We hope that all of you have had a wonderful Christmas and New Year and are enjoying time with family and friends. Christmas time is a bit different here in Senegal. Most people celebrate by having a large family dinner on Christmas Eve as well as going to church if they are Christians. Christmas day is just a day off from work that is spent by resting at home. We had an unconventional Christmas and while we missed our friends, family, and even snow, we had some great experiences.
On Christmas Eve during the day, we went to a baptism ceremony for the child of one of our co-workers, Rokhaya. All Senegalese have baptism ceremonies on the eighty day after the birth. Both Muslims and Christians follow this practice. We had been to one baptism before, but only the part after the ceremony; we saw the mother, who gets very dressed up, walk slowly from the ceremony tent to her house while everyone honours her. This time, we were able to take part in the ceremony. We were shown to actual chairs close to the front of the tent, where the man in the neighbourhood who is the representation of the marabout (religious leader) of the Mouride brotherhood, sat upon a large armchair above the rest of us. Several members of the brotherhood had been chanting some teachings of the marabout for hours into a sound system for the whole neighbourhood to hear (the Wolof cannot have an event without ear-drum breaking levels of noise…music, speaking, singing, etc.). All the men sat down on mats when the father came in and there were many speeches. Then his first wife came out with the baby (of the second wife) as well as some female family members. The baby was blessed by the father, the representative of the marabout, the local imam, and older members of the family. He was also given his name at this time. We were also given the baby to hold, which is a high honour, as the father welcomed us and explained some of the customs and how an animal would be slaughtered in order to give thanks to God for what he had given. He mentioned that this was like our “American” Thanksgiving although he did not know if we slaughtered animals. We did not end up seeing our co-worker because she was still at the salon getting her hair and makeup done, but we received kola nuts (a caffeine containing nut that is not delicious tasting) and ginger candies. That is one of the greatest and most beautiful things about this country; no matter where you are, people are giving you part of what they have. At this ceremony, they handed out heaping bowls of a porridge made from millet and yogurt. No one is sent home without having received something.
Christmas Eve evening meant that most of Malika came to our house to watch the Jesus film in Wolof (although we lost electricity half-way through) and then eat dinner all together around midnight. This year there were about 200 people who came.
For the week between Christmas and New Year’s, we had the first training for the new educators at work. Last year, there were 20 groups in the surrounding neighbourhoods, but this year, there will be only 8 due to a loss of funding from the Canadian government. There are 2 educators who have previously taught the program, and 6 new educators. The first day of our training was pushed aside as the president of Senegal declared a holiday on the Monday in lieu of the fact that Christmas had been on a Sunday. He decided this at 10:30pm the night before. So the next day was spent on teaching the educators how to teach, and the last 3 days were spent on teaching them the first 6 lessons. They seemed to catch on quickly, and they really enjoyed some of the games and new additions that we had added to the program, such as reproductive organs Bingo (to aid in memory retention of the names and functions of organs of reproduction). We find it much easier to make friends more quickly with this set of educators, as we are now the ones with seniority/experience, and as we know the language much better than last year. The girls even taught me (Jessica) how to make attaye (a strong green tea) so that David would not have to find a second wife. This is frequently something I hear; if I let our house help know that his jeans are clean enough and don’t need to be scrubbed more, they say, “Daouda is going to find a second wife”, or if I don’t know where he is or if he is coming to lunch, the same phrase comes up. David’s favourite answer for this is, “One wife, one problem, two wives, two problems” which is a Wolof proverb.
We’ve also experienced some of the practices surrounding a funeral. One of our co-workers, Cheikh, lost his older brother unexpectedly. After the last day of our training, the team from work (supervisors, educators, volunteers) walked from the centre to Cheikh’s family house. We walked slowly with our heads and shoulders covered in a veil/scarf (for the women). Once we arrived there, we said our condolences to Cheikh and his mother and then just sat there with others. Apparently most of the family and friends will come to the house when there is a death, and sit quietly with the family for the whole day. Not speaking unless the family speaks first. They are simply there to share their grief and while it sounds strange to us, it seemed very comforting without being invasive.
During this season of “Christian” holidays and also my (Jessica’s) birthday, we have been overwhelmed with everyone’s generosity and kindness. During the training that also happened to be my birthday, the educators and supervisors sang ‘Happy birthday’ in English, Wolof, French, and I think, Pulaar (another language found in Senegal and surrounding countries) while they made me dance in the middle of the circle. I received a candy, a bus pass, a bottle of homemade ginger juice, a little pottery dish, chocolate, a tunic, Indian food for dinner, and more singing when I got home. At home, we have many guests right now and we all shared what we were thankful for about Senegal, and it was incredible to see (and sometimes to remind ourselves) that people who have just visited Senegal for the first time, to those who have lived there their whole lives, notice how people are so friendly, kind, and will share everything they have with complete strangers, just to make sure they feel welcome. I’ve said it before, but it’s very true; Senegal is certainly the country of Teranga (hospitality).