Teranga Welcomes a Daughter
I was unpacking my suitcase in my new apartment in Dakar when I came across a pile of a dozen phone numbers that I had accumulated in the month since arriving in Senegal. I did not remember many of the names; most of the numbers were unsolicited offers from men who had approached me and in a matter of minutes asked me if I was married, if I had found a Senegalese boyfriend yet, and if I could take them back to the United States with me. There were professors, lawyers, waiters, bus passengers, beggars, bankers and taxi drivers in that pile. Among them all, there was only one number that I had actually asked for.
Amse. I met him in Marché Sandaga, one of my least favorite places in the world. There, already narrow streets are lined with fabric boutiques, electronic equipment stands, wandering fruit sellers and vendors hovering over three square feet of carefully aligned sellable goods. In front of each store, there is an exterior wall of West African men: the vendors and the touts. Walking past them as a Toubab, and a woman, often feels like walking the gauntlet. You stiffen up, look straight ahead, avoid eye contact with all people and try to make it safely to the other end.
Meanwhile, you are bombarded by men who come up to you and stick by your side magnetically, assailing you with personal questions meant to force a close friendship thereby winning your loyalty, and eventually, your business. Amse popped out from a fabric store and started off like all the hawkers do. “Bonjour! Welcome to Senegal. Ca va? Nga def?”
I have found that the best way to make a quick break from the mass of overly-aggressive sales men who are volunteering themselves as marriage potential is to tell the men that I am going to meet my husband who works in the city. After lunch near his office, we will go to our friend’s shop on the other end of the market. My imaginary afternoon lets the hawkers know I have lived in Dakar too long to be tricked into a Toubab price and that my husband negates any relationship possibilities.
I gave this spiel to Amse, and expected him to politely leave, but instead he burst out laughing. Because of my rusty French, I had actually said that I worked in the market, and was on my way to the shop of my husband, on the other end.
“I have heard a lot of stories before,” he said “but I have never had a Toubab tell me that we share a job!” I was embarrassed and wanted to be angry, but his good looks got even better while he laughed. I could not help but smile, and then suddenly we were sharing a moment of genuine laughter. Before leaving the market, I visited his friend’s fabric shop, and on my way out, he accompanied me to the bus stand, where I happily stuffed his phone number into my pocket.
“A good memory, but an unlikely long-term friendship,” I thought as I threw his number away with the rest of them. After finishing my unpacking, I made a list of apartment furnishings I needed to buy. I went to ask my former host-mother, bargain shopper extraordinaire, where the cheapest place to get these things was. Her expert opinion was exactly what I feared it would be: Marché Sandaga. I set off the next day.
I dreaded having to put on my invisible armor just to buy dish towels and clothes pins. I delayed going to the market by running other errands first, but after I had withdrawn money from the ATM, I had nothing left to do but face the gauntlet. As I walked to Sandaga, I braced myself. I was not in the mood to deal with any men or their superficial offers. Sure enough, nearly four blocks before I got there, I was spotted.
“Bonjour! Welcome to Senegal. Ca va? Nga def? My name is Pop.” I ignored him, but he continued the one-sided conversation by asking me about my country, my life here in Senegal and, of course, my marital status. I tried to gently blow him off by giving him disinterested one-word answers, but that did not work. His personal questions and offers continued to the point of making me uncomfortable. Finally, I asked him to leave me alone. I was not interested in his uninvited company.
He changed from French to broken English, probably to make sure I understood the insult draped in foreign policy analysis. “What? Why you no friend of mine? Why you come here making war? Why no peace? You hate Senegalese people. Americans love war.”
One straw can break the back of a camel and three words can break a polite façade. I stopped. I lifted my sunglasses. I looked him in the eyes for the first time.
“I don’t hate Senegalese people, I just hate you, Pop. You have been following me for 10 minutes even though I have asked you several times to leave me alone. You have been asking me personal questions and making me disgusting offers. You stole all the patience I had, and then insulted me when it was gone. I am here because I love Senegal and its people, but one day I will leave because I hate men like you.”
I stunned him long enough to get a good five feet in front of him, before he caught up with me again. “Mademoiselle, I am so sorry. I did not mean to make you hate me. I just wanted to be your friend. Please, come to my house for tea. You could share lunch with my family and meet my mother. You will see that I am not a bad person.”
I instantly pitied the woman who was his mother. I could not believe that he was still following me so I carried on with my shopping pretending that he was not. I tuned out his apologies and walked up to a small stand that seemed to sell most of the things on my list. After the vendor and I had bargained to a price that we agreed on, I opened my purse to get my wallet and could not find it. Panic set in. I checked all my pockets. Empty. I rechecked my bag. No wallet. I took everything out of my bag, and shook it. I patted myself down. Nothing. By now the vendor and several men standing nearby realized what had happened and offered their advice.
“Recheck your bag. Empty your pockets.”
“Look around on the ground. Maybe it fell out as you were taking things out.”
“Where have you been today? Where did you come from?”
“Was there anyone who followed you today? Someone who would not leave you alone?”
I looked at Pop. Sure, he had bothered me to the point of losing my cool, but I could not remember him getting close enough to reach into my purse or pockets.
“Mademoiselle,” the man repeated. “Did anyone follow you today?”
Sheepishly, I hesitated. Stealing is so socially unacceptable in Senegal that thieves who are caught are usually severely beaten by the public, sometimes to death. But, it was strange how Pop had followed me after I insulted him. Maybe the rejection had made him bitter enough to seek revenge, and take what he still could from me. The one thing I hated more than blaming an innocent person was to be taken advantage of.
“The only person who I have talked to today is…him,” I said, pointing to Pop. My eyes met his for the second time that day, and instantly I knew I was mistaken. He had taken nothing from me but my patience and time.
“Katie!” someone cried from the other side of the street. “Katie! Hello! It’s been a long time. Do you remember me?”
Before anyone could react to my accusation, we all turned to look and see Amse coming across the street towards us.
“Katie. How have you been? What are you doing here? Have you met my brother, Pop?”
The relief I felt seeing a trusted, familiar face was almost strong enough to cover the embarrassment of having been wrong. I explained to Amse that I had lost my wallet and how everyone, including Pop, was helping me to find it. The group of men gathered together to help decide what the best course of action would be. They decided to send Pop and Amse with me to retrace my steps to the ATM where I had started my day; three pair of eyes could scan the streets for my wallet better than mine alone.
So we set out, hoping to find it either where it fell from my pocket or where a thief had thrown it after stealing all the cash. After an hour of backtracking and searching, we arrived at the ATM where the guard had my wallet. It had fallen out of my pocket or purse, and he had picked it up and kept it in hopes that I would return that day. Seemingly just as relieved as I was, Amse and Pop insisted on helping me find all the things on my shopping list that day, since the wallet fiasco had sucked out most of my enthusiasm for bargaining and navigating through the city.
In the afternoon hours that he spent helping me, Pop never once mentioned the harsh words we exchanged. I so badly wanted to explain that it was not him that I hated, it was the way the world confined him, as a man, to see me, as an American woman, as either money or sex. Amse had the chance to have met me at a time in my stay in Dakar, when I still believed a shared laugh between men and women could be simply that. By the time I met Pop, I had started to believe that a world defined by men offered women only one option: to tell him that she wants no part of it.
At the end of the day, Amse and his brother graciously received my profuse thanks and embarrassed expressions of gratitude. They said they were just sharing with me Senegal’s teranga, or hospitality.
“Teranga,” Amse explained, “is considered a long-term investment. If you welcome a person into your life, God will see to it that someone shows you the same welcome sometime in the future.”
Pop elaborated. “It will be a reward to you or your family. Traditionally, a Senegalese mother welcomes guests into her house so that her children will be well-received by others on their journeys.”
As I picture Pop and Amse’s mother welcoming me into their house, the pity for her I felt hours earlier remained. Her son who had bombarded me with sexual harassment could never imagine a vendor at a foreign market doing the same to her, not necessarily because he thought she deserved better, but because she would never be in that situation. In Pop’s mind, she was waiting at home, ready to welcome anyone who arrived on her doorstep. She was investing in the reciprocity that would one day benefit her sons, not her daughters. They would, after all, be too busy ruling over the domestic sphere, waiting for their husbands or sons to bring home guests.