Welcome to my blog where I share my experience in Senegal, “La Teranga” or the land of hospitality. I am going to share ten major characteristics of Senegalese life and culture during the semester but for my first post I am only going to share four of them.
Senegal has been very much influenced by Islam. It is represented in the people, the culture, the language and the structure of the society. In Senegal, 95% of the population is Muslim, 4% is Christian (mostly Catholics) and the last 1% is animist.
Islam is manifested in various forms in Senegal. For example, greetings are somewhat copied from the Arabic such as “Alasalaa Malekuem” (May peace be upon you.) It is not uncommon to hear “Inchalla” (God willing) in a conversation as well. There are more visible and physical manifestations of Islam such as seeing Muslims bowing on a carpet toward Mecca and praying in the street.
Members of my host family also stop their activities and pray in the hours of prayers. Muslims pray five times a day and repeat verses of the Quran for about five minutes according to one of the elders I talked to. In areas near mosques the call for prayers can be heard as well.
My host family is pretty moderate Muslim in general. None of the women at home wear a headscarf on a regular basis. I have never seen any of my sisters or my uncle pray but my mother does.
Senegal is in theory a secular country. However, the influence of Islam is omnipresent in the society. The decision-making process, politics, world views and morality still revolve around the religion in some ways.
An example of this power of Islam in Senegal is the protest against Charlie Hebdo, which happened around the biggest mosques of Dakar last Friday. It was organized by not only the older religious people but young people as well. According to one of my Senegalese professors, the president of Senegal attended one of the “Je suis Charlie” gatherings in Paris. My uncle added that the president told the Senegalese people that he was only presenting his condolences to the French president Hollande. On the other hand, photos of him marching next to people bringing huge signs saying “Je suis Charlie” have been seen by the Senegalese people.
The Senegalese population who went to this protest also expected the president to support their position against Charlie Hebdo due to the major Muslim belief in Senegal. According to my sources, President Macky Sall did not come to this gathering because he was in Mecca. I am interested to know how Senegalese people interpret this absence of the president in the gathering. Note that the prime minister of Senegal attended.
I asked some of Senegalese friends of mine about their opinion of Charlie Hebdo and they told me “Charlie Hebdo members have insulted the name of our Prophet”. This shows the general view of Islam here and how different groups of people here in Senegal’s attachment to Islam is. Young or old, (western) educated or not, Islam marks people’s moral values in Senegal.
Family is really important in Senegal. In our program, everyone is placed in a Senegalese host family (usually a large family.) Most often in the families, there are the parents, children and grandchildren living in the same house. My family is smaller: I have two sisters, my parents and the maid. (All the Senegalese families I have encountered so far have a maid, who somewhat is part of the family.)
One night I arrived late at night and was not able to find where my host family’s house was. A man asked me what their family name was. Unfortunately, I was not able to remember the family name but this shows how each person is to family you are from. Meals are eaten with the whole family (most of the time in one bowl and with the right hand), except for breakfast.
There is also a somewhat conformity with hosting people in the families here. For example, in contrast to my situation with my host families in the United States, I actually call my host mother “Maman” or mom and my host sisters, my sisters. I call most of my U.S. host moms by their first name expect for my Momma Sue. I guess the La Teranga explains this approach and the early comfort to call my host mother “Maman” right away. Students in my program all do call their host mothers “Maman” too.
It took me a while to remember the name of the dish “Cembu Jen” but this meal is Senegal’s national dish. Cembu Jen is a little bit spicy and represents the taste of Senegal very well. It looks pretty yummy and is very delicious. It is eaten in a round bowl and apparently eaten on Saturdays “Chez moi” (at my home). Often it is eaten with your right hand but in most of the homes I have been to I have been given a spoon. Decorated with steamed vegetables and cassava, Cembu Jen is made of very common ingredients in Madagascar: fish and rice. It is familiar to me since Malagasy people eat rice three times a day. Madagascar is also an island; fish is not hard find. However in the United States, people do not like or consume fish very much. Food in general is spicier in Senegal than in the United States and in Madagascar.
I found an interesting contrast between what my program staff members told me and what I actually experienced at my Senegalese home. Our staff members told us that the Senegalese diet is not very diverse and is mostly made out of carbs (rice and pasta) and fish. I am not sure if this is because my family is wealthier, but we always have some kind of vegetables on our plates and have fruits for dessert after dinner and lunch.
On the other hand, Maman noted that there was not much variety of meat when she visited the USA where chicken is most often cooked. She told me that she always went to Jamaican restaurants because she could not eat any more chicken. It is interesting to see how different cultures put emphasis on different aspects of food. The American staff members of my program wanted more diverse vegetables on our plates and my mother wanted various kinds of meat in her plates in the USA.
Attaya is a local Senegalese tea. It is very sweet and usually perfumed with mint. It is very, very, very important in the Senegalese culture. It can take hours and hours to make the tea. They prepare the oven, the amount of water, sugar, tea itself and mint. It does not have to be mint, by the way. It could be anything else. Then you make the “mousse” and pour it in. Drink and enjoy attaya around some conversations.
It is as important as coffee for American people. Whether you are young or older, male or female, it is the activity for spending time with friends. People here make Senegalese tea to socialize, talk about life and share moments among friends. In the United States, you take out your friends or people you want to learn more about at local coffee shops like Cosmic Cup. Here in Senegal people make them attaya. Instead of buying, they make it for you, which I think is more hospitable.
Attaya is often drunk after lunch but it can be taken anytime during the day. Senegalese people joke around saying “you take attaya at every moment just like the Mauritanians.” This is according to the Senegalese stereotype of Mauritanians. Also, a note in the Senegalese society is that jokes about ethnicity, race, and nationality are very common. It is not something people look down upon or something that they view badly because everybody does it to each other.
To be continued…………………