Every time I tell the story of getting my hair dyed and braided for 6 hours in Senegal, and being invited to eat lunch at the hair salon, people look at me first in shock, and then amused. Who would ever consider eating at the hair salon in the US or even in my home country, Romania? It must seem absurd, regardless of my explanation of this incident being the perfect illustration of Teranga, the Senegalese hospitality. How would one even begin to describe Teranga? The tradition and most fundamental social norm of sharing with friends and even strangers in a third-world country, regarded as religious duty, Teranga isn’t just preached, but enacted everywhere in Senegal.
As a major contributor to the strong spirit of society, Teranga would determine the level of our acceptance within the families; which is why all 11 of us, Mount Holyoke women in the J-term program in Senegal, were introduced to Teranga during orientation, on our second day of the 15. Honorine, one of our program coordinators in Dakar, highlighted the real importance of sharing and socializing with our families by giving us some guidelines as to what to do or not to do when staying with our families. Especially when it comes to food, sharing is paramount! As a rule, during meal time, the family will gather together to eat; in fact, our first experience of the traditional Senegalese meal was at Honorine’s where four or five of us sat on a mat around a giant plate and ate chebugen with our (right! ) hands.
During our stay at the Gomis house, my roommate Katie and I only ate a couple of times with our hands; usually the Senegalese will use cutlery. Also, it was strongly recommended to avoid eating in our rooms by ourselves since our families would eventually find out and see it as antisocial behavior. When the Senegalese cook, they will be prepared to share, they will always have food for more than just the family (which in my case was 15 including Katie and me). For example, if friends are at our house during lunch or dinner time, they will at all times be invited to eat with us. While close friends are regarded as part of the extended family, the high value of generosity will oblige the host family to invite any guest to eat regardless of how much food or money they have at that time. Therefore, whenever you invite friends over to your house it is suggested that you at least provide beverages or dessert.
While it is not required to buy sodas or any food for the family, it is always appreciated. On a few occasions Katie and I bought the wonderful Biskrem biscuits with chocolate filling or soda or fruit that we would go around and offer to each member of our family. Every single time we were met with a smile and Mom’s facial expression was that of someone who has been offered flowers in the Western or European culture. I often wondered why people who are less fortunate financially than my own family in Romania perhaps would be so generous, especially with food. The answer came one day when Mom told us that offering food was a religious duty. I had heard about and got to see for myself the children of the Koranic school begging in order to learn the value of humility, and I had thought that sharing food was a religious duty of any follower of Islam. My family, however, happened to be Christian. While the Bible does encourage sharing with the less fortunate, at home in Romania if I brought a friend for lunch almost every day, my mother would not be happy. Even though my family is Christian, every family has their own budget and accommodating friends (or even members of the extended family who do not contribute to the budget) during meals on a regular basis, or just very often, is not welcome. I was therefore inclined to think that sharing food, or hospitality when it comes to food is cultural in Senegal since Muslims and Christians alike actively practice it.
During meal time, Teranga is not only manifested by being asked to eat with the family, but by repeated invitations to eat more. In Senegal eating a lot and praising the food is very much appreciated, especially by the Mom. On several occasions I have been told that eating a lot makes women beautiful; in fact, there is a strong connection between the size of the woman’s butt (thanks to her healthy eating habits) and her beauty. A second reason why the host family might ask you to keep eating is to make sure that as a guest in their house you will not lose weight, since that would reflect badly on their treatment of you.
Overeating in Senegal is similar to freshman 15 at Mount Holyoke. Even as I knew what to say when I was full I would end up overeating anyhow because the food was simply delicious. I am not the only one; I think most of the girls on the trip gained a few pounds. All for the best!
After overeating, one of our brothers would skillfully prepare attaya, a strong caffeinated green tea that is meant to help digest the food. The tea comes in little glasses (like shot glasses) and can be served up to three times. Attaya is more like a tea ceremony, since at this time the family comes together again to have tea and socialize.
While eating with our family was a real feast, one aspect of the meal gave me a reality check. While it was our brother who prepared the tea, it was always one of our two sisters and the aunt who prepared the meals. Our maid Ami would also help with preparing the food and cleaning up afterwards. Cooking for 15 people everyday is a tremendous burden. So is washing the laundry by hand which took two to three days because we also had to wait for some of it to dry in the sun before washing more laundry. As a guest in the house, I was not required to do any chores, but I could not help feeling a bit guilty and saddened that in Senegal, as in any traditional society, the woman is always confined to the domestic chores. I was remembered of my childhood, of my mother who felt it was her duty to prepare the meal before her husband comes home. My carefree conscience of receiving room and board at Mount Holyoke was a bit clouded. At one point I mentioned to Maman Jacqueline that the girls in the house do a lot of work, and she replied, “You know, here in Senegal, everyone has to do a lot of work; women do the housework, men have to look for a job to bring money home.” I added that women in Senegal also work (the older sister teaches kindergarten, while the other is training to become a teacher), but they still have to cook for everyone. Mom’s response was that in Senegal a married woman who could not cook would be sent back in disgrace, the general opinion being that she would make a bad wife because her children would have nothing to eat, which is why all Senegalese women learn how to cook. I benefited once again from Teranga, as it sheltered me in this respect.