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Teranga: what it means to prioritize people

My experience with immersion in Senegalese culture and what I learned about hospitality

<p>The radical love, selflessness and openness of Senegalese culture continually challenged me to do better.&nbsp;</p>

The radical love, selflessness and openness of Senegalese culture continually challenged me to do better. 

Over spring break, I spent 10 days teaching English in Dakar, the capital of Senegal and the westernmost point in Africa. 

It. Was. Beautiful. 

I remember my first impression as we drove from the airport to the guest house where our team stayed. The air was warm and breezy and the expansive sun sat low on the horizon, shining white rays through the dust blowing in from the Sahara. Multicolored buildings lined the streets, adorned by colorful fabrics fluttering on clotheslines. Bright flowers grew on bushes on the sides of the roads and the hazy sunlight emphasized the gradient hues of the sunset. 

As we approached the city, our team leader stood up at the front of the bus and asked if we had ever heard of the word “teranga.” Naturally, none of us had — it was a local word, she told us, from the Wolof people, best translated as hospitality. However, she also told us that hospitality barely began to cover what teranga really meant. As an example, she gave us a piece of advice — if we ever felt unsafe, or if someone was following us, all we had to do was duck into a nearby shop. Because we were guests, the shopkeepers would look after us, making sure no harm came to us. At the time, I took note, but hoped we would never need to heed her warning. I believed her, but I had never really thought of the grocery store or local shopping mall as a place of refuge. 

The concept of teranga, this radical hospitality, slipped my mind as we settled in for the night. While I was excited to learn about Senegalese culture, I have to admit that I was likely more excited to sleep in a real bed after 21 hours of travel. Our itinerary for the next day featured a tour of the local university from a group of students who had agreed to show us around. While spending time with these students, their genuine excitement to meet with us was palpable. They went to every effort to answer all of our questions, make sure we were safe among new traffic patterns and welcome us into their city. Patient and caring, my partner carefully listened and worked with me to communicate through my broken French and her broken English. 

After the tour, we gathered together to discuss and share a meal. We could barely stop thanking one another for the time we had spent, even when it was announced that dinner was ready.  They thanked us so profusely for our visit, when all we had done was follow them around and ask questions — it touched my heart. They were deeply invested in us as individuals and in our experience in Dakar, having only known us for less than a day.

Their love for us continued as we ate Yassa Poulet together, one of Senegal’s national dishes. We ate from a common bowl — a traditional practice in Senegalese gatherings — and they were patient and gentle with us as we learned how to do so. They explained that the youngest member holds the bowl steady while the oldest member distributes the meat and veggies from the center of the bowl. Each person eats from their “slice” of the platter, continually being served by the others as they share different ingredients from around the bowl. While the Senegalese eat these dishes with their hands, the students were gracious enough to allow us to use spoons, as we could only hope to attempt the intricate hand motions that prevent them from dropping rice all over the floor. 

This was my first experience with teranga. Our host had been right — hospitality barely began to cover it. For these students, teranga meant slowly walking by our sides and supporting us as we learned to live in Senegalese culture  — it was welcoming, it was protective and it was love without expecting anything in return. 

Teranga continued to amaze us as we spent more and more time with the Senegalese people. We were stopped by children on the street, who would ask “no tudu,” “comment tu t’appelles” — meaning “what’s your name,” depending on what languages they assumed we spoke. Their boldness and interest in us were charming, and I would gladly answer,  ”ma ngi tudu Caitlyn, no tudu?” — “my name is Caitlyn, what’s yours?” One afternoon at a coffee shop, as we struggled to convey that we could only drink filtered water — our stomachs wouldn’t have time to adjust to the different nutrients in the water there on our short trip — the barista called his brother, who journeyed from across town to translate for us and bring us a bottle of water. The espresso was amazing, but the company and generosity were more so. 

The radical love, selflessness and openness of Senegalese culture has continually challenged me to do better. I hesitate to share food with my housemates, having so carefully planned out my meals for the week. Yet the people of Dakar dropped everything to make us feel even the least bit more comfortable, without a second thought. Throughout my time in Senegal, I felt warm, loved, welcomed and horribly inadequate. I quickly understood how Teranga didn’t drive people to bankruptcy, despite the incredible amount of sacrifice it involves — the impressive generosity that I received prompted me to share what I had been given, to give what I had received. 

I have to admit, I didn’t want to get on that plane back to the U.S. I would so miss this culture of mutual and intrinsic love, selflessness. Of the universal desire to serve one another. There was no ice to be broken in Senegal — only love to be shared. During our seven-hour layover in Belgium, one question continued to resurface in my thoughts — “how might teranga be introduced to the culture at the University?” 

In some ways, it’s already there. Our many shared experiences have bound us together by mutual understanding — common knowledge such as dorm life, group projects and favorite restaurants on the Corner create a foundation for deeper connections among students. However, I truly believe our society would be transformed for the better if we lived with more selfless and unassuming love — if we lived with more teranga. 

Caitlyn Kelley is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at life@cavalierdaily.com.

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