wax: to say

On my return from the Île de Madeline (Madeleine Island, an island off the coast of Dakar and an easy day trip—less than 30 minutes away by pirogue) I run into one of my guard friends on the street. He is my favorite of all the four guards at this station, always ready with a friendly face and great advice for me. I greet him and his friend sitting next to him.

Foo jogé? (Where are you coming from?)

Île de Madeline laa jogé, I say.

Ah, nexoon na? (Was it good?) they ask.

Waaw waaw, nexoon na, I agree.

My guard friend asks if I swam there. Sangu nga foofu? When I say yes, they both widen their eyes with surprise. Senegalese always seem to be surprised when they find out I have just gone swimming in the ocean; they think the water is really cold. Xanaa seddul? (Was it not cold?)

Dafa sedd tutti (it was a little cold), I agree.

Now, I try to use a little more Wolof—specifically the word ngelaw, which means wind. Ngelaw, dafa bari foofu (there was a lot of wind there), I say. But they stare at me blankly. I try again. Ngelaw, dafa bari foofu. Still no recognition.

I start to feel a bit stupid and lost, and am considering giving up when suddenly, they understand. Laughing, they both say, Ah, ngelaw! Ngelaw, dafa bari foofu!

My guard friend explains it to me. It’s nge-LAW, not n-GE-law. You say it with such an English speaker’s accent!

Ah, I see! They make me say ngelaw a few times correctly before I can leave, enunciating each syllable until I have it down. After I leave with a parting thank you, I think that I will never forget how to say the Wolof word for wind!

emit erambeni

emit erambeni: (Diola) thank you

We spend one of the days of spring break exploring the Casamance countryside on mountain bikes. Here, in the Casamance region, while many people speak Wolof, the native tongue is Diola and most people are ethnically Diola. Our guide, Charles, is from the village of Oussouye, he teaches us a few words.

Our day mountain biking is more magical than I could have imagined. We plow through the jungle around Oussoye, weaving our way around palm trees and roots. We stop at a cashew farm and taste freshly roasted cashews.

We happen upon an initiation ceremony—a ceremony to initiate boys into men—that only happens once a year. We cannot believe it, that we have fallen across an event that we have only learned about in school, and Charles leads us to watch all the excited young men, dancing and singing around the bombolong, a large drum made from a hollowed-out tree trunk.

We watch as the sky fills with hundreds of bats, so many that at first I think they are birds, shaking the sky with the beating of their paper-thin wings. We turn and see vultures perched in gnarled old trees. We see the kapuke, a tree with roots that reach up as tall as a two-story building, whole groves of their sacred old trunks.

When we finally head back, after passing huge expanses of tranquil fields spotted by cows, we feel so grateful for such a wonderful day. Emit erambeni, Charles! we say. Thank you so very much!



yewwu: to wake up

On the second day of spring break, we awake in the early dawn as the light sneaks through the windows into the cabin of the Diambogne, the ferry from Dakar to Ziginchor. Silently, we step out past the rows of sleeping people, sleeping in the chairs, on the floor.

Outside on the deck, the wind is fierce, blowing strong and gusty and shaking the Senegalese flag on the bridge of the ship. We have left the lights and noise of Dakar behind long ago, even left behind the emptiness of the open sea. Wrapped in fleece blankets to guard against the cold, we gain our bearings and find ourselves in a whole new world.

On either side of us, long coastlines thick with lush vegetation, speckled with palm trees. The rose gold of sunrise bleeds across the horizon, casting pink and purple light across the water. Clouds like a herd of sheep form broken fragments across the sky, fading into a deep blue at the corners like a memory of the night. The Diambogne has taken us south all the way down Senegal’s coastline, past the Gambia, and re-entered Senegal through the Casamance River, which is what we see before us now.

As we watch the morning creep its way across the sky, as we watch little villages appear out of the jungle, I cannot help but think that this is a great adventure, like something out of a book!


bëgg: to want

uma: first-person negation

bëgguma: I don’t want

Honestly, I love most of the meals in Senegal. Certainly, I can eat all of them! But there are only a few that I don’t like, ranging from tolerable to utterly despised when they arrive in front of me on the plate.

Every Monday night at my house, we have porridge, called laar. And I do not like it. The grain base varies from orzo pasta (I cannot stand this in porridge) to rice (tolerable) to millet (preferred). It is boiled in water and milk (meaaw) until it reaches a sludgy texture, but this alone I could eat. It is only when my mother adds lait caillé (extremely sweetened milk, with of course lots of sugar dumped in) that I cannot stand it. The sickly sweetness of the canned milk, combined with the sludgy texture of porridge is not my ideal dinner—I can never finish my bowl. However, I have learned to work around it, by telling my mother not to put too much sweetened milk in mine!

The other meal I cannot stand, even more than the porridge, is the couscous with fish paste. The couscous here in Senegal is millet-based, unlike the pasta-like couscous in Morocco. It is extremely dry and to me, tastes like gravel or sand in my mouth. But worse is that here, traditionally, the couscous is topped with this gray, extremely fishy paste! Nothing is more disappointing for me than this meal, although luckily I’ve only had it twice.

Of course, there are a few ingredients I don’t look forward to either. Anytime my family uses oysters, as they are usually formerly frozen and detestably fishy—this coming from a girl who loves shellfish! I also don’t like the dried fish we sometimes have to resort to, as it also is extremely fishy. And sometimes the meal is unbearably salty.

Yet, I would like to stress, my complaints about the food here are few. For the most part, Senegalese food is incredible—bursting full of rich, deep flavors. I know I will certainly miss it when I leave—or at least miss most of it!


teranga: hospitality

Hospitality or teranga is a highly-prized traditional value in Senegal. It is not merely an option. It is a duty for every Senegalese to receive and honor strangers. The guest is to be seen as a relative and has rights to full attention (respect, comfort, food, shelter) from their host, in spite of all the material and financial problems and constraints encountered during these difficult times. For the traditional Senegalese, the meanest thing a person can do is say to a stranger “I don’t know you” (therefore “I owe you nothing”).

Teranga is more than a practice. It is a philosophical code. It is based on the belief that a mother who assists a foreigner or visitor (doxandéem) ensures that her children will never find themselves in a desperate situation away from home without help or support (tumuranke).

In traditional Senegal, conditions favored the development of teranga. People were self-sufficient in food and social solidarity was the rule rather than the exception. When receiving a guest, one could count on the support and assistance of the community. The group felt that the guest of any one member of the community was everybody’s guest. Even today, in most Senegalese villages, all the neighbors send food when someone is receiving a guest.

Adapted and translated from an article in The Soleil by Al Hassane Diahate and Gary Engelberg

What has teranga meant for me, here in Senegal? It meant that the moment I arrived in my house, I felt welcomed by my family. It means doors are always open, and that family friends will drop by my house at any time, walk straight on in, even late at night. It means that I can take forty-five minutes to walk home because the guards on the street or Baye Fall or my tailor all want to chat and give me advice and teach me Wolof. It means the fruit vendor inviting me to eat lunch with him and his family around their plate next to their fruit stand. It means the owners of the nearby boutik greeting me like old friends even though I only met them the night before with Nene. I am grateful for teranga because it has made me smile everyday, and it has made a sometimes strange new country feel like home.