Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Senegal Quirks That No Longer Stick Out to Me But Used To Seem Hilarious or Just Plain Bizarre

Hi everybody! I’ve been wanting to write this post for a long while. There are all sorts of crazy aspects of life here that really crack me up. As I go on with my service though I start noticing them less and less. So I wanted to start taking a running list of all those funny quirks, the random bits that brighten up days and life here. I hope it will bring you all smiles and some new insights into the wacky place and culture in which we live. 1. The random, haphazard mix of four to five languages that I hear every day, sometimes in the same sentence. Favorite quotes: Yangi Nice Quois?! (wolof-you are, English- Nice, French-what?!). Another came when my counterpart and I were hanging out one night and looking at the constellations. He was telling me that he though Orion was two cow herders leading a single cow between them. A couple hours later he look up and was like ‘Allah, ninso tigolu sont en train de bouger rek’ (Jaxanke- wow the cow herders, French- are scooting along, Wolof- only!)
2. Little children get their heads shaved here fairly often. But they often leave a little round poof right in the middle of the head. Or sometimes a straight Mohawk. Fashion!
3. Everybody, the oldest of old folks down to the tiniest children, wear nothing but flip flops and sandals every day. In the beginning of my service I felt like I was hanging out at the beach every day…except no beach! Dang. Even on the most formal occasions everybody wears new, fancy flip flops to complement their beautiful, tailor made outfits.
4. Eating with my hands around a big, communal pot on the floor. Every meal is eaten communally around giant bowls. Usually the men and boys eat together, and the women and girls eat separately. The little kids crouch on the older folk’s feet and everybody digs in, throwing tasty bits to me or any guests. I’m pretty good with the eating with my hand technique now, but it used to be a mighty messy process.
5. I hate to write this one right after the food one, but feel it’s important…. Wiping with one’s hand after using the pit latrine. Toilet paper is almost non-existent here, but the water method does a mighty fine job as long as you wash your hands with soap afterwards. This one might seem the worst for Americans but was surprisingly easy to get used to. Plus we’ll all be professional campers/ party goers when t.p. runs out!
< 6. Not doing anything with your left hand. We were told that people would think you were Satan if you tried to eat left-handed. Number 5. Provides pretty good cultural justification for this
7. Sweating all the time- I’m writing this post at 11:42 at night… still sweating!
8. Sharing public transportation with all manner of farm animals. For thanksgiving we bought a spot on the roof of a station wagon for our turkey to come down from Tamba. ______ 9. Sleeping under a mosquito net every night. This couldn’t seem more normal now, but I remember feeling like I was in a far distant world when I tried to tuck in my net on my first night here last year.
10. Ubiquitous religious/magical charms. Just about every person wears a kind of jewelry called gris-gris. They’re usually little sewn leather pouches, worn as bracelets, necklaces, around the waist or woven into hair. They could protect you from all sorts of things- malaria, snakes, genies.. or maybe make the girl you’re after fall in love with you_____ 11. Koranic Fire Circles. Each night the children of the village gather around huge bon-fires to study the Koran. They sing and yell at the top of their lungs and teachers, or maribous, patrol around beating kids who fall asleep or screw up. You can see the faint glow of fires no matter where you are, hear the faint chanting while everybody else drinks tea and listens to radio.
12. Senegalese Tea. Tea here is an complicated, sacred, incredibly time consuming activity. You make it in tiny pots and then pour it into tiny shot glasses, raising the tea pot as high as possible for maximum visual effect and foam. Then you pass it around, giving it to the oldest/most respected people first, and everybody drinks in fast, noisy slurps. This could take a half an hour to an hour, and then you put it back on the coals for the second and third rounds, which could go all afternoon.______ 13. Cola Nuts: I had always heard about Cola Nuts as this old time tradition of West Africa, the magical nut around which trade routes were established and from which Coca Cola got its name. And, after being here for a good long while, I am happy to report that its importance was in no way exaggerated. It is the central gift in all major ceremonies, and must be present in certain numbers for a Marriage to be agreed upon or a baptism performed. Too, all the old folks are addicted to it. They are always on the quest for more cola nuts, and use funny, nail-puntured sardine cans to great the nuts if they don’t have enough teeth left to crunch them. ______ 14. America Apparel: Senegal has been the happy recipient of an extreme excess of America themed clothing, usually Obama gear. When I got to village I was surprised to see that just about everyone sported an Obama shirt. There are also some very questionable and very ubiquitous World Trade Center Flip-Flops that look like they are burning when your foot starts to rub off the image. Hmm. The best, though, are baseball hats that read, “OBAMA, President of Space”. Yes!***** That’s it for now. I’m sure I’ll come up with a million more as soon as I post this. But I’ll leave it at that for now. Much love from Senegal.


  1. I like reading blogs about Africa, especially the way of life and history.I´ll keep coming back.
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  2. It’s never too early to think about the Third Goal. Check out Peace Corps Experience: Write & Publish Your Memoir.

  3. Hey Ian- My name is Janelle and I am headed to Senegal in March for the same thing you have been doing. I have loved reading your blog! What projects have you been working on lately?

  4. Nice post. I think Senegal's system for getting around is wonderful, sometimes it is frustrating, but it works.