A pretty unexciting week has given me more time to reflect on the differences between life here and life in the UK.
One big difference concerns personal space. In terms of physical space, there is very little when you are with Senegalese people. Yesterday I visited my friends in the Medina to watch some TV – the Tottenham v Man Utd game followed by some traditional Senegalese wrestling. The women and children watched the wrestling indoors, whilst the men and I watched the football from benches outside. When it ended I went and joined the wrestling audience. I found a space on the bed and lounged with the others, and soon one of the hostesses was leaning against me, whilst one of the children rested her hand on my shin – both totally unconsciously, with no apology or acknowledgement as we would give in the UK.
When any Senegalese crosses a road with you they will take your arm or your hand; yesterday Gloria (my maid) walked with me to a shop she had recommended, and we seemed to spend most of the journey holding hands or in some way in physical contact. I rather like it, but it is very different from the way the British behave!
The same applies to the wider physical space of your home, it seems. On Monday while I was at work the carpenter delivered a dressing table to my bedroom. Tuesday someone else delivered a spare gas canister. Wednesday it was a delivery of air-conditioning units, on Thursday at 9pm a colleague appeared at my door with a TV technician to try to sort out my TV reception, and when I came home to get some lunch on Friday there was a carpenter repairing a crack in my front door. & of course all the time there is a guard at my gate, to whom I never really know how much to engage in conversation when he lets me in or out. I don’t usually want to have a conversation with my guard about where I am going or when I might be back, but I also don’t want to be rude, and I recognise that an eight-hour shift sitting at someone’s gate must be pretty boring and a few minutes’ conversation will be welcomed.
& of course there is Gloria, my maid. When I agreed to engage her I told her she should come two or three times a week, as she saw necessary. But she turns up nearly every day. Saturday morning I returned from buying some vegetables to find her already at work in the kitchen. She had already done four days this week, so I expressed some surprise at seeing her there on a Saturday. She told me the man might come again about my aerial, so she needed to be there to watch him and make sure he didn’t steal anything.
She also gave me a long lecture about the relationship between a maid and her employer. How it is her job, not mine, to buy vegetables. Her job, also, to wash the dishes, and to make my bed. She asked me to make a list each week of all the meals I will want, so she can work out what ingredients are needed and do the appropriate shopping (she gets very agitated about the fact that so many Senegalese charge higher prices to whites) – also if I tell her what time I want to eat then she will ensure the meal is ready at the appropriate time. Apparently I should be contented in the knowledge that she will look after my house and household needs in every way. & - a little strange this – if I will be around on a Saturday but have no specific work for her to do, I should call her and she will come and take me on walks to show me different parts of Dakar!
I’m still musing on how to respond. In some ways it would be lovely to be looked after in every way like that. My job is looking like it will be more and more demanding in the near future, plus I start French lessons next week and my Open University course materials have just appeared. But I treasure my freedom, my independence. I have for many years had to repress a shudder when friends have to phone home to tell a partner they will be late, or worse, have to turn down a last minute invitation because dinner will be waiting on the table. I love the freedom to do what I like, where I like, when I like – to not be answerable to anyone. But if I have to leave a list on a Monday morning of what I will want to eat on Thursday evening and at what time, I will have lost a lot of that freedom. & can you imagine if I had a man to stay overnight? My guard would know, my maid would know – enough to put anyone off!
I told my maid that her hard work, her high standards of cleanliness and her desire to look after me reminded me a lot of my mother – and suddenly I was enveloped in a big, long, hug. I think I shall have to play this one very carefully…