It is interesting to see how like in the US, regional differences come into play. When some friends who are doing their internships in the villages visited me here in St. Louis, I had the chance to learn about the contrast between mentalities and daily life in urban vs. rural Senegal. Also, my host mom’s niece who is a teacher and commutes to a village 20 km outside of St. Louis, fills me in on her opinions. My apologies for the grand generalization that is about to follow, but for those readers who haven’t had a chance to go to Senegal, I think it’s only fair to give you even a general idea of the contrast.
When I say village, you may be thinking huts in the middle of nowhere with the most primitive of amenities. One wise social studies teacher I had is known to say that in most stereotypes, there is a grain of truth. In many of the villages, residents are very perserverent, they work with what they have and as a result are used to a different standard of living. Like their city-dwellers counterparts, have a lifestyle which has socialized them into that environment. Even though I opted for a city, if I had more time in Senegal, I would definitely spend it in a village, because the challenges the residents of villages face are not the same as in the city.
You still do see huts in the villages I have briefly stopped by, but alongside wooden buildings which make up different rooms surrounding the courtyard of the house. Houses here are designed to accomodate the grande famille and much like the meals out the common bowl, are logistically adaptable to an unknown number of guests who may be there. Many people may share a room or even a bed, but this depends on the living situation of each family. The bathroom situation is always interesting here, as you never know exactly which elements of the western conception of a bathroom will be present or in working order, but for the most part, houses have a squat toilet in an outhouse in the villages. Especially closer to St. Louis, most villages have electricity, schools, a public health structure, and a (weekly) market. Most are economically tied to agriculture, of millet, peanuts, tomatoes, eggplants, or other vegetables, or if close to a body of water, fishing. Senegal is relatively endowed with arable land for a Sahel country, but the condition of the transportation infrastructure poses major problems for the establishment of value chains which could realize the full economic potential of the farming and fishing.
As my friends described it, after the harvest season, there is a lot of time spent “chilling” on mats in the courtyard, although there is a strongly marked division of labor between men and women. Women also work in the fields, and are also responsible for all household tasks, and remember, even in the city 99% of families do or have laundry done by hand. It’s easy to forget how much labor is saved by certain household devices. I found this out first hand, when I was cooking parmesan chicken, mashed potatoes, salad with hot artichoke dressing for my host family, that cebbu jen and other Senegalese dishes have a certain cooking process that maximize of the one gas burner as the single heating element in the kitchen and minimize dishes used. Here I was, used to having up to four burners and an oven at my disposal, trying to figure out what order I could cook things in to keep them warm and how not to dirty too many dishes, as I knew they would probably insist on washing them for me.
In general, Senegalese families have more children than in the US. The average is 4-5 children, but in villages, it can be much higher. I liked the analogy that one of my professors used, that each house can be like a kindergarten. I have been impressed by how the families manage the children without much access to playgrounds, a lot of toys, books, or games, something that would be difficult for me to do coming from a culture where material goods are abundant even for children. Luckily for me, my two younger host sisters, Khady (age 7) and Néné (age 9) have been endlessly entertained by crazy games and drawings that we invented with my blank notebook and the pack of five colored pencils I bought at the boutique, trying to ride Pape’s (my host brother) bike, and piggyback rides around the house.
We all watch a little bit of TV (for me, less than an hour a day). Depending on the day, it’s the journal de 20h (8pm news), a French soap or a soap dubbed in French, a Wolof drama vignette like Mayacine ak Dial which became my favorite when one episode featured as a guest a lost anglophone Toubab, or the music channel.TV is something that even with electricity, is much less common in the village. Collé, my host mom’s niece, mentioned that it is difficult for her to teach in the village, because in her opinion the children there are less éclairés, as they have less access to printed and visual media than kids in St. Louis, and often do not have much chance to travel. At the same time, a lot of the TV programming is imported not what I would consider quality (although I’m not a soap fan, so take this with a grain of salt). In certain villages, there is a strong local radio presence with a variety of programming for different audiences.
It’s too bad we don’t live with an older relation, because they tend to be very connected to the oral tradition which I haven’t heard too much being in the city. The concept of the grande famille, with all of the grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and a variety of relations is very strong, and even in places like St. Louis and Dakar where people don’t always live with the grande famille, you can tell in the converations especially around holidays that the relations are still on their minds. At this point in time, I would say many Senegalese adults in the city are still connected to their home villages, even if they don’t visit, although with more children being born in the city, this may begin to disappear.
Due to trends in urbanization brought on by access to jobs and the lack of transportation infrastructure, there is a marked difference between life in the city and in the régions, I would argue that there are even cultural differences between the two, in the language (the Wolof in the city is more of a Wolof-French creole), and attitudes (usage of time, relationships with neighbors, etc.) It is absolutely fascinating, as someone who has experienced some regional differences in the US, to see that differences are so vast in a country with 12 million people and the size of one of the US states.