So the Senegalese have this thing called Teranga, which doesn't translate directly but is basically an all encompassing word for the attitude of sharing that defines Senegalese culture. Now, although this sounds like the stuff of tourist brochures--which coincidentally, it is, I'm starting to find that they're not just talking the talk. For example, one of my first nights with my host family, Dogo brought me to his friend's house, which was great--they were all wonderful people and eager to get to know me, and they fed me something delicious. I thought that was it, until Dogo later explained that there was actually a meeting going on upstairs. The group that was gathering there was an association of women in the neighborhood of Mermoz (which would explain why there was a parade of beautifully dressed women coming in the door and up the stairs one right after another and why there was so much going on in the kitchen--I was prepared to chalk that up to me just not knowing what was normal and what wasn't. It happens a lot.) But it turns out that these women collect a pool of money at the first of every month and then, depending on what happens to each family during the course of that month, they take a vote and decide who the money should go to. And whatever family receives the money that month has a huge feast as a thank you to the other families--that's where I come in. Apparently they also thank stray, friend-of-friend Toubabs. Dogo asked me if we had anything like that in the United States--just neighbors helping neighbors. And I said, sort of.* Because it's true, my family would help another family in need, if the opportunity arose. I know my parents have cooked meals for a family who is sick, or has had some tragedy befall them. But we also have a culture based on pride, and the belief that an individual should be able to provide for themselves, and a lot of times that gets in the way. Imagine the variety of problems that would arise if such an association were created in the U.S. There would be blood, egos would clash, someone would argue over who deserved it more. My first night in my homestay, my host mom told me, "We don't have a lot of money, we don't have a lot of things. But we have our families, and we have solidarity."
In Senegal, in my neighborhood here, bad things can happen month to month. Humility is a way of life, asking for help isn't second nature. That's what they start with. One night, after dinner, there was a man who came in through the front gate and after speaking with the family in Wolof, Fafey (the maid), brought him into the kitchen. This seemed normal. When I asked who it was**, they told me, basically, "Oh, he's from the neighborhood. He doesn't have anything, he doesn't have a job, so we give him what we don't eat." Leftovers are a foreign concept. They asked me what would happen if a man did that in the U.S. And I had to think about it, because I just don't think anyone would come knock on my front door to ask for food. So I told them that doesn't happen, but we have bums--but it's becoming a problem. Yesterday there was a little boy who came to the house and my host mom gave him a little bag. When I asked what it was, they told me, "It's medicine for his head, he has a fever. His parents don't have enough money so we give it to him."
I don't mean to say that either system is better or worse, they are merely different. The Senegalese don't have welfare, charities, free clinics, foster care or any other kind of institutionalized fall back. They just have one person looking out for another person, for their fellow man--and I'm sure, a lot of people fall through the cracks. That's a fact of life. But I think what the take-away for me here is to remember always that a person is still a person, whether they can feed themselves or not. I like that the Senegalese are walking the Teranga walk. And although I appreciate what they're doing, it's been especially important for me to look at not only their culture, but my own. It has been so interesting to see the American mindset through the lens of a completely different perspective. I don't find it unsettling, I don't think we're wrong. We're just different. I've been working hard on being an active observer, but not being judgmental. So far, so good.
*It's impossible to know what I actually said in French. I'm finding that I often string together loosely related words and phrases but say it with enough confidence that it sounds like it could be right. I'm thinking I'll just go with it--my poor brain is so on the fritz with language that at this point it's a miracle anything is coming out at all. **I do know that in this instance, instead of asking the very simple, who is that? I said, where is that? I didn't realize until later when I was falling asleep but it made me laugh. My poor, poor host family. I think they think I'm the biggest idiot on the planet and frankly I just do not blame them.