It seems that here in Senegal, at least in the several cities and families I’ve lived in and with, just about everything has the potential to be shared. Flip flops become common property – no matter if they’re 4 sizes too small. If you like someone’s dress or earrings, you compliment them, and ask them to offer it to you. (The item never actually changes ownership in this case, it’s more of a formality.) And food. Food is always shared. If you are eating a snack – peanuts, an orange, cookies – it is culturally expected that you offer some to those you are with. If you’re visiting someone’s home, even remotely around mealtime, you’d better be prepared to stay and eat!
I think all this sharing stems out of Senegal’s motto, or guiding principle of sorts, “teranga”. This is a Wolof word that means hospitality and it is deeply ingrained in Senegalese culture.
When you sit down to a meal in Senegal, you congregate around a large bowl of food, along with several other people. In my family, I share lunch with at least four other women, often more as neighbors and friends drop by. The men and boys eat at another bowl, all 7 or so of them.
In the bowl there is a large pile of rice topped with sauce, veggies, and fish or meat. After a command of “lekkal, lekkal!” (eat, eat in Wolof), everyone digs in. We each carve out our own little corner of rice and scoop pieces of vegetable and fish from the center of the bowl. In this context you are literally sharing food with others. One carrot, one eggplant, one potato, etc feed all of us around the bowl. The veggies migrate around as people cut off pieces for their next bite. Soon the pile of food looks like a snowflake or a big wheel with the spokes being little walls of rice between each person’s eating area.
If you’re a guest or young child, the mother or grandmother of the bowl will distribute the veggies and fish to you herself. With a deft flick, chunks of carrot, cabbage, or fish land in front of you, perfectly bite-sized. This is to make sure that you get plenty to eat and leave the bowl extra-full – the ultimate goal of any host. It definitely makes for easy eating!
However there is some competition, if that’s the right word, around the bowl. If you want to eat squash for example, you’re going to have to go and get it. And if you’re too shy or polite (me the first week or so) you won’t end up eating much other than rice!
Truly though, food is so generously offered and given that it’s not rare to eat two lunches in one day! Even if my family knows I already ate breakfast earlier that morning, they always tell me to come and join them. “Kai ndekki” = “Come [eat] breakfast”.
In most Senegalese families the lunch and dinner bowls are separated by gender, and sometimes age as well. All the women eat together around one bowl. The men and boys around another. If there are many, many of them, the children will eat at their own bowl.
Often the men get more meat or fish, or the better pieces. They also eat first and get priority for the eating utensils. This is all part of the persistence of traditional gender roles in much of Senegal. These roles pervade Senegalese culture and society, sometimes negatively but not always so. However that’s a whole other topic deserving its own blog post!
So on this Friday of transition back home in the US, I don’t really know what to say except to encourage everyone to extend some teranga in your lives. Maybe that means buying coffee for the person behind you in line at the coffee shop or inviting your friends round for dinner. Or perhaps it has nothing to do with food, but instead means sharing your time with someone who is struggling that day. We all need some extra kindness and compassion these days, in addition to the strength to stand up and show up. I so wish I could join those of you marching tomorrow, but know that I am with you in spirit!