unsafe because of the tragic attack in Bamako, Mali is like saying it is unsafe to go to work in the States after the horrific shooting in San Bernardino, California.
This post then, is my attempt to counter these negative stories with inspiring tales of the incredible Senegalese people who I have the honor to live and work with every day. I hope you will all see the beauty that is Senegal.
The Spirit of Hardwork
One of the most incredible traits of the Senegalese people is how hard they work. My aunt Yasin can routinely be found in a smoke filled kitchen roasting peanuts or frying beignets which are sold for the equivalent of 40 cents. Farmers work all day to bring land to life so they can feed their families. Farming conditions are harsh: soil in my village is either sand, or thick, heavy clay, the heat reaches up to 115 on some days, and it only rains 3 months out of the year (2 if we are unlucky).
Perhaps the most visceral example of this spirit of hard work is the laundry process. As in many parts of the world, laundry in Senegal is primarily done by hand. As you can see in the picture below, the women set up large buckets – soapy, rinse, aromatic, bleach, and another rinse. They then scrub all of their family’s clothes with a bar of soap and their hands. They will spend all morning doing this, taking only short breaks to rest their arms. I can barely do it for ten minutes, and usually give up when I try to wash my tough jeans. The afternoon is then spent folding and ironing. It is a time consuming, energy intensive process and one that’s shows me that the spirit of hardwork is alive in the Senegalese people.
Celebrating Life and Friendship
Growing up at home, the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” always evoked two thoughts in my mind. The first, that aunts, uncles and grandparents would sometimes help take care of kids. The second, that somewhere in the world entire villages dedicated to themselves to raising their children. Coming to Senegal, I have realized my second thought was right: villages band together to take care of children in a way I have never seen in the United States.
A week after a child is born, it is baptized and given its name. Typically it is named after a member of the family in the hope that they will grow up to be like them. This event also culminates in a huge party. The baptism ceremony in the morning is attended by neighbours, family, and friends. From there the celebration grows, men and women arriving to talk, greet the baby, find out its name, and provide support to the new mother. Folks typically give money to the mother – just one way the village helps raise the child.
The family then prepares lunch for all who are present. In smaller villages, this can be the entire village. In larger ones like mine it is still a meal for upwards of several hundred people. As evening wears on, tea is made and soda distributed and as night falls the music begins. Often a drum circle, electric guitar, a live singer, and a DJ are all brought in for the dancing – they all play at once. By now there may be nearly a thousand people present! The dancing continues almost until morning, with the music ending between 2 and 4 am. All to celebrate the new life in the village.
Family is Everything
Perhaps nothing is more important here than family. Families are quite large: my host parents have eight kids (plus me!), no an unusual number in my village. Families grow even larger when you add in a second, third, or fourth wife. Sometimes men father upwards of 30 children. Families then live together in compounds made up of at least several family units.
Family here will do anything for you. My host father routinely calls me if I’m late for lunch, my host mother will bring me around the village and purchase vegetables from the market for me, and my siblings help me locate materials and people in the village while helping me practice my Seereer.
I recently returned to Tassette, my training site, for a visit. There I was greeted by my youngest host sister who ran to me and threw her arms around me screaming my name. Each time a member of my Tassette host family came home they entered the compound chanting my name, “Idi! Idi! Idi! Idi!”
At one point I left to say hello to other members of the village and my host siblings and friends used my smartphone to take about 40 photos and record two music videos – just in case I might forget who they are. They pulled out all the stops during my visit – a large lunch, copious amounts of tea, pillows and mats to rest on, chilled yogurt, and a plea to stay the night. Here in Senegal, family is everything and family is forever.