Saturday, May 25, 2013

Wide Hips and Polygamy

Today on the Challenge: Something someone told you about yourself that you'll never forget.

Senegalese fashion show #1, circa 2008.

When I first, first, first came to Senegal back in August 2008 (almost five years ago!), I was a study abroad student living with a Senegalese host family. It amazes me to think back on how my perspective and understanding of Senegal has changed since those first few weeks and months. 
Despite our classes and activities on Senegalese society and culture, I understood so little! 

I was 20 at the time and my host sister was 13 going on 18. We often spent evenings in my room or on the roof in case of a power outage, comparing the U.S. and Senegal, whispering about her latest love interest, and spying on the neighbors.

On one such evening, Aïda sat on my bed chattering as I prepared to go out with friends. At this point, I was already well-aware that the Senegalese are direct when they comment on your appearance. People will mention your "jayfondé" (badonkadonk) upon first meeting you, or chime in with opinions on whether you have lost or gained weight. Oh, you have a pimple on your forehead? Someone will be sure to point out that large and very red "mosquito bite." Nowadays I just find it comical :)

But that night, Aïda laid back on my bed and began to really observe my derrière with a critical eye. I braced myself for her remark.

"You know, Kim. You don't exactly have a jayfondé {booty}. Your butt is actually quite flat. But you DO have hips. Wow, your hips are really wide. Men love wide hips."

Oh, man. I am chuckling. At the time I was horrified. Awesome. My butt is flat, but THANK GOODNESS I've got wide hips. I'm saved! That being said, her analysis was pretty spot on.
I'm not in denial; my derrière in no way resembles the amazing curves of most Senegalese women. {I wish!} But, my hips don't necessarily lie either ;) She really hit the nail on the head with her apt description of my posterior. 

I will certainly never forget it, nor that first lesson on the bluntness of the Senegalese.

Senegalese fashion show #2, circa 2011.

* * *

A bonus shocker from Aïda: One day I was helping her prepare a meal in the kitchen and I asked where my host dad had gone as I hadn't seen him in a few days. She looked at me with a strange expression in her eye and continued with her work, mumbling that he was traveling. I didn't think much of it.

That night we sat on the roof top terrace, enjoying the cool night air and surveying the neighborhood from our perch. She leaned in and whispered that her dad had two wives, and he alternated spending two days with her mother and his second wife.

To say I was shocked is an understatement. I knew polygamy was very common in Senegal; I had studied it in textbooks and read Une Si Longue Lettre. I wan't that naïve. But my host parents were both highly educated, successful, with significant careers. They also appeared to be a very "normal" and affectionate couple. It had never crossed my mind that they might be amongst the statistics I had studied. 

I won't get into my opinions on this subject as I could probably write a novel on the topic {women, patriarchy, life in Senegal}. I certainly have my feelings that have evolved over the years as I have lived in Senegal for longer periods of time and interacted with women in various situations. And these opinions have been influenced by my own experience as a woman in Senegal.

One day I'll post about it ;)

But for now, this was another poignant reminder that things are often not as they seem, especially living abroad!

This post was written as part of the Blog Every Day in May Challenge (2013).


  1. Wow, a second wife! I have no knowledge of Senegal and it's culture, but I can see how this would be shocking. Since I moved to Korea there has been more than one occasion where I have been really shocked by things that are normal.

    1. Yeah, particularly reconciling the "normal" relationship I saw in front of me, with this very "abnormal" practice I had never witnessed or been confronted with before. But hey, it was an eye opening experience, to say the least! We're always learning, us expats :)

  2. First of all, I loved both of these stories!! And I loved getting a little peek inside your world. My brother in law is from Honduras and they are pretty vocal about your appearance too, I call it being "too honest". But hey, at least I always know what they are thinking of me.

    1. I agree! In a way its refreshing when people are so blunt... There's less room for snide comments behind your back. It also lessens the taboo-ness (?!) around weight gain/loss. It just is what it is, and people are much less embarrassed about it. Takes some getting used to, but I kind of appreciate it nowadays... especially if someone tells me I've lost weight, haha ;)

  3. How is blunt different then rude? I wrote a whole post on polygamy for the a-z challenge. I learned alot doing the research for the post, but it sure didn't change my opinion of disgust about the practice. I didn't now it was openly practiced there. Women are so oppressed in so many places.
    May Blog Challenge

    1. Its funny though because in the culture here being blunt isn't rude at all; people are not offended and it isn't considered embarrassing, for the most part. I was once discussing the phenomenon with a Senegalese woman, and wondering how a teenage girl might feel about her family or friends commenting on weight gain. This woman was surprised/confused by my question. Since these types of comments are generally based on "fact," they aren't cause for insecurity. A little difficult to wrap my head around, but interesting!

      As for polygamy... I think its great to educate ourselves on these topics! I'd love to read your post on the topic. I do not condone polygamy itself, but I find it really valuable to be open to exchanging with and better understanding the local social and cultural realities. Its something I hope to talk about more on the blog over time. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Wow..this is SO interesting!! I'm not too familiar with Senegal cultural practices, so this a big eye-opener! I'm so not used to people being that blunt but I'd say it's usually helpful to know what people are thinking (uuuusually!).. and I am CERTAIN your friend would have something to say about my flat derriere too ;)

    1. Hahah... What to do?! You can find tights with butt padding at the market here... something we might want to look into ;)

  5. That's awesome, the butt story that is. I have a Chinese friend, who probably has invented bluntness or so. When I was just weeks away having our second daughter, she "surprised" me with a set of make-up brushes for my birthday, laced with the comment "Don't even think about letting yourself go just because you're about to have 2 children!!". Did I look like letting myself go???

    On the polygamy story.. Well, I bet it was definitely interesting living a culture so different from the Western one. Just because we cannot imagine it doesn't mean that it can'T work out for other people.

    1. And the simple act of putting ourselves in others' shoes (particularly shoes that are often made subordinate by society) is such an enriching experience!


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