Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Left Hands & Spirits: Navigating Culture in Senegal

This is in our future, fellow Dakarois!



In retrospect, I guess I was feeling a little emo on Monday. Who knew?? The good news is I have since rediscovered two additional upsides to summer in Senegal: mango season and greenery! Last night I made a mango crisp with a dash of cayenne pepper and it was delicious. I also drove by the Mamelles hill and recalled how (comparatively) glorious it will look in a few short weeks, covered in bright green grass.

Now onto the cultural "quirks" I mentioned on Monday (the intended subject of that post, but I guess I got side-tracked...). It goes without saying, I share these wholly from my perspective as a Western woman, but without judgement. In fact, I'm very much a cultural relativist. Give me practically any Senegalese quirk and I can find you a corresponding American anomaly. Just sayin'. And if anyone has further or conflicting insight on some of these points, please share!




1) Avoiding eye contact is considered a sign of respect and polite. I did not realize this for an embarrassingly long time. When I was working in business in Senegal, I always made sure to increase my eye contact to garner more respect as a woman in a male dominated industry. When people avoided eye contact with me it drove me insane, and I normally took it as a direct affront, or aggravating meekness. Little did I know... oops.

2) The taboo on left hand exchanges. My very first week in Senegal, we learned in cultural orientation never to eat or touch food with our left hand, as well as to avoid shaking left hands. As explained elsewhere, "That part of the body is used for an entirely different function in such places, one people don't want to be reminded of when eating." But it still gets me when I accidentally hand money to a taxi driver with my left hand and he REFUSES IT or insists I put it in my other hand first. You just saw it in my (perfectly clean) left hand. I know I should get over this, but it irks me.... would he do the same to a Senegalese customer? Maybe...

3) Polygamy. Enough said.

4) No eating in the street, and generally not in public. I do not claim to be an expert on Senegalese culture, but the explanation I've been given for this is mostly based in deeply held supernatural beliefs... your food could be cursed by others if eaten in public, or by evil spirits. Also, its considered extremely rude to eat in front of people without offering to share (a custom I agree with!), so I think people steer clear of eating in public to avoid potential awkwardness. Or at least, that's why I avoid it sometimes ;) #justbeinghonest

5) Putting every purchase in a plastic bag. In the same vein, shopkeepers offer you a plastic bag for every. single. purchase, no matter the size or contents. A candy bar, soda can, single light bulb--everything. And I'm pretty sure this goes back to the superstition about exposed foods/goods.... everything must be covered when you walk outside!

6) Aloofness surrounding travel plans. From my Western perspective, this may be the most frustrating: people here generally withhold travel plans until the very last minute. They also tend to buy plane tickets mere days before a trip - a huge hurdle when trying to plan international events, let me tell you! In general, the Senegalese don't really ask or answer specific questions about where people are... I've learned not to push questions about people's whereabouts, or for how long they will be gone. You will normally receive a very vague answer, and that's it. Although I don't understand it completely, I do know this also has a lot to do with superstition and fear of "jinxing" a trip or worrying about bad luck befalling a traveler.

7) No baby name until the baptism (and general attitudes surrounding pregnancy). I once accompanied a Senegalese friend in visiting a new mother and her baby. I asked the name and everyone was silently awkward for several moments... then my friend explained that newborns are not officially given their name until the baptism/naming ceremony. It is considered bad luck to say or share a name until this time, typically 8 days after birth. Oops. Pregnancies in general are kept very hush-hush, even when it is extremely apparent that women are expecting. I'm always unsure if its more rude to ignore completely or to ask unwanted questions. Normally I just say nothing and try to smile knowingly....?

8) Just how rude it is not to say hello and exchange greetings. Greetings are extremely important in Senegalese culture, and not just a simple "Hello." A typical greeting should go back and forth several times, asking after family members, etc. This time-consuming formality can be frustrating to Westerners, but it is definitely very important in Senegalese society. On the other hand, not saying hello is a VERY serious affront and can be explicitly used to show anger and disrespect. If, for example, you regularly ignore greeting the cleaning woman in your office, I'm sure you would be considered quite rude (or at best, oblivious). But far worse - feuding family members or colleagues will purposefully ignore each other without saying hello to show deep-seated anger. This is truly one of the ultimate insults in Senegalese society and it took me some time to fully grasp how offensive this can be to an individual.

9) Alone time is weird. To generalize, Senegal - and Africa in general - is all about communal culture. People spend very little time alone, extended families live together, and people often find solitude very depressing. While I love many aspects of this communal way of life, I also treasure my alone time and can get lost in a book or online for hours. When I lived with a Senegalese family, I would pretend I was sick or sleeping to steal a couple of hours for myself. Otherwise I was asked many times why I wanted to be alone, what was wrong, etc. etc. Actually I eventually gave up on the concept of alone time and just left my door open while I read. My host brother would come do his homework quietly alongside me and it was actually very pleasant :)

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Did I use "general" enough (a cool seven times) to keep this post PC/unoffensive???

If you live in Senegal - or anywhere outside of your own culture - what quirks do you still find curious??

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