cultural exchange

My Blog Post on the U.S.A.

One-third of my job, goal-wise at least, is Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.The thing is, I’m not sure I had any grasp on what being an American meant to me. There’s nothing like living outside your country as an adult, I guess, to lend a little perspective. So here’s the perspective I’m starting to harbor.

Holy fucking shit, I love the U.S. I love it like I never thought I would. I love it not in spite of, but all the more for the millions of Americans who I disagree with, whose views I find revolting, whose consuming habits I hate and whose lifestyles I’ll never adapt — honestly! It’s the weirdest thing, and it doesn’t make any sense that things I hate would factor in to make me love something more. Regardless, there it is –the fight, the passion, the struggle — the American spirit, to me. And most of all the true diversity – not just diversity of race, religion, sexuality, or a million other identity traits – but the diversity of ideas! The way you can strike up a conversation with anyone on the street, a coffee shop, a bar, a waiting room, and chances are you could find something you two see eye-to-sternum on.

At site, I’m just isolated enough to not know about things when they happen, but connected enough to obsess over them online once I find out. When I was states-side, I’d follow the news pretty regularly but pretty passively, to gather information. Now, I’m invested. When I was still in training, I watched polls and stressed and missed sleep for the election. But since I’ve permanently installed, we’ve had many national tragedies. My more well-connected Senegalese friends started mentioning things they had seen on the news. My vocabulary doesn’t include violent terms (Senegal is unbelievably safe), but I could recognize Connecticut or Boston and that look on their faces. So then I’d rush to find a computer with mounting panic.

For whatever reason (I’ve got some theories), I’ve become very emotional about the news. I mean, with these horrible events, who couldn’t, right? The answer to that would be me, pre-September 2012. Not so much now; now slowly crying with 5 different news tabs open seems pretty normal. My inner worrywart threatens and pleads with the Union in turn, “Don’t you dare go to shit without me!” And in reminder, “I come back fall of 2014, please hold on ‘til then.”

This morning I finished Drop Dead Healthy by A.J. Jacobs. In it, Jacobs talks about outsourcing worry. He agrees with a girl to a worry swap, in essence: her worrying for him about his book deadline and he for her college application process, and all worrying by extension of the subjects. Brilliant, right? So, I thought through the list of wackiest and most trustworthy people I know to swap with me, but who could handle worrying about the whole future of the U.S.? There’s just too much to think about. So instead, I’m going to attempt to diffuse my worry into your hands, my dear blog readership (assuming you’re still out there). So go on, take your pick of topic. Give Oklahoma some special attention, please. And I’ll try to get some sleep tonight.

Hilarious Cultural Quirks – Greetings

that you probably have to be here to appreciate

I’ve mentioned before how greetings are important, but I haven’t gone into detail. They are very repetitive and formalized with set answers, but can be pretty funny. Questions go something like, “How is your family?” “How is the heat?” “How are the mosquitos?” “Are you in peace?” “Where is _____ (any one of your 50 family members)?” and a million other parallel questions. The answers are set too, and always extremely to moderately positive like “I’m in peace” “Heat only!” “They’re over there” etc. It doesn’t really matter if you match up questions with answers, since they all pretty much fit, and throughout the exchange everybody will undoubtedly interject a few “Peace Only”s and “Praise God”s.

And then if there is a lull in the greeting chatter, people frequently start it back up with a “Ca va?” –a French greeting that has got to be spoken more in Senegal than in France itself. As if they haven’t already asked in detail 25 questions relating to “How’s it going?” Cracks me up.

Last names are also an important part of the greetings, especially with more formal, older people. You just stand there repeating each others’ names back and forth quickly. It’s really funny.  When greeting elders, religious leaders (Imams) and people of importance, not making eye contact is the more respectful thing to do. Which is opposite of our culture and hard to get used to, though Brittany would fit in well. In some of the religious sects, men and women do not greet each other which has been awkward a few times for me after I’ve extended a hand. Otherwise, hand shaking is an integral part of greeting and no inquiry about one’s health would be complete without it.

Wolof Proverbs

A few proverbs to illustrate some facets of the culture here.


Slowly, slowly to catch a monkey in the forest.
 ndank ndank mooy jaap golo ci ñaay.
The first proverb I learned and the one I most often utilize, this guy is kind of our equivalent “Slow and steady wins the race,” substituting our tortoise and hare for a monkey and trapper. I throw this down on a daily basis whether being praised or harassed for my Wolof skills. It’s easier than explaining the plateaus and challenges involving language acquisition. (Side note, I’ve only seen one monkey so far which I’m quite fine with. I was driving by and saw him walking along the dirt road. My time in Costa Rica taught me monkeys are exciting and exotic the first time you see them, and quickly become terrifying shortly after).

I won’t buy a serpent in the hole. duma jend jay ci pax.
Everyone tries to rip everyone off here, and it’s only worse (I hate to say) if you have pale skin. So you never pay for anything until after you have it, and then try to pay with exact change if possible. It’s a lesson everybody has to learn the hard way once, and then you will always remember. You can also use this in jest when telling people you’ll sell your age if they’ll do a certain dance move, which I frequently do.

People are medicine for people. ñit ni lay garabam.
A beautiful (and difficult for us Americans who value privacy and solitude) aspect of Senegalese culture is the importance placed on community, relationships and simply being together. Sitting, shooting the shit and joking with each other are their cure-alls.

A stick that has a long time in the water does not change into a crocodile. bant lu mu yagg yagg ci ndox du sopëliku jesig.
No matter how much I integrate, become fluent in Wolof, tie babies on my back and learn to cook Senegalese dishes, I’ll still be an American. I’ll still be me. And more surprisingly, I’ve found I identify as a Southerner first, and an American second. Who would have thought?

Debt does not have a younger sibling. bor du am rakk.
People ask each to loan them money all the time here, and in the culture it’s not acceptable to ask your friend to pay you back, no matter how big the loan is. So you never loan anyone an amount of money that you can’t bear to part with, even if it’s your sister. But I suppose you can use this for the second time someone asks you for money. I’m really wary of being viewed as another walking NGO-handout by my community, so I never loan anyone money and have never actually said this to anyone.

You are asking a frog about his tail. dangay laaj mbot u genam.
Basically to use when you’re asking a nonsensical question, like something a crazy person would ask. I don’t really ever use this one, but a friend of my family’s taught it to me and I thought it was a little funny, so I included it.

Community Based Training

Community Based Training

I leave again tomorrow for a fortnight stint at my CBT site. My family in Bayakh, the Amars and Jahumpas, are wonderful and plentiful. There are three buildings in my compound, and I think only about 15? people live there total, but there are constantly relatives and friends from all over Bayakh and Senegal visiting, so it’s hard to be sure. I still don’t know everyone’s names in my family, and figuring out the family relationships is far, far beyond my grasp. (This is further convoluted by the fact that polygamy is common). Since one of the only phrases I can understand in Wolof is What is her name? I get called out a lot.

It’s difficult to explain how hilarious, stressful, and absurd it is to be dropped off into a family without knowing how to communicate anything. The first few days I spent a lot of time staring off into space while my family members called my name repeatedly. It’s exhausting listening to a constant stream of noises you can’t even distinguish into words or phrases, but it’s also amazing how frequently you can understand the gist of a conversation or question without understanding a single word that was said. Non verbal communication and intuition are my best tools here.

The first full day I was in Bayakh, I went down the wrong road in search of my compound. Halfway down realizing I was lost, I turned around to head back to the main road when I was called over by a woman under a shade tree. It was lunchtime, and I was ushered into a family’s compound where I was forced to eat with 15 people and fan myself (that crazy white girl sweating buckets wandering around in the hottest part of the day!). There was so much laughing while we tried to communicate in broken French, and they sent people out in search of someone who spoke English. Finally, a boy I recognized came by the compound (I think he is related to my family somehow?), and he agreed to show me back to my house. However not before we stopped by his house, and his neighbor’s house of course. By the time we made it back to my compound, I sat down for my 4th lunch with my family!