Throughout our orientation – and even before I came to Senegal – we heard a lot of “it’s important to do this and this, make sure you don’t do this and that.” Wanting to make sure we would be able to navigate this new culture with many traditions we may not understand, our program administrators inundated us with rule after rule of Do’s and Don’ts. While some rules were just to ensure we were being polite: don’t reach across the dish when around the bowl, always greet everyone; others were superstitious is nature: don’t talk about a woman’s pregnancy, don’t compliment people too much.
Particularly as a female traveler in a predominantly patriarchal society, there are other rules and nuances you must be aware of. Some men may not want to shake your hand at all, while others want to jump in your pants the first chance they get. Between trying not to offend anyone and trying not to give anyone the wrong ideas, you might start over thinking every little situation, every little action.
In my host family, my father is an Imam and he has a 2nd wife somewhere. We’ve exchanged a few greetings but have never really had a conversation – I’m sure part of it is that he doesn’t really understand my deplorable French and worse Wolof – but I don’t push it. On Fridays, there are many men over for lunch and my sister and I eat upstairs after they all finish eating downstairs. This is odd in my house, because every other meal, we all eat together. I haven’t been able to figure out if there is a particular reason we do Friday lunch like this or if there simply isn’t enough room for all of us to eat around the bowl at once. All I know is that I’m starving and my two nephews, 11 and 12, are eating and I have to wait another 45 minutes. I sulk quietly, but I’m too nervous to ask.
A few nights ago, during dinner, we all gather around the bowl. There’s a guest who sits in the area of the mat I generally sit in (not that we have assigned seats), so I sit on the left side of him and to the right of my host dad. My host cousin who lives with us and is 20 or 21, looks at me and says “You!” and gestures for me to move away from that spot! My cheeks feel really warm and I’m thinking “Oh no! I did a cultural taboo!” I guess I noticed that my cousin was the only one who ever sat to the immediate right of my dad. Perhaps that was a spot reserved for the next oldest male in the house. It made sense anyway – not even my host mom sat there. I left really silly.
After dinner, when everyone else had cleared the living room, I asked my cousin why he told me to move spots. (Since he’s my age, I’m not nervous asking him bizarre questions). He responds (this is all in French) “Oh, no reason. That’s my favorite spot.” I laughed and explained I thought it was a taboo and he laughed too. I’ve observed him more the last few days and I notice he always sits there even if my host dad isn’t eating with us.
While I appreciate all the information we learned during our orientation, all the rules kind of get to your head and put you on edge. And while it is important to be observant and respectful of the culture you’re in, it doesn’t mean every little misstep is of cultural significance. Sometimes people just want to sit in their favorite spot.