“Small boy-ing”

Apologies for my break, I went on vacation with my family and had a lovely time in Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa. Being away has made me realize some cultural aspects about Senegal that are more unique. One in particular stands out to me.

We’ve talked a little about how gender roles in Senegal are clearly defined, but what about roles within a family? During training we were encouraged to make observations of all aspects of our experience. I remember the roles I observed within the family were different than my Chinese-American roles back home. My youngest brother, Michele, would be asked to make frequent trips to the market, boutiques, and occasionally to someone’s house. All, to run errands for my host mom. Volunteers in Senegal have termed this act “small boy-ing.” In essence it’s the sending out of a someone, typically a young boy, to do something for you. It happens in all households in Senegal, across religion, tribal background, and location. Volunteers will even do this to each other.

Let’s start with a market run. On any given day my host mom could be preparing lunch, for example: chebujin- the national dish of Senegal which is rice and fish. If she had forgotten to buy a jaxatu she could send my brother to the market or a local vegetable stand to buy it. Jaxatu is local vegetable, known in English as bitter tomato. In my area of the country it’s known as xulinay, but they all mean the same thing. Even though they are bitter, they are highly nutritious, and show up in my lunch bowl every day.


If we continue this scenario, this time, my host mom used the last of the salt, but she needs more. She will call my brother again, and send him to the closest boutique to purchase more. Boutiques in Senegal are everywhere. They are scattered to most street corners, and they carry about all the same things. All daily essentials such as oil, sugar, salt, eggs, milk, coffee, cookies, candy, soda, yogurt, and mustard. Most boutiques also have potatoes, onions, and ketchup. Along with these food items, they also sell non-food such as bleach, soap, washing powder, dish detergent, and sometimes even toothpaste.

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This is the front of a nicer boutique next to my regional house. The owner is Hadim, and he lives to the right of his boutique.


This is the inside of his boutique in panorama.

In both cases, while Michele is at the market, my host mom can continue making lunch so we eat on time. It makes her life easier as she cooks, and her children stay happy because lunch is at a reasonable time.

Last scenario, I was on the receiving end of this just last week. If my host mom needed to send a message to a neighboring family she could send her son. But aren’t there cellphones in Senegal? Yes, there are, so why do families still choose to do this rather than what we think is the simpler option: calling? Although just about everyone has a cellphone in Senegal, it’s expensive to always have credit. All phones here run on prepaid credit. There’s no such thing as a phone plan with 500 minutes and free texting per month. The biggest reason that doesn’t exist here, is because income is not always consistent. If many of these families had to pay $40.00 every month for a plan, they could be cutting into their food budget for the month, especially if less money comes in that month. Income generation is not guaranteed in any family whether you are in an urban environment or rural. Prepaid credit becomes a scarce commodity and people are less willing to use it when they could send their son instead and have the same outcome.

Now you might wonder, how often do these things actually happen, literally everyday. I witness my 15 year old brother leaving the house 3 to 4 times a day to run errands. I witness my 23 year old brother doing the same, often in the same day! They each have their type of errands they run for the family. My younger brother usually makes boutique runs, while my other brother will gather materials for the animals in the house. Even the last one, when we talk about building credibility during training, we are encouraged to have a set schedule of times and places we will be, so if someone does need us, they can send a small boy to find us.

This aspect of Senegalese culture is so obscure to me. First of all, in the States, where I’m from, there are not shops, grocery stores, etc. in walking distance from my house. Even if there were, they were typically more expensive because I would be paying for convenience. If I did forget something at the store, I couldn’t send my 10 year old son to get it, because he can’t drive, so these kinds of scenarios are more rare in America. Our roads, cars, subway systems, make it easy and hard for us to run errands. We often make lists, and plan ahead because we have the income security to keep a kitchen well stocked. To buy things in bulk, the initial costs are often higher, but over time they are worth it. But like I said previously, income is not guaranteed in Senegal, so the result is “small boy-ing” and that means many many boutique runs.

On a different note, today is the first official day of Ramadan, let the fasting begin! I’ll be posting about this and few more things coming up from now until September. Enjoy!


Posts to come in the next couple of months, but not limited to:

  • Ramadan
  • Rainy Season
  • Gem Sa Bopp
  • My One Year Mark

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