I went round to visit a friend the other evening, and as I was sitting there waiting for him to come back from some errand, gazing around the room, I was reminded of how different life is for many Senegalese city-dwellers from our life in UK cities.
His home is a single room, about 8 feet square, with a lockable metal door and one window. The window does not have glass – that is only for the wealthy – but is a square hole quite high up in the wall, with a metal ‘door’ that can be swung open to let in light and fresh air. A flimsy floor-length curtain (of a kind of cheap chiffon-like material) hangs across the wall where the door and window are. This gives some privacy when they are open, and helps to keep out dust, mosquitoes and flies. Unusually the walls are painted white – more commonly they would be turquoise. The floor is bare concrete.
Inside this room, most space is taken up by a mattress on the floor, covered with a kind of furry blanket (in green, yellow and purple…), with a pillow in one corner. This serves as settee as well as bed. There is no mosquito net. Next to the mattress is a big plastic bag stuffed with folded clothes, and beside that a neat row of six pairs of shoes (rather more than most men here have, I think).
Against another wall is a small collection of containers – one I can see contains body lotion (which all Africans use, men as well as women, or their skin dries up and flakes), the others look empty – and a tray full of upside-down glasses. These will be used for serving tea: the West African way, which is black, very strong, and sweet. There is also a small gas burner with a teapot perched on top. Then the prize possession, I imagine – a stereo system (radio, cassette and CD player, with speakers), although I don’t see any cassettes or CDs in the room. At the moment the radio is on.
Finally, in the corner next to the door is a water container (maybe 40 litre capacity?), a small plastic cup in a metal bowl, and a plastic water container with a spout – shaped like an old-fashioned kettle, in purple and yellow stripes. This water will be for drinking and hand-washing
Bathroom facilities are communal (I didn’t visit but will typically be a hole-in-the–ground toilet, with the ubiquitous stripy plastic kettle-shaped container floating in a stripy bucket of water for cleaning oneself afterwards).
This room is one of a row of five, with the same number facing across a small courtyard (the latter used for socialising and some cooking), the whole compound being walled in with one lockable metal door. Many single people live in such accommodation, costing about $60 a month to rent, as it is all they can afford.
In family compounds the rooms of adult family members are often similar to this – and often shared, with two brothers or sisters, or mother and daughter, sharing a double mattress.
We had dinner sitting on the floor. Well, I perched on the side of the mattress, he sat on the concrete. The food was bought on the street, and eaten with the right hand from a communal aluminium bowl. We had fried fish in a sauce (probably made from onion, stock, tomato paste and various local seasonings such as netetou which have no English name – and on this occasion no chilli or hot pepper at my request) served over white rice, with a few pieces of baguette on the side. The Senegalese love their rice.
I find eating with my hand quite messy, as I’m forever dropping bits of food, but the locals seem to drop a lot too so I guess that’s just a part of the process. Only they never seem to drop it on their clothes like I do. I also find the fish difficult, as they are never filleted – you just get the whole fish, with the head, tail, etc – not too difficult with a knife and fork but with one hand, when covered with sauce, I struggle. The locals don’t have a problem as they just put big chunks in their mouths and then spit out the bones, but I’ll never learn to do that; fish bones in my mouth make me gag.
We shared a half bottle of red wine with the meal, local Senegalese wine at $3 a bottle (always served cold), that gives me a headache the next day. Many Senegalese, being Muslims, don’t drink alcohol, so would have something sweet and fizzy (like Coke or Sprite) instead.
Not an exciting event to post about, then, but it occurred to me as I sat there that such things that I take for granted now are outside of the experiences of most of you reading this.
In fact I remember the first time I ever shared a bowl of food the West African way – in Mali in 2000 – and how little I knew of local customs at the time. As a female guest I was invited to start, and the bowl of hand-washing water, with a cake of soap, was passed to me. I was so conscious of all that I had read about not using the left hand that I made this convoluted attempt to wash my right hand only, keeping the left hand well out of the water. Everyone sat there very politely, saying nothing, but when I passed the water to my neighbour, he proceeded to wash his hands – both hands – in the normal way. They must have wondered what on earth was wrong with me; I still feel embarrassed when I think about it today.