I am a tactile person. I like to touch things to find out how they feel--for example, I like different kinds of fabrics and really smooth surfaces, like stainless steel, or I really like having my hands submerged in water. I really like the way good leather feels. At least I thought I was a tactile person. Then I had lunch today.
It had never really occurred to me, at least in recent memory, to touch what I was eating. In fact, I extensively avoid touching my food--an ingrained habit, I think, from years at a dinner table, and probably a pretty good one. In Senegal, in the Wolof tribe, which is what the country is predominantly made of, you can only not touch your food with one hand. The left. The right hand? Encouraged. There's a whole process of eating with your right hand--and not just with your hand off a plate, per se, but around a giant serving dish with cejube, Senegal's national dish, in it. Other people eat out of the bowl too.
We're breaking from one of our orientation meetings for lunch and the waiters and waitresses start pushing the chairs and tables away from the middle of the room, towards the edges. They roll out six huge mats, they place the bowls in the middle of the mats, and then we're ushered over---we take our shoes off and sit around the bowls, maybe 5 people to a bowl. And then we're shown by our language teachers how to grab rice and a little bit of fish from the bowl with our fingertips, move it to the middle of our hands, squish into into a ball in our palms, in a motion similar to throwing dice in a loose fist, and then eat it. So we do, without thinking too much, trying to get the technique right. I think I was mostly just hungry, so I ate, with or without a fork and even though I don't like fish that much--having an opinion on food is now more of a luxury than a choice. It was great, although I did, at one point, look around and observe mildly, we look like animals. This is so animalistic. Because it was, although not in a negative sense of the word, more we were just eating like animals. You're supposed to literally lick your hands clean, like a cat.
We won't eat every meal like that, obviously, and most Senegalese don't eat regularly in the traditional Wolof way--this was more of an introductory experience, so that if we do happen to eat like that with our families we won't be offensive. Still. Different. We also had our first introductory experience with Wolof, our new langauge. Everyone starts with the mandatory greeting: Saalamaalekum, and everyone responds with: Maalekumsalaam. To ask how someone is, you say: Nanga def? And to say, I'm fine, you say: Manga fi rekk. Good is now: Baax na. There are no grammar rules, really, you just learn how to say things--I can't tell yet if I'm going to like it, or hate it. I'm leaning toward like it; it's a fun language to listen to. Like a language a kid would make up, or if you're pretending to speak another language but you're really just making noise. I think I've missed every nuance possible, but that's ok. I still have time.