One of my friends has informed me that sometimes she doesn’t fully understand it when I reference things, so I am going to better about explaining things. I want to address some major cultural differences that I have noticed, and I want to talk about how I am adjusting to them.
I’ve said this before, but Senegal is a left hand, right hand country. This means that a majority of the population uses their left hand to wipe after using the restroom. Our first day in Senegal we were actually given a lesson in how to use the restroom in Senegal. One of our staff members took a sample squat toilet and demonstrated, yup. A cup of water or a kettle of water is the Senegalese equivalent of toilet paper. Adjusting to this has been surprisingly easy. When you’re forced to do it with no other option, you learn very quickly. In a culture where greetings and shaking hands are incredibly important you can imagine, grasping the idea of this is major. I have never seen toilet paper in any Senegalese home, it’s not that you can’t buy it, but it’s expensive, and it’s not an expense anyone is willing to shell out when there are so many other things to pay for.
Another cultural difference I have noticed is about pregnancy. In America, pregnant women are coddled, we give them a special seat on the bus, anything they crave to eat, put their shoes on for them, and all of our patience when they have an emotional meltdown. In Senegal, pregnant women experience the opposite. No one talks about the fact that they are pregnant. They cook, care for their other children, work, pull water (yes from a well, which is no easy feat might i add) and carry it back to their compounds, and dare i say, put on their own shoes. My Aunt is currently pregnant, and I often have the tendency to say something like “you should sit in this chair rather than the stool” or “why don’t we take a cab because you get tired easily” or to Batu (her son) “stop being a brat by making your mom hold you for long periods of time.” However, I can’t talk about her pregnancy because in Senegalese culture that’s like jinxing the baby. What a foreign concept! Since when I have been taught to not talk about pregnancy? If my Aunt was in America she would get questions like “do you know the gender of the baby?” “do you have a name in mind?” “how many months along are you?” All that aside, I have never been to a baptism, and I am so excited to go to my first one! A baptism is a celebration that occurs, always, 7 days after the baby’s birth. The baby gets named and blessed at the ceremony, and the family usually slaughters a lamb if they have the means to for celebrating (I’ll post about that when I actually go to one).
Just cause I don’t have any pictures for this post, and she’s super cute: here’s my cousin’s daughter, her name is Fatu, she likes playing with my hair a lot 🙂
The last cultural difference I want to talk about is one I never imagined learning. Could it be that the concept of a ‘personal bubble’ is inherently American? I know other PCVs have struggled with this too. Since being in Senegal, there are only 3 times I have been outright upset, and all 3 times it involved a violation of my personal space.
The first was during Tamxarit, a holiday kind of like Halloween where children get dressed up, go to houses, play instruments and dance for rice and money. I was sitting in the living room when a group of teenage girls came in singing and dancing, and one of the girls came inches away from my face banging this metal bowl, which made me very uncomfortable. That was the first time I felt frustrated in Senegal. No matter how I moved, she would follow my movements and stay close to me.
The next time was during FOT. My ancien and I were walking in the streets of Ndar, when everyone was calling Tim and I “Toubab” and “Chinowa.” We just ignored them, but at some point this teenage girl grabbed my arm from behind me. That was the first moment that I thought “what the heck? why would you think it’s okay to touch me?”
The third time was in Mboro. My CBT group and I ran into this man who insulted me, then proceeded to grab my arm as I attempted to leave the conversation. This was a frustrating experience. I have always felt that if you wanted to leave any conversation, you had the right to, no matter where you are in the world. The guys backed me up, but it was still a moment that made me frustrated and confused.
All in all, it makes me wonder, are people grabbing my arm normal? I would say that I have never been a particularly physical person (running joke that my friends have to ask me for hugs), and it makes me think, should I readjust this expectation of personal space? I am starting to think the Senegalese don’t have ‘personal bubbles’ and that it is an American value. Now that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t react the way I do, I just think I am more offended than the normal Senegalese person because I am an American and have this expectation that people have the same social skills as I do (which is the most ridiculous assumption I could ever hold, but I do). In America, we give so much respect to someone who has excellent social skills, and I would even argue we expect people to have a certain level of social literacy when we meet them. But the problem is now I find myself, once again, projecting my American ideals on another group of people.
Just some food for thought. I hope as I enter into the new year, I will be better about realizing when I project my American ideals onto my community, and working within myself to change my mindset to include Senegalese values.
Merry Christmas/ Happy Holidays/ Happy New Year,