Noises of Senegal

When I read my title I think about donkeys, goats, and the call of prayer, however those aren’t the noises I’m going to talk about today. I’ve been wanting to write a post about this for sometime and I think it perfectly marks my year mark. 

No matter what local language you speak within Senegal there are some noises people make nation wide. So let me clarify what I mean with an American example. Umm… actually I can’t think of one, so let me move to a Chinese example. In Taiwan when people are told something shocking or not what they were expecting to hear (especially children and the change of plans) they say “haaauuh?!” with a certain type of intonation. Reading that I realize this post might have its challenges, but regardless my point is: this noise is used for the same purpose thoughtout an entire culture and country. 

In Senegal there are certain noises that are nationally understood and are used for certain purposes. Let me start with the one that’s most obvious. Hissing. Hissing is a non-existent noise in the States, maybe you’d hiss at a cat, but you wouldn’t use it out and about. Here, in Senegal, hissing is used to attract the attention of someone, whether I’m trying to catch a cab or I’m walking and a group of people sitting outside want to talk to me, they hiss at me. This is something that’s really hard to get used to. It’s not a pleasant noise and it almost has an obligatory effect. When I walk and get hissed at, I feel obligated to stop and talk to whoever did it. It is, despite its unpleasantness, extremely effective. When I need to capture someone’s attention it works, almost like magic. Somehow the right person always looks at me. It took me an entire year to finally feel comfortable to hiss at anyone. I also got told that my hiss is really quiet haha, but me shouting is less effective, thus I hiss. 

Next is snapping. Snapping is an extremely rude thing to do in America. I remember one time in high school one of my classmates snapped at the other, and my teacher responded “what is she, a dog? Don’t snap at her.” But in Senegal, snapping is used also as an attention getter, but in a different context than hissing. In schools, when students raise their hands, they snap as they do it. It’s meant to help the teacher give an opportunity to call on students when she may have difficulty seeing them. Another example is snapping in a restaurant. When you need to grab someone’s attention, you can snap at the waiter and they’ll come. Seems rude, but it’s the culture here. Along with these two include snapping at babies, in boutiques, and even in trainings that I hold.

This one is my favorite. This noise is “unh!” It’s a mark of surprise. It can include both good and bad things. For example my host dad and I had a conversation over the phone and he told me he was sick, me: “unh” and that he wanted to buy moringa powder from my fellow pcv, me: “unh.” So really, I use it all the time, probably incorrectly all the time actually haha. His reponse after my noise is always “waaw” meaning yes in Wolof. 

The last one is clicking. I still don’t do this one. I do it sometimes, but not always. This one simply means clicking your tongue. It marks and understanding that you are paying attention to whoever is speaking. It shows you get what they are saying. A lot of volunteers use this one, but maybe it’s the fact that I can’t click discretely or something else, but I don’t use it. 

All of this makes me wonder: we are conditioned to understand things based on the culture we live in. And yes, my response is like “duh Tiffany.” But what I really mean is how does it translate from generation to generation to do things like snap at babies. Who decided they [babies] find enjoyment in adults snapping? Because in fact, all the babies I’ve seen been snapped at don’t really respond. But I bet that’s true in America too. I bet we do things to babies that they find no enjoyment in, but we do them because the culture and society taught us to. 

I’ve been living in Senegal for a year now (September 28!) and it’s amazing to me how integrated and unintegrated I am. I say “unh” but still get confused when I’m supposed to give people money (yes, still confused, starting to think I’m being taken advantage of, just kidding, but not really). It’s interesting to me how my American culture so strongly influences my reactions to things. If you remember in Cultural Differences I talk about personal space and how that isn’t a thing in Senegal, I still can’t deal with people touching me whether it’s someone grabbing my shoulder, pulling my arm, etc. But somehow I can hiss just fine. Just something to think about. If you were in my shoes, what cultural noises do you think you would adapt to use?



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