Eating dinner one night out of the communal bowl (from left to right: Marie (the maid, who speaks no French, so our communication is limited to gestures and a few broken sentences); Mariene, a cousin who lives with us but who I rarely see, Diama, Khadim, Bachirou, and Mama Rokhaya):
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Recently, I've starting to feel the flow of the comings and goings of my host family. I live with my host mother and father, Mama Rokhaya and Papa Moustapha, and my three host brothers: Khadim, who is 26, Bachirou, 27, and Diama, 30. It has taken some getting used to, living with three older men, sharing a bathroom, the whole nine yards. However, every day it gets better, I feel more comfortable around them and they become more open with me. They are a very traditional Muslim family, on my first night here the men and the women ate in separate rooms, over separate bowls of food. They are all fasting now for Ramadan, and pray 5 times a day. Despite this, I can not help but define them as "chill"- they are all very quiet, and very accepting of me and my habits. We have become more comfortable with each other, due in large part to the openness of Senegalese society. Khadim has told me multiple times that I need to act as if his house is my house, and to really integrate myself into the family. Spending time together is very important, and Bachirou often finds me wherever I am to "come, and discuss!"
My host father is a professor of Law and Anthropology, and he has taken to teaching me courses several times a week. I have already learned about the ethnicities of Senegal, and last night he taught me about the caste system here. In this process, I have learned some interesting things about my family, which reminds me of just how traditional they are. For example, my host father and mother are actually cousins, products of an arranged, within caste marriage. In addition, their oldest daughter, who is studying in Brussels right now, wanted to marry a "non-caste", and her father refused. It is really difficult for me to come to terms with this lack of freedom of choice and ability to escape the role into which you are born, but also to reconcile the importance of tradition and heritage within family with a freedom to choose, and as a result become more "mixed" due to modernization.
All of my host brothers have completed university, and are all currently working and living from home. Khadim is a civil engineer (or, as he explained, a technician- he is completing two more years of school to become an engineer, at which point he hopes to leave Senegal to find work), and Diama and Bachirou both work at banks in Dakar. Both my host mother and father are officially retired, although my host father is working on writing a book and still teaches classes occasionally at the university.
It is typical and expected for children to live with their parents until a much older age, often until they have family of their own. Even so, several generations of family do live together in the same house in many situations. The idea of independence at 18 years that exists in the US does not exist here, as maintenance and unity of family is most important.
Also, the roles of women in Senegalese society are very different. Not only do we eat separately on some nights, but when we do eat together (always in front of the television, where there is inevitably a dubbed over version of either an Indian or Brazilian soap opera), the women sit on the floor while the men sit on the couches.