What not to do when travelling to Senegal…
• Not greeting everybody, truly everybody! When entering a room one has to greet with a handshake and a few customary greetings (good if they are in French, but even better if they are in Wolof)
Here are a few customary greetings in Wolof:
Salam Aleikum – Hello (always reply with ‘Maleikum Salam’)
Nanga def? – How are you?
Mangi fi – I’m fine (literally means ‘I’m here)
Jangi si jamn?/ Jangi noce? – How are you? (literally means ‘Are you at peace?’)
Mangi si jamn./ Mangi noce – I’m fine (literally means ‘I’m in peace’)
No tudu? – What’s your name?
Ana wa keur geu?- How is your family? (It is polite to ask how a person’s family is going even if you don’t know them)
Ñungi fi/ Ñungi si jamn- They are fine (literally means ‘they are here’ and ‘they are at peace’)
Mangi tudu …- My name is…
No sant?- What is your last name?
It is considered very impolite when you don’t greet somebody. When you walk in the street and see someone you know, even if it is someone you don’t know very well, you need to acknowledge them!
If you greet an older person and you are a female, you need to bend your legs a little while shaking their hand.
By the way…in Senegal, you don’t ‘shake’ hands, you ‘take’ the hand of the person. Don’t grip firmly like it is common in western culture, as this will be seen as a sign of aggression.
• Eating from the opposite side of a dish is very rude. Only eat from the space in front of you.
• Using the left hand is considered very dirty, as it is used to wash oneself after using the toilet- never use the left hand for anything; shaking hands, giving money, taking things from others, giving presents…
• Don’t trust people blindly- this might seem like an obvious statement, but compared to the west, Senegalese joke around a lot and can also be described as two-faced, so just be aware of who you are engaging with.
• If you make the impression that you have money, there will always be an expectation of you to give. If you don’t have enough, don’t pretend you do, especially if you are white!
• Don’t criticize Islam. This shouldn’t be done anywhere, but even more so in Senegal where 92 percent of the population is Muslim. Respect Islam- it is a beautiful religion like all others.
• Don’t wear really short clothes like miniskirts for example. Senegalese wear that to the beach- so if you walk around the city with really short shorts, don’t be surprised to feel a little out of place.
• Please don’t bargain like a tourist! For some reason, many tourists think that being rude and loud is the same thing as bargaining. No. Just no. Greet your taxi driver and ask how his day is going (even better if you can do it in Wolof) and then ask his price for a certain destination. If the price is too high, which it certainly will be, not only because you are white, but also because there is an expectation to bargain, then tell him the price you would like. If he doesn’t agree, it’s ok, there are thousands of taxis everywhere.
And.. P.S. the walking away trick nearly always works!
• Don’t try and convince people that vampires, ghosts, spirits and witches don’t exist, because in Senegal they do. Ask people and they will tell you many stories for sure!
• Don’t expect people to always speak English or even French. There are many traditional languages in Senegal and French is not one of them. Just because it is the official language, doesn’t mean people appreciate it, especially in the ghetto or in the countryside.
• Don’t react too seriously towards marriage advances. Senegalese love to joke around and to flirt. If you are a woman, many men will ask you to marry them, but don’t take them seriously, rather it is a compliment equivalent to the one in western countries meaning: You’re beautiful/nice!
• Don’t forget to bring a mosquito net- especially if you are going outside of Dakar. Even though the malaria rate has gone down a lot, there are a lot of mosquito’s at night especially during the rainy season (August, September, October in Dakar).
On the other hand, chill. Just relax. People are too scared about various sicknesses and everything. Unless you are going into the countryside and staying there for a long time, there is no need to worry, just be logic and hygienic.
• Don’t come early or on time- wherever you are going. If people invite you to their house, come 2 hours later..
• Don’t be scared of dancing – the only secret to being good at dancing is to let yourself go and that is something the Senegalese have mastered for sure! Don’t think about anything, just let yourself be carried away by the music. If you come to Senegal you definitely need to go dancing- coming from the west, one can learn a lot.
• Don’t take things seriously- relax and enjoy, drink Senegalese tea for hours and talk and talk and talk- and don’t forget to joke around!
• Don’t criticize Youssou N’dour, M’ballax, la lutte, or football ! Youssou Ndour is the country’s great musical idol, even Barak Obama shook his hand for longer than he did to the Senegalese president!
Mballax, Senegal’s national music genre is loved by everyone, big or small. (Ah yes, Youssou Ndour is a Mballaxman so that would explain something). Listen to Titi, Coumba Gawlo, Pape Diouf… and watch the music videos. Dancing Mballax (waving your legs and arms in all directions) is so difficult!
• Don’t reinforce the stereotype of the Toubab. Ok so there are many stereotypes about Toubabs. A nice thing you could do as a white tourist, would be not to reinforce them so that “together we can kill all these stereotypes”
If you can don’t act/show as if you had heaps of money; try and not be too naïve, or at least hide it? Everyone is naïve when they are new to a country, but…
Please don’t act lose. Everyone is free to do how they like, but there is an immense stereotype that white women are easy to get. In some way that is true, because I have heard of many women just coming here to have ‘fun’. It would be nice if not everybody would be judged in this way.
Ummmm don’t marry a rastaman… I don’t know why but many Toubab love rastaman, if you see a mixed couple, the woman will surely be with a rastaman. Love is love and you cannot control it, but it would be nice if all the rastaman could put it out of their head that not all white women like rastaman…
• Don’t be scared of traffic, goats, horses, colourful buses crammed with people and taxis, because there are a lot, a lot of them here, especially in the ghetto. Traffic is unruly, uncontrollable and unpredictable for sure!
• Don’t worry too much about money- Senegal is very cheap and you can find beautiful things for almost nothing. And food!!!
• Don’t wear ugly clothes- Senegalese have flair, the women here are very ‘coquettes’. I don’t know why, but many tourists think that if they come to Senegal/Africa, it will be so hot/dirty that they shouldn’t bring nice/good-looking clothes. Forget jewelry, make-up and nice shoes… Unless you are planning on hiking all the time, please have some style!
• Don’t dislike sugar- Senegalese put a lot of sugar into their drinks, whether it is juice, coffee (7 teaspoons), or tea, so be ready for sugar shock. By the way if you ever come to Senegal, café Touba is the best!
• Don’t disrespect the Bayefall and the Yayefall. If you see a rastaman/woman in colourful clothes, long wooden necklaces and carrying a calebasse with a few coins in it, then what you see is a Bayefall/Yayefall.
They devote themselves to religion and are very much respected, so if you cross one of them don’t see them as a regular beggar. They are really open-minded people who have decided to only do good in their lives. Many of them live in the streets and there is also a strong weed-smoking culture within their society.
• Don’t think that you will get accustomed to Senegal in two weeks- Really? You came to Senegal for 2 weeks and expect to tellpeople when you get back home: I know Senegal, I’ve been there.
Sometimes it is very hard to get free time off from work that’s true, but if you do come to Senegal for only 14 days then you have no idea about this country and its people so please don’t act like you do.
• Don’t think of Senegal as one culture- this country is a melting pot of ethnicities, cultures and languages. If you really want to understand all of Senegal’s different people, learn French, Wolof, Diola, Peul, Serer, Mandinko…
• Don’t think you have seen Senegal if you have only seen Dakar. That is like the people who say:
-I’ve been to France. The French are so rude!
-So where in France have you been?
-Oh. I see.
There is much more to Senegal than only Dakar- go and visit Saint-Louis, Mbour, Kaolack, Touba, the Casamance region…
• Don’t talk to people about gays/lesbians. Homosexuality is not something that is respected, but rather that is abhorred. Accept that this is a different country, a different culture and a different religion. Maybe if you have lived here for 2 years and truly understand this country, then you can (if you want) bring up this subject.
It is something very delicate to talk about.
• Don’t stand out too much… Ok you will always stand out because you are a Toubab, but try to adapt and integrate. Learn the local language and act like people do here- you will see it will be really appreciated.