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Food, food, and more food

By Eleanor

I’d like to discuss something very close to my heart today: food. Senegalese food, to be exact. I promise you that each dish will leave you begging for the recipe– and you’ll want them all. Especially the street food one’s because street food is just so good here. And no matter how often Americans tell you to eat street food at your own risk, when you spend 150 CFA on a spaghetti, onion, and pea filling for your daily ½ a baguette, you will know that Senegalese food, quite simply, rules.


Walking down the street you’ll smell deliciousness before you can see it: small fatayas and beignets fried in oil; peanuts cooked in hot sand over a fire; and Senegalese-style eggs called “omelets” (fried eggs with onions and crushed-up bouillon blocks for spice). And then there are the foods you can’t smell: the frozen bissap in tiny plastic bags you get after school; the thiagri (cold yogurt with uncooked millet) before or after dinner; and the unknown fruits that you can’t wait to take a bite out of.


But remember! No walking and eating. What I’ve realized in Senegal is that the United States is really such a fast-paced society. In my small town of around 5,000, walking and eating is a no-go. You don’t do it, ever. Unless you want to face the wrath of your yai!


But while inhaling street food is in my nature, Senegalese meal time is not. That doesn’t mean I don’t love it, I just mean it’s different. At my house we sit around a large plate with raised sides,– essentially a huge circular casserole dish with another huge circular casserole dish flipped on top of it– and we all eat out of the same plate at the same time. Then, under the plate, there is a mat with a picnic-style blanket on top of it that serves to catch all the excess food that doesn’t reach your mouth fast enough. When lunch is ready you’ll hear “Kai! An!” which means come and eat lunch in Wolof. And when the plate gets put down on the mat, slowly the people will come. Your siblings, friends, and parents will dip their right hand in the water bowl, take off their shoes, and grab a spoon if there are any. Then the top plate is picked-up and the feasting finally begins.


During the meal though, there are a few incredibly important things you must remember.


First, and most importantly, your left hand cannot be anywhere near the food when you’re eating. Put it behind your back, hold it in the air, or cut it off, but whatever you do your left hand must not be seen close to the food. Outside of the US and Europe, the left hand is often used when you go to the bathroom in lieu of toilet paper. And in Senegal that’s what the left hand is used for. Even if someone hands you something while you’re not eating and you take it with your left hand, you should apologize. So eating with your left hand is definitely out of the question.


Second, you also better get used to having food thrown at you. Well, not exactly thrown at you, but gently tossed in your direction. Let me explain. When the food is placed on the plate, the rice goes down first, then the crispy rice in the middle of the plate, and then the fish and vegetables are put on top of the crispy rice. The vegetables change according to the season and right now (December), we usually have one carrot, one cabbage cut in two, a piece of squash, one potato, and two pieces of tapioca with fish and rice. Since we’re all sitting in a circle around the plate, you’re likely to only have one or two vegetables in front of you. That’s where the tossing comes in. The oldest women at the meal will usually eat with their hands and they will pass you the “good stuff.” Say you’re placed on the opposite side of the cabbage and you’ve been craving cabbage all day (I’m not joking it happens here!), the oldest woman will break you off a piece of cabbage and toss it in your direction. It’s tossed not placed because they are usually doing this for six to fourteen people at a time, and, I mean, they have to eat too!


Third, remember that even if you don’t like what has been placed in front of you vegetable-wise, it will be okay. The person dividing the food will learn what you prefer quicker than you think possible. At my house we have Chep bu Ghin (the dish I described above) for lunch about four days a week, and I always get passed pieces of carrots, potatoes, and cabbage, and I never get passed okra or fish. I’ve been getting the same thing for almost four months, and they always get what I enjoy eating right. And even if you’re not the biggest fan of a meal, I promise it will grow on you. Well, at least most of them. There’s always going to be that one meal that you dread (mine’s “Soup au Kanyay” or white rice with an oily fish and okra sauce on top).


Fourth, when you’re full don’t wait around. Put down your spoon or wash your right hand in the water bowl and head-out. I always head straight to my room to blow my nose and drink some water because our food is so spicy! People are usually packed around the plate like sardines, so if you’re sitting there not eating because you’re full, you are literally, at that moment, a waste of space. Get up and leave and allow your family a little breathing room. For example, today at lunch we were eleven around the plate, and, if people didn’t get up when they were full, I would have been so squished that I wouldn’t have been able to fit any food in me!


Finally, number five. Don’t worry that you won’t get enough food, I promise you will. You’ll probably get more food than you can eat as Senegalese culture pushes eating constantly and people will look at you disappointed when you say “Soug naa” or “I’m full.” Even when there are fourteen people around a bowl, there is always enough food. I swear it is impossible to go hungry here. No matter if someone you’ve never seen (and will never see again) comes by the house and asked for a plate of food by singing, you will still have enough. Even if five people stop by to drop-off bags of onions on their route and your yai says “Kai! An!” (which she will say to whoever shows-up around lunchtime), and they stay to eat, there will still be enough food. Let me be clear when I say that you will never be hungry here and both of these situations have happened to me. And I would suggest that in the unlikely chance you are hungry, go and buy something for yourself. Just trust me on this one. Because if you say you’re hungry, you’ll be having three dinners that night, and you’ll have to finish them all.


From Maffe, to Yassa Ginard, to Chep bu Ghin, to Chep bu Yapp, to Chep bu Nyibby, to Ndambe, and to all the other dishes, Senegalese culture is full of spice, heat, and (almost always) pounds of rice. And while in the US we complain about having to spend thirty minutes making dinner, Senegalese lunch starts being made around 11:00 and is finished at 2:30, when we eat it. But honestly, that’s what makes Senegalese food so good– you can taste the hours and care that went into making the meal. You can taste the delicately fried onions and fish; you can taste the scallions, pepper, and pink spice that were “dubb” or grounded in the mortar and pestle; and you can taste each morsel of rice that was steamed over than sauce than added to it. And I want you all to taste what I’m describing– I really do. But, unless you come to Senegal and stay for a while, I don’t think it’s going to happen. Because learning to “dubb” with both arms and how to identify what a sauce needs by smell alone are things a recipe can’t teach you.

Eleanor – High Highs

I’ve learned to realize that everything eventually comes full circle. The awkward moments seem to right themselves over time, and, in my case, within two days.

For the awkward half of the story, the fact is that my second or third day in Senegal, I was peed on. I had gone outside to look at the stars with my roommate Erin, and I was awestruck. The sunset earlier that night was stunning (forcing me to climb a semi-stable concrete tower to see it), and laying on my yoga mat while staring at the stars, I was at peace. Surrounded by trees, freshly out of a cold shower, and with bats flying overhead, I felt my entire body begin to relax as Erin and I laughed at the similarities in our lives. As I attempted to point out constellations other than the little dipper, a bat swooped over us and peed on me. And not just anywhere. On my head. On my face. And, to top it off, in my mouth. It was an out-of-body experience, to say the least as I screamed and spat while Erin stared at me wondering if the malaria pills were making me hallucinate. And, looking back, I definitely overreacted. It really wasn’t that much pee. But it was a very interesting welcome to Senegal.

When I told my story to the other fellows at breakfast the next day, Erin and I bowled-over laughing as we watched their horror-struck faces and worried glances. I assured them that I was fine and attempted to convince them that I did not have some Senegalese bat disease. Later that day we had our first Wolof class, and boy was it hard. As the prominent language of Tabia Ndiaye, my future home, I knew I needed to study-up, but it turned out Wolof was not as easy as I hoped it would be. Unlike French or English, Wolof has an entirely different sentence structure that was throwing me for a loop. At the end of the first day I could barely say hello! So, determined to improve my Wolof beyond the incoherent grunts I was spitting out, Erin and I went outside again– this time under the cover of a mango tree for protection. And during our intensive study session, we received a gift from the gods. The mango gods, to be exact.

And befallen on us from above was the juiciest, ripest, most delicious mango I have ever had. Not even liking mangoes before this precious one, my mind was blown. They are so good. I had been missing out on so much. After Erin and I finished the mango and washed our juice-covered faces and arms, I realized that the playing field was even. In two days I had gone from spitting out bat “poison” to devouring a mango blessed by the heavens. And I knew that was how my time in Senegal would be– filled with very high highs and very low lows. But if I could get past the lows, and learn to laugh them off later on, my time in Senegal would make me feel powerful. And I’d slowly begin to live a life of high highs.

Eleanor – In Senegalese

I love my name. But it took a long way to get here. Years of people singing “Eleanor Rigby” and telling me their grandma’s name was “Eleanor” fueled a hatred in me for my name so strong, I forced my friends and family to call me Ellie. Well, at least for a while. But over time, I learned to love my name and was a tad upset when I learned that I would be given a new name in my host family in Senegal. I was determined to keep my American name somehow in Senegal– that is until I got to Senegal. Then all I could think was “God. Bless.” Because Eleanor is so not a Senegalese name.

Which is mostly because my name is impossible to say due to the Senegalese accent. It comes out “All-ugh-noel,’’ as opposed to Eleanor. And no matter how hard anyone tries to say my name in a way that sounds like “El-ah-nore, the Senegalese pronunciation would make my mom ask, “Ki kan la?” or, in English, “Who is that?”

Luckily, the moment I got into my house, sama yaay (my mom) renamed me Adja. Adja Adama Lô. It’s after her 103-year-old mom who lives just down the road and still takes care to dress-up as if she is leading a Senegalese fashion show every day. So, knowing that she was in my family, and knowing who my host mom was, I went out to try to figure out who else I’m related to here. But that was no easy task. The term “family” in Senegalese culture is very loose– looser than I can put into words. I’ve been here for three weeks, I still don’t know who I’m related to, and I’ve just figured out who lives in the house. And to be honest, I’m not even sure if I’m right about who sleeps where. In or outside my house, everyone new I meet is somehow connected to my family, and they will make sure you know their name. Even if you have only met once and forget it the next time you see them, they’ll look at you with a face so sad that I now keep a journal with me at all times so I can write any new names I learn down.

Because everyone here is just so kind. Because no matter how many times I forget their name, they always seem to know mine. They always know to call me “Adja,” even if we met on the street two weeks ago as I was going to drop off dinner at someone’s house. And having everyone know my name, in general, is great. But, as this is a truth-telling space, let me acknowledge the two slight issues I have with my name and lack of one.

First of all, when I walk down the street I don’t get called, “All-ugh-noel,” or “El-ah-nore,” or “Adja.” Instead, I get called “Toubab,” or foreigner, every time I see kids or someone new. But having kids running after you chanting “Toubab,” isn’t an insult in Senegalese culture– no matter how frustrating it can be. Instead, kids screaming “Toubab” aren’t trying to insult you, they are just stating a fact. It’s like pointing at a female (who identifies as a female) and saying “female.” There’s no harm done there because it’s a fact. And I can’t even get that annoyed, because when they call me “Toubab,” it’s only because they don’t know my name. Once I tell them my name is Adja, a new issue arises: everyone loves to scream my name, all the time.

Walking down the street or sitting in my room, there is one thing that I always hear: “Adja!” It is a constant chant throughout my house, throughout the streets, and, as it seems to be a popular name on billboards, throughout all of Senegal. I swear even the goats behind my house chant “Adja!” as I’m trying to sleep. And I have no right to get annoyed. But emotions don’t have rules; something I’m trying to teach myself slowly this year. I mean I’m smack-dab in the middle of an entirely different culture, and it’s completely okay to get frustrated. But then you need to learn why others don’t. So after many days of politely smiling while internally screaming when I heard the familiar “Adja “ or “Toubab” call, I realized these words were Senegalese proof that the people of Tabia Ndiaye cared, cared about me.

So, I guess these issues aren’t actually problems. More like situations I need to work out with myself. I mean, I’m from the South! I thought I would be used to the “teranga” (openness) of people, but culture shock is real, and it’s taking me some time to adjust. Now, when I hear “Adja” called by a stranger, I no longer feel creeped out or grip my water bottle as I get ready to strike if they come close. Instead, I swallow my hesitations, and I walk over there. I allow myself to realize that it’s just the culture. It’s just the people caring, them wanting to get to know me. Instead of turning into survival mode as if I’m alone in an alley, I trust my gut. And when I don’t know what to do I ask one of the many, many people in my extended family here.

And while hearing “Toubab” or “Adja” screamed from all directions still may get on my nerves some days, more often than not, it’s started to make me smile.