Cultural Controversies in Sénégal

When I arrived in Sénégal, I was overwhelmed. With sounds (cars beeping their horns, the imam calling for prayer, the goats bleating at night), with colours (yellow taxis everywhere on the streets, those white square houses, people in traditional clothes…) and with smells (stepping out of the aeroplane,I smell the sea- a saltiness mixed into the Senegalese wind.)

1. In Sénégal, everyone eats together from one main dish. Traditionally you eat with your hands and only old people eat with a spoon. It is very important to only eat from the space in front of you- logically it is very rude to eat from the opposite side of the dish, it is as if you would be eating from somebody else’s plate!

2. Greetings! Greetings are very very important! If you walk in the street and you pass someone you know without greeting them it is considered very rude! If you enter a room you have to greet everybody by taking (not shaking) their hand. If there are older men in the room it is better for a woman to wait for the man to make the first step. Some men are not allowed to take a woman’s hand because of their religious position.

3. Never use the left hand to greet, eat, or pass something to somebody. In Sénégal the left hand is used for ablutions etc. so that it is considered the ‘dirty’ hand. It is easy to forget this as a westerner. Once, I was buying coffee, I grabbed the coffee with my right hand and gave the money with my left…. The woman just stared at me 😉 Never, ever eat with your left hand!!!

4. You have to get accustomed to polygamy. Islam allows men to have up to 4 wives if he can afford it. Most men with whom I talked told me they would like to have 4 wives. Very few told me they only wanted 1. On the other hand most women I talked to, told me they would prefer to be the ‘only’ wife…. Some women are fine with polygamy because they respect their religion. Some say it is something inevitable.

5. Toubab. That is the word you will hear all the time if you are a white person in Sénégal. And that’s exactly what it means: ‘white person’ in Wolof. It is not meant as an insult. If you are white (and live in ghetto where you are the only white person, like I am currently doing) you will feel a bit like a celebrity. You truly have to get used to being stared at and called after.

6. Sénégal (a bit like France), has a strong flirting culture. This is very different for the anglophone population. When I first came to Australia, it took me some time to understand that flirting is not something common. While in Australia you only flirt with people when you are truly ‘interested’, in France flirting is often seen as a game. (If you are a woman) In Sénégal many men will tell you they want to ‘marry’ you- in fact they are just complimenting you, and most of the time they are not serious. It is common to tease and flirt with others so get used to it! You also need to be aware that in Sénégal white women are often stereotyped for being ‘easy’, so just be careful how people act towards you and make sure you prove them wrong! 😉

7. When you meet a person who is older than you, it is very rude to look them in their eyes. If you are a woman, when you shake their hand you should bow your knees a little.

8. Learn how to bargain! If you don’t bargain, people won’t respect you! Do not look too eager to buy, even if you really want it, always ask for a price lower than you are willing to pay as the seller will go up anyway. If nothing works, start to walk away; very often the seller will call you back and accept the price you stated. Be careul not to insult the seller by stating a price that is too low.

9. You should also be ready to be confronted with gender inequalities. As a white person you will not have to do anything, but observing gender inequality can be confronting. Men do not help with house chores. Some do wash their washing, but that is about it. The kitchen is also something that is only reserved for women. When eating, one woman normally gives out the food to the rest of the family.

10. Sénégal is the country of the ‘téranga’ (téranga means hospitality in Wolof). And like no other country in Africa, you will be welcomed and treated like family. In Sénégal if you enter a family’s house and it is time to eat, you will be obliged to sit down and join. I love how in Sénégal everyone is very familial. Honestly, people in Sénégal are very kind and generous!

11. In Sénégal everyone has the TV on almost 24/7. If you are invited somewhere and you don’t know what to say, you just watch TV… 😉 And then when something comes to your mind you continue the conversation. Ah yes and Nollywood (the equivalent of Hollywood in Nigeria) is very popular!

12. When you go out and pass the house of a friend/family you always go inside to say hello. Sometimes you stay only to greet, sometimes you stay until lunch. A simple trip to the tailor can therefore take several hours even if the tailor only lives 30 mins from your house.

13. Sénégalese people are very relaxed. When I came here I had to adjust my walking pace… 😉 Taking everything easy transforms your day and is a nice change from the stressed western culture.

14. Don’t be afraid to dance! Senegalese people are very very good dancers and this can be intimidating, especially because they have been dancing ever since they can walk… But in Senegal dancing is about letting go and I think that if you let go, anybody is a good dancer! Just enjoy the moment and be able to laugh at yourself as well! If there is one country in the world that you need to see, it truly is Senegal! It is a country so rich in culture and so full of kindness that you are destined to have an amazing time…


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