Senegal in Snapshots

Just little descriptions of life here, picked at random.


I rarely see anyone reading for pleasure here in Kolda, though I’m sure people do it in Dakar. Yet, newspapers abound in the form of scraps to go with bread bought at a boutique. Whenever I buy bread (or a bean or other streetfood sandwich), it is almost always put into a ripped-off piece of paper so that I can hold it, whether it be a child’s old schoolwork, an old cement sack, or a newspaper. It is done in the same way a muffin or bagel would be put into a bag in the United States. Sometimes the paper is brand new, sometimes found and re-used. I heard that a friend bought bread one morning only to find it was wrapped in a recently discarded printout of her most recent gynecological exam. The interesting thing about receiving a scrap of newspaper every morning is, it’s always in a different language. There must be a market for unread newspapers to be sent to Senegal, because my boutiquier usually tears off a fresh strip from an intact newspaper. It seems that every morning, I get a scrap of Italian, or Arabic, or English from an Indian journal. The scraps are disembodied from any identifiers such as a date. They are just snippets from other parts of the world, meeting me here in Senegal, informing me of events I can at best half understand. (Imagined Communities, anyone?)

“Right now, now, now.”

Akon, an American hip-hop/pop singer, is originally from Senegal. Not surprisingly, his music is very popular here, blasting through the tinny-sounding speakers of cell phones and small radios. His 2008 hit, “Right now (Na na na)” has a catchy hook that spills off the lips of almost every young person, making it Senegal’s informal national anthem: “I wanna make up right now, now, now” (but it really sounds like, “I wanna make LOVE right now now now.” Whatever the lyrics really are, they’re hardly risque as pop songs go, but it’s a little unnerving to be having a quiet moment at home, only to hear a group of four-year-olds in the next compound screaming, “I wanna ma la na na na na. I wanna ma la na na na na.” Some older kids are a little better at pronouncing the words, which is still funnily disturbing. I’ve asked my host siblings if they understand what they’re singing, and they said they do, sort of, not really. The tune is ubiquitous, a classic got-it-stuck-in-my-head idle humming jingle, and I hear it sung either in electronic or human form, at least a few times per week. The song is a couple years old, hardly of the “now” but it’s Akon, so it will endure as a hit, at least for a while longer.

You peel potatoes, I squeeze tomatoes

I always think the conventions that different cultures (and even different families) have in relationship to “what is done” with different fruits and vegetables is interesting. In Morocco, tomatoes were always, always peeled. And it is not easy to peel the thin skin of a fresh tomato. Here, tomatoes aren’t peeled, but instead cut at the top, and then the innards (such as seeds) are squirted out and discarded (most tomatoes here are golf-ball sized or smaller). This might not be true for fresh salads, but I have seen this done many times for cooked meals. On the other hand, potatoes here are always peeled. I have seen people go to great lengths to remove the skin from already cooked, mushy potatoes. And try this next time you’re getting misty-eyed from chopping onions: put an onion slice in your hair just above your forehead. According to the women of Senegalese villages, this prevents crying from cutting onions. As with most attempted solutions at the ever unsolvable predicament of onion crying, I can’t speak to whether it really works. It is easy to mistake an onion slice in a girl’s hair as an accidental stray piece from a powerful whack of the knife, but no, it’s there for a reason.

2 thoughts on “Senegal in Snapshots

  1. I peel cucumbers and score them with a fork, the old-fashioned way. Most people don’t bother. My mother made tomato peeling easy by first plunking them into hot water for a few seconds, then peeling them. I think that was the Chinese way. She always peeled potatoes and either boiled them or steamed them, never baked.

  2. Maya,
    We so much enjoy your beautiful blogs. Thank you.
    To this one, I am wondering if you stay healthy and what you do to avoid getting sick.
    It was nice to see that your dad Alberto sent you a message. He must be very proud of you.
    Please sent my best to him. You are lucky that the four of you have remained friendly and enjoy each other’s good fortune.
    Uncle Brian

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