Hospitality is a Way of Life

First week in village, didn’t leave my house much.  My house was comfortable and familiar, and the flow of people in and out was manageable in those first few stressful days in such a new place.  One afternoon, an elderly man came into the compound and I found him sitting on the bamboo beds in the shade.  He looked as if he belonged there and I figured he was a relative I had yet to meet, so I introduced myself to him, curious to where he was from; a village I had never heard of.  “It is very far,” he said, with a distant look in his tired eyes.  The whites of his eyes were dark brown from years of looking into the African sun, his hands rough and leathery, his heels cracking with such deep valleys it was incredible the skin had not yet uncovered bone, protected in black plastic imitation penny loafers.  With limited language skills, that was the end of the conversation and I walked away confused to the first mother in sight.  “Who is it?” I asked.  “I don’t know,” she replied nonchalantly, and rolled over.  Granted, that was the professional lounger. Knowing I could get a better answer from another, I asked available mother number 2.  “He’s a herder. He’s a guest from a different village, we don’t know him.” Nonetheless, ‘tufom’, a sweet yogurt drink was made for everyone in celebration upon the arrival of a guest.  I watched as he was given water to bathe, he ate lunch with the old men of the village in our house, that night he prayed on a special prayer mat next to Baaba, and the next morning he emerged from the extra bedroom after coffee and bread had been delivered to his room on the fancy tray.  At his entrance to the courtyard, each of the 6 mothers one-by-one stopped what they were doing to greet him heartily.  He stayed for 3 days.  He was completely in sync with the daily routine, matching his routine of prayers 5 times a day, meals 3 times, always a part of the rituals but at the same time silently apart from the others, still a foreigner wrapped in solitude of a home far away.  And then, as suddenly as he appeared, he was gone.  No phone numbers exchanged, no promise to meet again in the future, just gone; the man with the heels cracked down to the bone and the sun-spotted eyes.

This is the concept of ‘the Kodo’ or guest.  Anyone at any time can walk into a compound and expect to be not only taken in as part of the household, but also treated like royalty.  This has now happened more than once, the wanderer happening upon Mbolo Aly Sidy in search of rest or directions onward.  Many people come and go, family from nearby villages.  Every person, no matter how often they come or how little they are known by the family, they are treated with utmost respect and honor.  This extends to me, as well, as I am obviously a Kodo to everyone.  I am not from here, I am a stranger and a visitor anywhere I go.  Walking around the village, I hear someone shout, “Coumba! Come here!”  Hearing this in America, we naturally think, ‘Oh, that person must have something they need to talk to me about,’ but in Senegal, as I quickly found it, it really just means they want to get your attention.  I surprise them by obliging, anytime I have the chance, coming into their compound.  As I approach, I can see their surprised but pleased faces shining towards me.  They quickly give me the best seat, in the middle of the group so they can all see me.  If there is food around, it is quickly offered.  If food is not available, a small child is quickly sent to the boutique to purchase peanuts or cultured milk, or a bottle of soda, or a packet of tea, which then begins the process of making tea (See previous blog post: Atayaa), of which is then presented to me.  I realized, the longer I stay at a house, the more likely they are to offer me things, and also the more things they offer to me.  I have used this to determine when is the perfect amount of time to spend at a house, before they begin going out of their way to obtain food or to commit to the making of Ataaya.  Even then, anytime you leave a house, you are urged to stay for Ataaya, or if its morning; lunch, or if it’s evening; dinner, or if it’s after dinner; sunrise.

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Walking past a group engaged in eating around the bowl is a stressful event.  You can’t merely walk past a group while they are eating.  They call you over to join in, stopping their Hungry Hungry Hippos hands diving in and out of the bowl to look up and urge you to join.  “Come here,” “Eat,” “You are to eat,” “Have lunch,”  In village, they earnestly do want me to join, no matter how much food they have to go around between the number of people or if there is hardly any left, whereas in a bigger city setting, I know they are just being polite.  Sometimes they are so forceful they have even gotten up from their meal to grab my arm and bring me into the group.  Leaving a bowl is another battle.  Leaving the bowl, I must use multiple different ways of saying that I am full, “I’m full.  No I’m really full.  I hate until my stomach was full.  It was delicious.  My stomach is so full.  I am going to explode.” Responding to responses of, “You did not eat anything.  Eat more.  You ate no rice.  Was the rice not good?  …She didn’t have lunch…” I have even been physically restrained from leaving the bowl on an occasion where I really hadn’t eaten much.  They really are observant.

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I learned a lot about having a guest when I hosted a Language Seminar at my house.  I had 4 other Peace Corps volunteers and a Senegalese pulaar teacher in my house for 4 days.  Our teacher, Fatimata, is a very outspoken woman, very particular about Senegalese culture, so we learned quickly what to do and what not to do.  I learned quickly and abruptly what I was doing well as a host and what I was doing wrong (mostly the latter).  What always amazes me the most is how much my family steps it up for guests; every meal, we had twice as much as everyone else for just the 5 of us.  Our lunch bowl had an abundance of veggies, we got entire loaves of bread in the morning, we got two dinners (one from my family and one delivered from the neighbors, purely out of generosity) every night.  I learned, from Fatimata’s example, that it really is ok to demand things of your hosts.  It is actually appreciated, because they know exactly what you want and can oblige, knowing that they have satisfied their guest.  Otherwise, they will offer one thing after another hoping one of them will suit your fancy.  Offers that this are difficult as well when the words for “I like,” and “I want” are the same.  Think about that for a moment.

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Anywhere you are, at any time of the day, anything you need… It is provided.  Any village you happen upon during a trip, you could stop for the restroom in someone’s house.  Anyplace you end up at around evening time, you could walk into and be offered dinner and a place to sleep.  In need of water? It will be provided, along with Ataaya and offers to stay for the next meal.  This is not limited to people who speak the same language or dialect as you.  A stranger who walks into a house is treated with kindness and generosity, no matter who they are and whether or not they can even communicate to say thank you.  Volunteers often embark in bike trips across country, staying at any village they happen upon, eating at any house they happen upon.  There is never any question or doubt that there will be enough for the travelers.  You could ask for the shirt off of someone’s back and they would offer it to you.  The people here are amazing and unbelievably generous.

Gifts I have been given since I got here:

Peanuts, sweet yogurt drink (sometimes adorned with little buscuits like cereal), tea at any house I stay at long enough

From my Tokora (namesake, godmother): A senegalese outfit, bowl of beans, bowl of jujubes, three bracelets, earrings

Scarf from a girl with a baby

Bracelet from a girl who speaks English

Scarf from a girl who I helped make lunch

Beautiful fabric from a woman who returned from Mauritania

Fabric from my friend, Kenna Stoneman’s host family when I went to visit

Necklace from a woman on the bus

The most beautiful outfit from a young wife in the village I did the hip hop show in (she tailored it herself)

Random items from most vendors, given to me after purchasing something and chatting for a few minutes

 

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