Saturday, August 29, 2009

Childhood in Senegal

OK! Hello. Remind me to tell you later about mosquito nets. SUCH GOOD NEWS. But yeah, I wanna get this stuff out first.

We're about a week in to Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. I'm fasting along with my family, abstaining from eating or drinking between 5 AM, the dawn prayer, and about 7:30 PM, the sundown prayer. It hasn't been horribly difficult so far, though getting work done is tough. People are hungry, and as the day goes along they become increasingly cranky. There's a lot I want to share about this all, but I think I'll wait until we're a little further a long in the holiday before I talk about it.

I've been thinking a lot about childhood in Senegal recently. The children here don't fast during Ramadan. Some of them are lucky to have leftovers from the previous day's dinner to eat during the day, some eat with other families, some fend for themselves in other ways. It's probably not a horrible time to be a child, in many ways: no school, not as much work, a lot of time to sit around and play cards. Of course, if you happen to still be breast-feeding you might be in for it. Many mothers choose to fast, even if they should be eating for two. And there's one other pitfall.

Every time a child is bugging me in the village, or trying to play while I'm trying to study, or attempting to help me in the pepiniere or while doing a baby-weighing, the response from the adults is always the same: "He's just rude, Aissa. Go find a stick and beat him." Corporal punishment is the norm here, where children are raised not by one father and one mother but by a whole village of extended family members. Maybe the standardization helps, since the children wander from compound to compound, family to family. There's no squabbling over how much time-out is too much time-out, no question of whether a parent is over-reacting by taking toys away (what toys?). If an adult thinks a child is out of line, that kid gets anything from a smack on the leg or face to a full-on beating. Smacking someone else's kid is just as acceptable as smacking your own. Sometimes other adults will intervene if a beating is getting a little out of hand, and if it's being done in public: "That's enough, that's enough." But this is an entrenched community practice. If your kid comes home sobbing, saying the neighbor smacked him, you're going to shrug and accept that your kid probably had it coming. You wouldn't think of going to speak with the neighbor about it, and you're not mad. You've maybe even smacked someone else's kid today. That's how it works.

I've been thinking about all this because from the very first day of the fast, the intensity and frequency of this type of punishment went through the roof. I've seen someone smack a kid for nothing in particular almost every day I've been in Senegal, so I thought I was getting used to it. No way. Not even close. Everyone's in a bad mood these days. Cranky parents are beating the crap out of their kids, or maybe just smacking them a little more than usual. Two kids in my compound got in a little tiff over cards the other day, not an uncommon experience when you're 3 or 5 years old. Their mom responded by dragging them both across the compound to her room, with them bawling and trying to squirm out of their clothes to get away and dragging their limbs and flailing all over the place, with the rest of us looking on. She shoved them in, closed the door and barred it from the inside, and just went to town on them.

All of this made me remember one of my experiences from the very beginning of my time in Senegal (all of 6 months ago now, by the way). When I came back from Thies to my home-stay in Thieneba one day, we had a young visitor. Her name was Fatu, and she was the 4 year-old daughter of my mother's sister's daughter. This is a pretty close relation in Senegal, and her frequent visits weren't anything out of the ordinary. My host mom was always easy-going, perhaps because all the other children in the house were a little more grown up and once your kids get to be a certain age you just don't have to do as much yelling. The family environment was always friendly, always easy, and more like an American household than anything I've seen since. Fatu seemed to be enjoying her visit and loving the attention from my mom, though she was pretty scared of me.

One night during dinner, Fatu had a little hissy fit. I have no idea what started it, but it climaxed when she threw her mug of a warm millet desert called fonde to the floor. In a single moment, the mug shattered against the cement, food flew everywhere, and my mom, who had been sitting right next to Fatu, slapped her once across the face. By the time Fate had recovered from her shock enough to begin crying, my mom had already started cleaning up the mess. She hadn't raised her voice, hadn't at all relished hitting the child, and wasn't looking to do it again. She had hit Fatu once, and in such a way that it marked the end of a tiny crisis, not the beginning of a big one. Fatu sat in the same spot for ten minutes, mouth open, nose running, solid bawling flowing right out of her, water from a storm drain, an un-ending un-varying stream, my mother moving efficiently around her as she picked up the jagged clay remains of the mug. When she had finished cleaning, my mom finished her own mug of millet and headed back to the kitchen niche to clean up the dinner dishes. My sister Ndeye, 13, and still one of my favorites, approached Fatu slowly, coaxed her onto her lap and into silence, soothed her with more of the sweet, warm millet. My mom came back out and sat with us. Still seeming a little disconsolate, Fatu crawled into her lap, where my mom rocked her to sleep. The woman who had made the little girl cry in the first place was the only person who could really console her. Of course, what I saw happen then to Fatu was nothing like the beatings I see in the village. They're different worlds.

I don't know. It's just one more thing about Senegal, I guess. Hard to watch, hard to talk about. I want to try to explain cultural differences away, to make them comprehensible within the world-view I've grown into, to make them disappear. That makes me pretty uncomfortable. But so does refraining from making any comment. I guess I'll just reassure you all that I haven't hit any of the kids yet, and I don't plan on it.

Love and guts,



  1. I love the way you write about your observations! We feel as though we're getting a view through a window into your world. I know you're busy but we love to read you entries.

    Hope the pencils & pens are being well used. My own students started school yesterday. Long days of prep for me but it was fun to meet them all. It'll be an adjustment for them and for me - some more than others!
    Keep healthy and strong.
    Aunt Mary & Uncle Frank

  2. We and other PC alums are really enjoying your writing. Thanks!!!
    John McCafferty, Russian Far East by way of Santa Barbara and the LA Times.