Stories from Senegal: Spitting and Thwacking and Crying
Note: these #StoriesFromSenegal posts describe Katie's semester-long study abroad experiences from 2009.
PS: I have changed my host brothers' names to protect their privacy.
There are some things in life that no amount of “cultural orientation” meetings can prepare you for.
Yes, I knew some facts about Senegalese culture from the classroom, from past participants, and from my teachers over the years.
Yes, I knew it was a common tradition to eat a meal from a single large, communal dish. And sometimes with your hand instead of utensils.
And in fact, my host family usually used spoons (though the boys opted to use their hands most of the time, like at this first meal).
What they don’t really prepare you for is how to react when your 3-year-old host brother, sitting next to you and eating from his section of this communal dish, decides that he doesn’t like what’s in his mouth and spits it back into the bowl.
You know, next to the section that is yours. Touching it.
Well, I suppose I didn’t actually need to know how to react because my host parents sure did.
Based on her reaction time, you’d almost guess that there was a direct connection between little Paul’s mouth and Mama G’s feet. As soon as the little guy rejected his chewed up fish and rice, Mama G was towering over us all and reaching over to thwack Paul on the side of his head for this unforgivable faux-pas.
You could tell this was not her first rodeo.
Meanwhile, Papa G was slowly shaking his head with a grave look on his face and tsk-tsking, like his son just committed a much more serious crime. He let Mama G do the lecturing about why Paul’s behaviour was wrong, but one look at Papa G’s disappointment and even I felt guilty.
When the thwacking and crying die down, and after I discreetly make a mote in the rice to avoid eating Paul’s rejected pieces, I clear my throat to try another stab at getting to know my new host family. I’d been trying to connect with them all day.
“So,” I say, “Um… how many students have you hosted before?”
“Three,” says Mama G. She makes only the briefest eye contact before focusing again on her meal and watching her boys out of the corners of her eyes.
“That’s great,” I say, hoping for her to elaborate.
When she doesn’t, I take my spoon and attempt again to somehow use it to separate the fish from the oh-so-many bones it’s connected to. I don’t get very far before Mama G breaks off another piece of the fish from the mountain of rice in the center of the bowl and puts more into everyone’s sections. I wish desperately that I could use a second utensil with my left hand.
As I mash the fish into inedible bone-laced purée, I make another attempt at conversation, this time, focusing on my host dad.
“So… um… are you from here originally?”
“Yes,” he replies politely, “I was born and raised here.”
Hooray! I got more than a sentence in reply, which encourages me to continue.
“You mentioned you worked in insurance? Did you complete your studies for that here, too?”
“No,” he said. “I actually went to France for university and then returned when I was finished.”
I waited a beat or two, hoping he might ask me a follow up question about my own studies (given that I was on a study abroad experience, after all), but the question never came. I was surrounded once again by the sound of spoons scraping the giant tin bowl.
I had so badly wanted to hit it off with my host family and become close over the course of the semester, but things felt so off and almost cold during this first day and dinner. I wondered if I was doing something wrong, but there was no cultural orientation leader to ask. You just had to go with it and figure it out for yourself at this point.
I made one last attempt, refocusing my attention on Mama G.
“So… um… how did you two meet?”
Still doling out portions of fish to everyone and eating from her own section of the bowl, she started to say, “Here in Dakar…” but before she could finish (or maybe she was done), she was on her feet again, this time, thwacking Thomas on the side of the head.
“Maman! Pourquoi?” he cried, rubbing the side of his head, bits of white rice stuck all around his mouth.
“Because you NEVER use your left hand to eat, that’s why! You know better!” she shouted, emphasizing some Wolof at the end that I couldn’t understand.
Now there was something I had learned during orientation: the left hand is basically associated with uncleanliness because it - along with soap and water from a colorful teapot that sits next to all Senegalese toilets - are usually used instead of toilet paper. So, using your left hand for any other purpose (especially eating) is super taboo. Thomas had committed a pretty bad no-no.
I look to Papa G for his reaction, and it’s about the same as before: slowly shaking his head while directing his tsk-tsking at Thomas.
I felt so out of place, like I had randomly walked in on this family’s evening meal and seated myself at the table uninvited, pushing around my food with my spoon while watching them teach their little boys’ table manners.
After all the thwacking and tsk-tsking was done, there was a tense silence around the table, and I decided to double down on my efforts to separate my fish from the bone rather than forcing conversation.
After a few chilly minutes passed, and I finally made some progress on Operation Fish Deboning, I watched - as though in slow motion - a huge, new chunk of fish came over the hill of rice and down into my section, landing with a small plap.
“Lekkal lekkal,” Mama G said.
Oh God, I thought, not lekkal lekkal.
This was something that we had not only learned about in pre-departure orientation back in Michigan, but immediately upon arrival at new student orientation, before we got placed with our host families. They reminded us that Teranga - hospitality - is the most important part of Senegalese culture, which includes making sure that all guests always get enough to eat - and then some. This is done by continuing to push food at your guests and loved ones, no matter how full you feel, until your stomach is uncomfortably bursting.
Following that mini lecture, the orientation hosts proceeded to feed and lekkal lekkal the crap out of us, and none of us could get out of eating more and more and more, out of fear of offending (as our pre-departure orientation told us that it could be considered rude to refuse offers of food and other acts of Teranga).
It was only after we were all doubled-over and moaning when we were told the secret: start early with starting to say you’re full, eat the next offering and give compliments, and then - like a secret code - say suur na (Wolof for “I’m full”) and repeat at least 4 or 5 times before watching your host finally accept this horrible truth.
Guys, it is so much easier said than done.
As for me, I was screwed. I definitely had already had enough, but I hadn’t followed the process, and all of the thwacking had me a little on edge.
And so, I ate that damn fish. And the next piece, and the next. I kept saying suur na, merci, but Mama G seemed determined to fatten me up, like a turkey for Thanksgiving. Even putting my utensil down and using every gesture I was told would guarantee the cessation of lekkal-ing was not working.
Meanwhile, somehow oblivious to my deep, deep discomfort, Papa G pointed to a teeny tiny silver bowl held within the larger bowl that contained a red sauce of some kind. I hadn’t touched it, not knowing what it was or being invited to it, but now the time had arrived.
“Why don’t you give this a try?” he said. “It’s called pimant, and it’s a popular spice here. Put some on your spoon when you take your next bite.”
I steadied myself, swallowed my current bite, and took a deep breath before doing as he said. I didn’t want to offend anyone, after all, and it just looked like an off-color ketchup anyways.
I took a big scoop from the bowl, mentally preparing my next post-bite suur na response, when I noticed all eyes were on me as the spoon traveled to my mouth. Even the little ones stopped what they were doing to watch.
Wow, I thought. They really care what I think about this sauce. How ni...
HOLY CRAP HOLY CRAP HOLY CRAP
My mouth was immediately on fire. I did not know that heat like this existed in the world. I could see my host dad’s eyes had grown huge with concern, and I saw that his lips were moving, but all I knew was that this was definitely the end for me and heard nothing.
In that moment, that moment that stretched into what felt like infinity, my entire body started sweating, and my eyes were pouring out tears.
I couldn’t think straight. What do I do? GET IT OUT OF YOUR MOUTH, said my body. SPIT IT BACK INTO THE BOWL, said Paul. CHEW IT AND AVOID OFFENDING, said all the orientations.
So I did, I swallowed it all, unchewed, and felt as though a hole were burning through my tongue.
I grabbed the tin cup that held my water, praying to the iodine tablet gods to have purified it, and chugged the whole thing. It was like using a squirt gun to put out a forest fire. Cup after cup, I drank, and it felt like my tongue had been replaced by a flame.
I was oblivious to what was happening around me, but as I slowly came back into my body, I started to make out what Papa G was saying.
“Wow… yes, that was quite a huge spoonful... it is very spicy you know… I just meant to tap the back of your spoon onto the top of the sauce… that would have been sufficient… I’m very sorry…”
I was breathing like I had just finished a race, wiping sweat from my forehead and the tears out of my eyes, feeling humiliated.
I looked over and saw the boys restraining from laughing, giving each other little side glances, like they weren’t the only ones who had messed up tonight and were kind of enjoying watching me squirm.
Mama G looked at me sympathetically but didn’t say much. Who knows what she said. I probably had steam coming out of my ears by that point.
But I do remember that, just when I thought it was all over and the internal fire was cooling down and the plate was emptying out, she pushed the last piece of fish into my section of the bowl.