A Senegalese Christmas

18 January 2012

I’m writing this a bit late but here is my Christmas story.  The week before I started my donkey ride to Bethlehem was full of visitors.  Sharon came because she’d never been to Fode Bayo before.  Minnie did a Reverse Volunteer Visit with me, as we did as trainees to current volunteer’s sites.  Youssepha, one of Sustainable Ag technique trainers came for my 1-month check-up. And finally, I hosted my friend, Jaynel, and our language instructor, Lamine, for a Mandinka language seminar.  After three days of the best food I’ve eaten in village (Peace Corps paid 2,000 cfa/day/visitor to my family for the seminar), Jaynel and I hopped on our bikes for the approximately 65km ride into Kolda.  We passed our time chatting and musing, pushing each other up the slowly sloping hills, until we were consumed by the need to conjure up some Christmas spirit.  With two days left in advent, and not a goose bump to be found, we started singing every carol we could come up with, especially the ones about snow on the ground.  We do a killer duet on the Twelve Days of Christmas.  Dashing round the pot-holes, not only did we raise our own spirits immensely but we also confused a lot of Senegalese.  Some smiled, some whispered to their neighbor, and we scared off a lot of children’s instinct to yell “toubacco,” Kolda’s version of toubab or foreigner.

A short night in the Kolda regional house with bananas to recharge our legs and blue cheese tapalapa1 pizza to recharge our souls was followed by an early, early morning waiting for a sept-place2 to fill at the garage.  Since my friend Lisa arrived at her site in the small, Kaolack city, Nioro, and found she was living with a Catholic family, we had been plotting a reunion for Christmas.  And for this I embarked on my first solo travel experience in Senegal.  I was the first to arrive and the garage liaison (I suppose this is what we’ll call him.  Not my driver, just some dude with paper and a pen that everyone collectively decides trust.  As my friend Sharon says, the transport system here seems to be run by elves.), this man who seemed to be in charge, did not have correct change for my fair, so I put faith in the elves and waited.  I bought café touba and a bean sandwich, and waited.  I read most of Gourmet Rhapsody and waited.  I got to know the two school teachers heading up to Dakar, who spoke some French and English, and waited.  The places were filling little by little.  The man was acquiring change and I was not.  The last spot was filled by a patrone, who now lives in Guinea and is en route to start a business in Dakar and briefly visit family—this appeared to be a necessity more than a priority for him.  Since he made the car full he was ready to go now now. (This is a thing in all Senegalese languages, for example in Mandinka if saying saayin once means soon and twice means now—like right now, or really whenever.  The moments Senegalese value immediacy is rare and incongruent.)  Everyone’s bags were packed in, and I still hadn’t gotten change.  I’d talked my teach friends over to my side.  They helped me gain and regain the liaison’s attention each time he found himself distracted.  They understood the legitimacy of my wanting only to pay half the luggage fee to go half way to Dakar.  They got the rest of the car to agree to this and thus forced the liason’s hand into, at long last, a two-hour-wait long, giving my change back in full.  As with the journey itself, this display of kindness from strangers, or new friends, was only the beginning.

The teacher sitting next to me shared oranges he bought on the road.  Waiting for the fairy to cross The Gambia River, the other teacher bought me a crème glace, which is really just any frozen liquid in a plastic sac, but mine was actually creamy and sweet this time (possibly powdered milk and sugar).  On the other side of the river, the patrone bought everyone boissons.  I attempted to share some cookies I’d purchased, but there was little interest.  They were, however, all interested in conversation.  We spoke in a mix of French, English and Mandinka, which is becoming more regular for me as I travel outside of my village.  We discussed the history of Senegal, and Nioro’s role in non-violent colonial resistance specifically, some affects of colonization on divisions of linguistic and ethnic groups and imposed government structures in the Gambia and Senegal.  None of it was that in depth and I’m sure my vocabulary was not as clear as the above, but it was successful cross-cultural exchange.  And a very positive male/female interaction, which I often find difficult here as I don’t generally feel the need to continue a conversation with someone who’s first and second questions to me are “Are you married?” and “Why don’t you mary me?”  But these men were educated and seemed to respect the fact that I am too.  #educationistheanswer.

A pretty Nioro park where religions collide.

Men playing checkers and an incongruent phone booth.






Lisa and Rita walk a borrowed child and Lisa's pup, Zazu, down a tree-lined street in the old colonial part of town.

The same can be said for Lisa’s family, who Rita, Amanda and I stayed with for Christmas.  Both men and women in the family are teachers.  Their kids are clean, their meals well-rounded, their interest in the greater-world expansive and expanding.  And, naturally, they were full of Senegalese hospitality.  Originally from Ziginchor, they spoke some Mandinka and made a mean koucha leaf sauce.  They good-heartedly teased me for wearing a pagnein the morning, “just like a Mandinka,” apparently.  It was a loving and energetic home as I’d expected from   Lisa’s descriptions.

But what I never could have expected was what a great job they would do at

After mass everyone went up to visit the manger and take photos on the altar.

making a real Christmas celebration.  The family had already made paper chains and we added snowflakes to adorn the mango tree and Christmas ornaments on the metal grill to Lisa’s porch.  On Christmas Eve they slaughtered a pig, which fed us throughout the day and in one big greasy bowl for lunch.  I took a few courteous bites but it was a bit much for my newly meat-digesting stomach.  The whole family dressed up for midnight mass, which was conducted in French and Wolof.  It was a bit confusing to follow so late at night, but I’m pretty sure I know the gist of this service.  There was also a pageant which was just like every pageant I ever participated in with some bonus features, a perfectly silent, live baby and a real sheep, which the sheperds carried by the legs.

Our biscuit village!

Amanda's puppy, Biskrem, asleep in a box of opened presents.

Christmas morning Amanda and Lisa opened packages from home and we dressed their puppies up in Christmas paraphernalia.  None of us could quite be convinced to put on our  “yarri wolof” again to sit through another foreign language service, so we stayed home to “make a biscuit village.”  This was the only way Lisa could think to describe assembling the gingerbread houses from a kit her boyfriend’s mom had sent from America.  The host family was pleased with our alternative to mass and did not question it.  For lunch two chickens were killed.  One served in a standard onion sauce with rice.  The other atop a salad.  A full-blown salad with sliced tomatoes, green peppers, cucumber and dollops of dressing.  It was a beautiful thing and I, the poor, village volunteer, was the last person sitting at every bowl served.  Desert was boissons and cake—real, delicious, moist, banana cake.  And after lunch the wine came out—real, cheap, Senegalese wine, which only officially exists to serve 5% of the population, so does not have the highest quality standards.  Most of the evening comprised of dancing and greeting the many neighbors and friends who came by to wish a Joyeux Noel.  In the morning Lisa’s father told her he was grateful for us beither there to encourage them to stay home and have a party themselves, instead of doing the popping round themselves and not having as much family time.  They provided us with the closest we could get to being with a family for Christmas and they were thanking us for taking advantage of this.

The return trip also had a list of kind, mindful characters, who confirmed my belief that Senegalese people have a great sense of community and compassion for whoever is your neighbor at that one moment in time.  In the Gambia, a Mandinka woman explained to me why the first ferry wasn’t going and offered me some bread.  A good French-speaker showed me on to the second ferry and helped me find the right taxi on the other side of the river.  A business owner waiting for a sept-place with me explained to another passenger why the fact that I’m a toubab does not directly coorelate to my having, so I could not buy out the car to get the show on the road.  Far away from home at a time of year I most love the comforts of home, I felt taken care of and cared for.  It makes me think about how maybe Americans need to remember the importance of talking to strangers a little more and creating a community with those around you.  You never know if a friendly greeting could make someone feel the love of Christmas or whatever it is they are looking for that day.


Much love, M.Cad.

P.S.- Sorry about the delays.  I’ll try to get one or two more up soon!


1. Tapalapa—delicious home-made bread, which we can find all over Kolda but get harder to find around Thies and Dakar.

2. Sept-place—a car a third row of seats created in the back, so that seven spots are available for passengers.

3. Patrone—a wealthy person; often generous, often pompous

4. Koucha—Mandinka for bissap

5. Pagne—wrap around skirt, usually made from standard Senegalese wax fabric

6. yarri wolof—quoted in text from my friends who speak Wolof, this is their term for fancy, Senegalese clothes


2 thoughts on “A Senegalese Christmas

  1. Dear Mary, Once again I found myself in Senegal with you. I could hear the conversations and feel the warmth of community. You are quick to credit all those around you for making that community but it doesn’t happen without your openness to the possibility and your receptiveness to the friendships offered. I love you and miss you.

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