There really isn’t a way to put Senegalese hospitality into words. I’ve tried. And I’ve fallen short.
Since being back, we’ve been able to reconnect with some friends from our first time in Dakar. There’s no way for me to list every gesture of kindness and selflessness that’s been extended to us, so I’ll focus in on telling you about one person, one evening. (And also share some photos from a couple recent evenings out with friends.)
Cheikh met Malick in 2003. Malick was the gardener for the house next door and the two used to drink attaya (Senegalese tea) late at night with a couple of other guys. I met Malick for the first time last February when a ‘quick hello’ turned into an afternoon stay that included three rounds of tea, a papaya from the garden and a meal of ceebu jen.
When Malick found out we were back in Senegal, he invited us over for dinner. In catching up, we found out that he no longer has a steady job. He had been working six days a week from 7am to 11pm, earning $120 a month. After working there for nine years without a raise, he finally decided to quit.
He rents a one-room ‘apartment’ that costs about $50 per month. It’s big enough for his bed, a mat on the floor (dining area) and about a three foot by five foot space where he stores a water container and a radio.
Sitting in Malick’s room, we were joined by anywhere from five to eight other people at all times. They would come through to say hello, sit and chat, drink a round of tea… At dinner time Malick brought in a big bowl of couscous with sauce (he’d paid a friend’s sister to make it) and spoons for all who were in the room. He brought me a short stool to sit on and everyone else sat on the floor, all wedged in around the common bowl.
Anyone who poked their head in the door during the meal was immediately invited by Malick to come in and join us to eat.
After dinner Malick disappeared for a few minutes, then came back with two single serving size bags of filtered water he’d bought for us to drink. Everyone else drank from a common cup they passed around.
One of the other guys bought tea, sugar and mint and began making the attaya. Between the second and third rounds, Malick slipped out to buy a small bag of apples for dessert. He washed them meticulously with soap and water before slicing them and passing them to everyone in the room.
When we left at about 11pm, Malick and his friends walked with us to the main road. There we shook hands and said goodbyes while Malick flagged down a taxi, bartered for the price and then insisted on paying for our ride home.
I can’t really say how much Malick spent on having us over that evening – but it was a lot.
- When was the last time we were that generous towards friends?
- And how on Earth can we begin to reciprocate in a way that expresses how much it meant to us, and yet not come across as flaunting wealth?
(These aren’t rhetorical. I would love some input and advice, if you have any!)