Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Tricky Conversations

Today I return home and sweep into my family compound in a bicycle whirlwind of sand, just as the sun is setting.  I hop down, greeting each family member (the more dignified ones grasping my hand briefly, the younger ones cheekily dapping me up).  I run through the itinerary of where I’d been that day, what I’d done and who I’d seen (this is necessary whenever returning home), and scrabble through my mind for questions I can ask them in Pulaar. 

The animals do something ridiculous that makes me giggle, like the baby goats hopping all over each other or the chickens stupidly perching on the satellite dish again, and my family giggles at me for the same reason.

After washing off a little of the day’s dust, I sink into a plastic chair and listen to my host dad’s radio show for a while.  I write down a few of the Pulaar phrases I catch into my notebook.  After eating dinner (maafe gerte - rice and peanut sauce, my favorite) around 9 PM, I sit staring at the glowing embers as my uncle makes ataaya, trying to calm my mind.  Senegalese people do a lot of sitting, and that’s one of the things I’ve found the hardest about this culture, since I have eternal ants in my pants.

I chat for a bit with my host mom, Mariama.  She catches me up on the latest developments: she’s started a boutique (small shop) in a section of our house, a very common thing here – practically every other house has a boutique.  They sell things like coffee, eggs, cooking oil, soap, butter, mayonnaise, phone credit, candies, baguettes – and if they happen to have a refrigerator (luxury!), maybe some sodas or kossam (sour milk).  I am excited because now I don’t have to run next door at some ungodly time in the morning to buy eggs for breakfast.

She goes on to relate the latest misadventures of our resident grandmother, who is old and confused.  She has been known to wander out of the house and into neighbor’s houses, forgetting where she is.  Sometimes she imagines things, like the time she thought soldiers came into the house, and we have to sift out the truth from the tall tales.

During the conversation lulls, I skim through a National Geographic article on the Aboriginal people of Australia.  I am mentally comparing their way of living to the things I see here, and some things are pretty similar: very basic housing, living day-to-day and consuming all food the day you make it, holding on to cultural traditions amidst the rising tide of modernity, multiple wives.  I exclaim aloud when I read that one woman’s father had eight wives.

“That’s a lot of wives!” I say to Mariama.  “In Senegal people have up to four, right? Isn’t that the limit in the Koran?”

Mariama laughs.  “My father had eleven wives.”  She grins as my jaw drops.  “He first had eight wives, and then his brother died, who had three wives.  So then they came to live with us, and he had eleven.”

I close my mouth and process this for a moment.  I guess since she lives in the city now, I hadn’t associated my host mom with the extremes of village life.

She continues, “You know, in the village, men don’t work like the women.  They just rely on their wives to bring in the money – to keep gardens, sell things.  They don’t do anything; they just sit.  That’s why they have so many wives.”


As I write this blog post, I am seated cross-legged on my bed surrounded by moringa seeds.  (I’m counting them for tomorrow, when I plant them in our family garden – my first agriculture venture!)  Over my head, mice scurry busily on the tarp that protects my sleeping head from the showers of the rainy season, which tend to leak through the thatched roof.  Don’t worry, I’m not pulling a Cinderella… the only talking I do with these stupid mice is to yell at them in various languages.

Outside, crickets chirp away, the cow moos itself to sleep, and the sheep bleet away their sorrows to the oblivious goats.  The chickens are blissfully quiet, but that only lasts until 5:00 AM.

It’s time for bed, but my head is swirling.  I’m still thinking about what Mariama said, and also a conversation I had earlier today with another Senegalese friend.

In that conversation, my friend told me he doesn’t believe Senegal (or Africa) “needs” gay rights.  He said that if the West can’t accept polygamy, then Africa shouldn’t have to accept the gay lifestyle.  (This was spurred from a discussion about President Obama’s recent visit to Senegal, and his clash with Senegalese President Macky Sall over gay rights.)

My friend’s perspective was one I hadn’t heard before, though I already knew about Senegal’s strict stance against homosexuality (it’s treated as a crime here).  Since my friend cares deeply about his people and is probably one of the least judgmental Senegalese I know, his comment took me by surprise.

Senegal is a country with a strong democratic track record, and good on them for that.  They’ve made many positive strides for health (such as the battle against HIV/AIDS) and human rights (such as the campaign against female genital cutting).  But every now and then, some cultural reality comes jarringly into focus and I realize what a long road it is to human equality and tolerance.

Well, step by step we go.  Or as they say in Pulaar: “seeda seeda” (little by little).