Grateful for my Zimbabwean upbringing, and amazed at how Senegal thinks I am good at buying vegetables
By Mohammed Thiane
In the short journey from my residence to my usual breakfast ‘boutique’, I consider how grateful I am for my Zimbabwean upbringing – open smiles and high-volume conversation have won me a reputation in this reserved Senegalese suburb.
Many of my neighbours and acquaintances greet me, enthusiastically. “Americain!” they call me.
They mistake my origin by my exaggerated American accent learned through TV and movies, and the many American influences we were exposed to as youth in Zimbabwe.
Initially, my apparent connection to a wealthy first-world country cost me dearly. I have now learned that negotiation is commonplace – more so than in Zimbabwe.
There, I was confident on how to score the best deals on daily tomatoes and greens.
Here, where most of what is worn or consumed is imported, my ‘fake’ accent belies money, and prices were doubled consistently until friends and family educated me, and my use of the local languages met a certain standard.
‘Teraanga’ defines the incredible generosity and open-handedness of the Senegalese people. To a fault, they share what they have, and expect it reciprocated to equal extent.
After a year amongst the people of Dakar, I’ve grown accustomed to the mix of West-African French, interspersed with traditional Wolof, and Arabic.
They have tolerated my slow adjustment to their customs and expectations…the local residents even slowly learning to accommodate my constant singing.
Unlike Zimbabwe, where a well-sung song would draw children to dance with you, here, the children gather to laugh at my inappropriate noise. With an exquisite culture of beautiful music, dance and vibrant fashion, comes a balance of everything having its place. The public street is not the place for my carefree caterwauling.
I take my seat at the tented breakfast spot – damp benches and a table fill the space. Most meals in Senegal are eaten as a family, shared around a large dish and served on a rug while everyone sits on their haunches and eats with a well-washed right hand or a spoon.
Good conversation, and just enough food to bring you back on time, for the next meal.
I’m greeted warmly by Modou – the ‘Breakfast Guy’.
His clothing is pristine; his glasses bought in Italy where he lived for 8 years. Yet, his utensils and equipment are crude and well used. The sanitised water he will use throughout the morning is stored in large, recycled, covered tubs, and his single pan sits over a gas burner. If the tools get the job done, they are adequate.
Material surroundings are relatively unimportant to most Senegalese. They are content with good food, the latest Iphone, and an electric fan, to alleviate the heavy heat and pesky mosquitos.
Physical appearance and duty, however, are all important. They are proud of who they are, their religion, their traditional beliefs, and how they behave.
I take a call from a friend abroad, on a WhatsApp video call, and immediately draw a crowd. My exuberant English, laughter and gesticulations are pure entertainment for the adults and children alike.
Forgetting myself for a minute, I use particular actions to relay a story and am immediately rebuked by a number of people around me. “Hey! What are you doing?! We don’t do that around here!”
Their criticism is genuine, and they shake their heads at my ignorance, whilst still peering over my shoulder to try and be part of the spectacle.
Fatou, the water vendor, laughs coyly at my bashful apologies. She is relaxed and confident as she convinces the multitude of taxi drivers that her drinking water is what they need.
Contained in vacuum-sealed, 500ml plastic bags, the water provides welcome relief to all who buy, and an income for Fatou.
Married at 16, and a mother of 2 by 20, she is grateful for the work. Many women in Senegal are married very young and have minimal education. However, a natural ability to see an opportunity to make money – albeit briefly – is shared by men and women alike. ‘Enough for the day’ is a principle shared by most of those ‘employed’ in the informal market.
I have come to appreciate the vibe this creates. It leaves room for discussion and friendship without the rush of commutes and budget pressures.
Modou prepares the mix of onions and beaten egg. This is standard. Anything extra you can buy and bring with you for the meal. It will be shared.
As in every culture, the ironies are many. Personal hygiene and cleanliness are very important – many of these principles taught and honoured by everyone through rigorous teaching of the Qur’an.
However, another fundamental principle they uphold, is the preservation of life…including that of the insects and rodents they share their space with.
They look at me with wonder as I scrape the surface off of my bread roll, where a green fly and his friend had perched for some time while Modou was showing me the highlights of last night’s basketball game, on his Iphone 12.
The utilities infrastructure, especially in Dakar, is exceptional. There is rarely a power-cut; running water for sanitation (not drinking – I learned this the hard way!), and rubbish collections are consistent, but litter is not a concern, and animal excrement and food waste lie where they fall. “Food for the cats,” I’m told.
It’s 10.30 am, and I’m joined at the table by a number of other men. The heat is already building, and we are glad of the cool of the tent and the shade of a nearby tree.
The only one to be seen for some distance. The day begins late, as most people hide from the sun for the majority of the day, and work, socialise and play well into the night. Food stalls stay open til midnight or beyond.
In Zimbabwe, I was considered extremely tall at 6’4, and relatively dark-skinned. In Senegal, I am dwarfed by ebony giants, some of whom sit near me now. Obsessed with physical fitness, which adds bulk to their regal frames, it is highly unlikely I would pick a fight in a hurry.
Despite the limited infrastructure and lack of financial resources, sport is extremely popular in Dakar. Senegalese wrestling, football, basketball, volleyball, are all played in designated, bare grounds or on the beaches.
The untapped potential in so many of the statuesque Senegalese is clear immediately. Their natural reach, athleticism, competitive nature and motivation merely waiting for the world to discover the next world-star among these sober, patient, ever-dutiful Muslim peoples.
Thiane is a Senegalese who grew up in Zimbabwe, and is writing for The Sunday Express, and broadcasting for Jit Television from Dakar
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