Here in Senegal, there is no such thing as “alone time.” Culturally, it is not necessary to have a slot of the day allocated for privacy, even at bedtime. Rooms, meals, and clothing are shared with multiple family members. If you want to take a nap, go ahead and lay down on a mat outside. If you want to read or study, sit in a corner of the compound and people will let you be, but you will not be hidden. One’s laughter, frustrations, and embarrassments are public – not in the sense of being available for visual consumption by strangers, but in the sense of them not being something to hide from one’s family.
It is amusing to me that just months ago, I was living in New York fantasizing about the quintessential single-girl’s paradise: the one-bedroom apartment. Being an introvert, I feel I thrive on independence, on having a few nights a week completely to myself, while maintaining an outside circle of friends and work. How satisfying to come home after a busy day, pore over the MenuPages website, order some Indian food for delivery, finish off the bottle of wine in the refrigerator, and pop in the next Netflix DVD waiting on top of the television, all the while decompressing in delicious lonerism. Sure, I like to socialize, but I find true satisfaction in solitude. I have always been that way. Selfish or not, it’s difficult for me to be around other people constantly, much less receive a constant stream of attention.
Yet here I am, in a 23-person family in Senegal, where everything that comes out of my mouth is heard, everything I eat is tallied, and every hour I sleep is noticed. Maybe in some cosmic way, I was sent here to exercise a social muscle, to learn how to smile more often and be entertaining (and almost clown-like) to others. It is already working. Things that would normally be annoying to me are less and less so. I am in week 5 or thereabouts, and I find it eerily unremarkable to lounge around while people sing “Mariaaaaaama, Mariaaaaama,” to me solely to get my attention and a nod (Mariama is my Senegalese name). I am getting into the rhythm of engaging in extended greetings with every person who I know that I encounter, our words overlapping one another’s as is the custom.
Now for a brief word on greetings. Senegalese people have made an art of the salutation; two people speak to each other, smiling, sometimes not even looking directly at one another, while bouncing pleasantries off one another in rapid succession, so fast that they are really speaking on top of one another. It would seem that such a practice would sap the greeting of its sincerity, but the opposite is true. The English equivalent would be: How are you? Peace only. Nothing is wrong? Peace only. What’s up? Not much. How’s your father? Peace only. How’s your mother? Peace only. How are your kids? Peace only. How is your teacher? Peace only. You came back from school? Yes, I came back from school. Where is your teacher? He’s at his house. Where is your classmate Aminata? She’s at her house. Where is your classmate Demba? He’s at his house? Everyone is at their houses? Yes, everyone is at their house. Yoh! Alhamdulillah. Alhamdullilah. (Thanks be to God)
I realize it is an American luxury, even one of class, to have alone time. Further, the fact that people in the States value each other’s alone time is a major distinction. We have a hush-hush culture around the act of sleeping, as if true rest can only be achieved in a cocoon of silence with no outside interference—thus, solitude. Senegalese people, on the other hand, don’t expect the absence of noise as some sort of right. They are accustomed to sleeping with the wailing of the mosques at unthinkable hours, and to staying dormant even if someone slaps them in order to kill a mosquito mid-bite.
My alone time is therefore savored in small spurts: right before I go to bed, or in the hour I take to get ready in the morning. But slowly, I too am finding my daily activities (reading, studying, thinking, resting – oh yes, Peace Corps life is oh so grueling) can be just as enjoyable whether I have an audience or not. After all, what do I really have to hide?