The impetus for writing this post came from joyful occasion I was lucky to witness the other day. My morning was slow; I didn’t have anything planned, work-wise. I had been in my room after breakfast, cleaning up and reading so I decided to go sit outside for a few hours before lunch. The house was relatively quiet, my grandma was reclining on an outside bed, my mom was slowly starting to prepare lunch, and my little sister was happily playing with sand.
A little while after I sat down my aunt came back from work. She sells snacks, such as peanut brittle candy, puffy shrimp-flavored crackers, and lemon sugar candy at the local elementary school. She walked in with her large bucket of bowls and bags professionally balanced on top of her head. She set it down with groan and set to unpacking.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, she started singing and clapping! As with most things in my family this was carried out in Bambara so I didn’t immediately know what was going on. She continued to sing and added some quick-stepping dance moves to the mix. My cousin, who was scrubbing her sneakers to a sparkly sheen, clapped encouragingly. Soon my mom emerges from the kitchen and joins in with my aunt and the house is alive with sound and movement. My baby sister looked a little overwhelmed and confused at the sudden change in atmosphere.
During a break in all of this my aunt mercifully turned around and explained what all the rejoicing was about – my grandma’s youngest, her daughter who lives in Dakar, had had a baby and named her after my grandma! She finally had a namesake! This is a big deal in Senegalese culture – when you meet a namesake there is a great deal of happy exclamations and a connection is immediately formed.
So my grandma was very happy about this news, as was everyone else in the family! The singing and dancing continued, ebbing and flowing as the morning went on. Soon several neighbors from across the street popped their heads in the door to see what all the commotion was about. At first with concerned looks on their faces but after hearing the good news they heartily congratulated my grandma.
These two grandmas from across the street joined in on the dancing and my grandma stood up to add her slow moves to the mix. They praised her daughter and sent their well-wishes to the mother and new baby. (Throughout all this my uncle sits in the corner filming the whole thing on his phone which later gets gleefully re-watched many a time.)
After a time our neighbors say their last congratulations and return home. It strikes me that this kind of neighborly concern and connection isn’t something that is very common in the US. In Senegal expressions of joy and grief are much less of a private affair compared to the US. This combined with a more open home plan and the great value placed on community means that when something significant happens in a family the neighbors are going to know about it pretty quickly.
This joyful occasion reminded me of another time when I saw the strength of neighborly connections, but in a very different situation. Many months ago the young son of my dad’s sister got sick and passed away. My family knew he was in the hospital and then one night received the call that he had died. Again I didn’t know what was happening in the moment, but knew it wasn’t good. The women in my family started crying and wailing in pain and grief. Soon many of our neighbors came into the compound to find out what was happening and then to console and lend a hand.
This was the first time I had witnessed such immediate neighborly concern and attention. Despite the terrible occasion it was lovely to see that sense of community mobilized into action. They were there to help and when the tables turn sometime in the future I have no doubt my family will do the same.
On a daily basis I see it manifest in the sharing of hot coals back and forth between cooking fires. Mothers and young girls alike will appear in our doorway with a long-handled spoon to carefully scoop up a few red-hot fire starters. If our fire hasn’t started yet my mom or aunt will do the same – visit a neighbor with a spoon in hand.
On the more rare occasions of significant life events such as a birth or death, the community coalesces to support those in need. There are even women’s groups that as a part of their monthly saving plan each member will give a small coin to a “solidarity fund” that is used to later support a family holding a baptism or funeral.
It is in moments like these that I feel so lucky to be living with a host family in the midst of a Senegalese community, learning about and from their culture. The value of having strong neighborly connections is something that I see every day and something that I really strive to take forward with me after I finish my service here.
Thanks for reading!