Stories from Senegal: What's with Your Face?
“Bonjour cherie, what’ll it be today?”
It was my turn to place my order for my omelette baguette sandwich. A dozen of us were surrounding Mariama, a grandmotherly figure churning out one mouth-watering delight after the other.
“Just the regular sandwich, please, but no pimant,” I replied, mourning the loss of half my taste buds from my first pimant experience.
She nods, acknowledging my order, and continues cooking for all her hungry little college kid chickens. She seems to have more than two arms as she cuts a long baguette in half, slices it open down the center, and then expertly shifts gears to the pan balancing on a propane stove, adding veggies and spices and flipping the omelette at just the perfect moment.
Like a prima ballerina, her movements are swift and expert, fluid. I’m mesmerized as I watch her scoop up the finished omelette, place it perfectly in the demi-baguette, dollop some pimant on top, and fold it lovingly into an old newspaper.
Maybe you can tell I was hungry.
She passes off the order to the young gentleman waiting to my right, who hands over his 400 CFA (just under $1 USD) and begins the process all over again.
While she cooks, she starts to ask me more questions about my day, how classes are going, where I’m from and what I’m doing here - the usual.
A dozen pair of eyes are on me as I answer. I’ve gotten used to being constantly, blatantly stared at and good-naturedly interrogated. While it drove me nuts at first, I decided that accepting it will make the next four months a lot more comfortable. And so far, it has. I’ve learned that not only is it my white skin that stands out, but my blonde hair, too. Sometimes, little kids will follow me in the street, giggling and asking to touch my hair.
In any case, it’s quite simply because I stand out, and people are super curious. There aren’t a ton of white people, and even fewer Americans, who come to spend much time in Senegal, so people want to know about you. I’m the only white girl in my neighborhood, as far as I can tell, and I have yet to run into another white student at the local university (though I know there must be at least a few others among the thousands of local students here). While I’m not usually the first white person someone has seen here in Dakar, I’m learning that I’m often the first one that a lot of people have actually spoken to, and usually the first American they’ve met.
Anyway, I answer Mariama’s questions, asking her a few back, and as she hands out one sandwich after the other, she throws me for a loop with the next question:
“So, what’s with all the boutons?”
I don’t know this word. It sounds like buttons, so I take a quick inventory of my clothing and bag, but I don’t see any questionable buttons. So, I just do what I’ve finally, deeply embraced since speaking mostly in a language I’m still learning. I ask.
“What are boutons?”
“You know, those dots on your face,” and to make sure it’s absolutely clear, she gestures to them with her spatula.
She’s asking about my acne.
In front of a dozen strangers.
“I uh… well, I guess I’ve always had boutons,” I stutter, looking around to see if everyone’s laughing or trying to suppress a giggle. They’re not. They mostly look like they’re invested in a good Netflix show.
“Yeah, I’ve seen you the past couple of weeks with them,” she says, flipping an omelette, “but you have more now, and they’re redder.”
At this, I just have to laugh. Mariama cracks a smile, and everyone around me good-naturedly laughs. I don’t really understand why she’s asking me about it or where this is going, but I do know, it feels friendly, totally non-malicious, and that good energy and positive intent (despite constant confusion) is what I love most about this place.
“Honey,” she continues, “These boutons mean you’re in love.” Her smile widdens, showing perfect white teeth.
Now we’re all having a good laugh. Even though it’s just Mariama and I talking, everyone waiting around us is invested in the outcome of this exchange now. Some students have even stuck around after getting their food, watching us with curiosity as they devour their meals, sitting on various railings or chairs.
She slips another finished masterpiece into some newspaper; it’s almost my turn.
“Well, am I right? Are you in love?” she asks, eyebrows raised.
“No,” I say, “Definitely not,” I laugh in reply.
“So you’re not married then?” she continues.
“Déedéet,” I say in Wolof, for extra clarity. The surrounding students’ eyes all widen and they exchange looks and laugh; hearing a white girl say anything in Wolof always seems to elicit this kind of reaction.
Mariama cares less about the Wolof and more about this terrible news.
“But… really? How old are you?” she looks crestfallen.
“I’m 20,” I say, knowing where this is going.
“So you’re not married… which means you don’t have kids… and you’re 20?” her concerned tone is quite touching, even though I think of the horror show life would be if I were married with children before I could even legally drink in my home country.
“Nope, not married. Just single and not in love with lots of acne.” I look longingly at what I hope is my future lunch.
She shakes her head, tsk-tsking, and hands off the next sandwich to someone else.
“Don’t worry chérie, I’m sure you’ll find someone soon… maybe you could find a good Senegalese man while you’re studying here,” she suggests, giving me a sly side smile.
I can almost see through the back of my head how looks at me are changing. This is where I start to feel a bit less accepting of attention, because I am determined not to date while I’m here, and I certainly don’t want to start something while knowing I’m going home in a few months.
Thankfully, before this goes much further, a gray-haired gentleman eating his lunch opposite of us all perks up and says,
“What’s that Mariama? You need a husband?”
“No, Souleyman, we’re talking about this poor girl here, she’s not married yet, and she’s 20.”
“Ah,” he nods and shrugs, “Well, I’m free if you need me.”
I almost can’t take it. My laughter shakes my whole body, and I love the absurdity of everything and how normal it’s all becoming. I love the friendliness shaked over everything, the light-heartedness, the not-taking-anything-too-seriously.
But most of all, in this moment, I love being the next student who’s handed her sandwich.
“Jërejëf!” I practically cheer, handing her two 200 CFA coins.
As I walk away to find a space to eat in peace, I hear her call after me, “Don’t worry sweetie, we’ll find you someone!”