Pictures from Senegal

Sunday, October 24

Family and Home

And we’re back into the school year, which means English class has started up once more. This time around, I’m going to make sure they don’t spend the entire summer break yelling “Good afternoon Soda” at all hours of the day. I’ve promised them all a pen pal program, and after they got done writing their first letter to their new friend back home, it occurred to me that there are a few things it might be worth my time to explain. The people back home deserve a few fun facts about family and home to help explain some of the oddities they’ll see in their letters. And I figure it couldn’t hurt to share them with everyone:

1. The school that we’re working with is Ecole Notre Dame (School of Our Lady) and is a private Catholic school, meaning the kids pay additional tuition fees to attend and they have religion classes. Most of the kids there are Catholic, but there are a few Muslim ones too. The school is not discriminatory. Often there will be children of a Catholic mother, but a Muslim father. In this way the kids are Muslim but accepted in Catholic circles.

2. The pen pal class of kids is in CM2, which means class minus 2, or one step away from high school. Senegal uses the French school system which has 13 years where Americans have only 12. So, CM 2 is the equivalent of either 5th or 6th grade. Next year these kids will leave elementary school and start at the high school where they count down in number starting at 6, then 5, then 4, etc. The last year of high school is called Terminal.

3. My African name is Soda Ndaw. Every Peace Corps Volunteer gets a new local name; a first name that’s decided by the family and the last name is the same as the family. This is important for integration into the community, and because generally the people have a hard time pronouncing American names. After a year here, my family has just started calling me by my real name.

4. Married women don’t change their last names, and neither party wears a wedding ring (exception would be some Catholics). This makes it hard to obviously tell if someone is married… so they ask everyone all the time.

5. It’s legal in Senegal for a man to have up to 4 wives. So, if a child says they are the first child of their Mom, they may not be first child of their Dad if their Mom isn’t 1st wife.

6. Unfortunately, Senegal is not exempt from disease and early death. AIDs, malaria, dengue fever and diabetes are the biggest health related problems around. It is not uncommon to go to a funeral once a week. It’s also not all that uncommon to hear of a child whose parents are no longer living.

7. Often whole families live together. For example, a grandmother will have all or most of her children in one home. Those adult children that are married live with their families in the same home as well. So nearly 30 people could live in one home including aunts, uncles, and cousins. Multiple wives of a man, and all the children, will also live in the same house. Each wife usually ends up with her own bedroom, or in some cases house.

8. Bedroom doors are never closed. Whether you’re changing cloths, taking an afternoon nap, or studying for school… it’s never appropriate to close the door. It’s been said that privacy is something that only exists in a person’s thoughts, and kids learn this from an early age.

9. It’s really important in both Senegalese culture and the French language to distinguish between older or younger siblings, in fact the word sibling doesn’t even have a translation equivalent because it’s that important to a male or female relative.

10. Families commonly have double beds so that multiple people can share a bed at once. Small kids always sleep with older ones or their parents. Mosquito nets usually come in double bed size, and using one to cover multiple family members is easier and less expensive.

11. There are 2 kinds of homes: a house as we know it (where every room is under one roof) and a compound. A compound means there are many buildings or huts in a close proximity that are considered one home and are gated in by a fence. The toilet and shower of a compound usually end up being a separate building in this case. Western toilets are not common, which is why no one but a Peace Corps Volunteer makes the distinction.

12. Most families in my town have a fan or two and at least one television. It may be old and small, but that doesn’t stop everyone from gathering around to watch the latest soap opera sensation every night at dusk. A very well off family has a computer, fruit trees, or multiple phones. The richest families in town have an air conditioner in their living room, but this is very rare.

13. Electricity and water are not constant. Both of them generally go out once a day, for long periods of time, or more. A home is considered lucky to be in a neighborhood where the shortages are predictable, such as when they are always out during the daylight hours but come back consistently every evening. The problem is a lack of decent plumbing as well as inability on the behalf of the Senegalese government to provide electricity to all of it constituents continuously.

14. Pets just don’t exist in Senegal. The family may have chickens, goats or sheep but they are bred for sale or to eat during holidays- and are kept outside the home. Dogs and cats exist, but they are left in the wild like we would a fox or squirrel except with more diseases.

15. Having a maid is actually pretty common in middle class families and above. Someone to cook, someone to clean, someone to do the laundry by hand… often times a different helper for each task. Large families with lots of females in the home avoid this because it’s a woman’s job to do house chores. Men would never partake in these tasks; so it is with pride that I describe my house full only with boys as the exception to this rule. My oldest brothers take turns cooking, cleaning, and do their own laundry on Sundays.

1 comment:

  1. I've been reading your blog and it's really interesting. But you're making general assumptions about a country which has different ethnicities and cultures.