This past week’s fall break vacation in rural Sénégal has been phenomenal (thorough writeup on its way). Naturally, today, Sunday, has been a struggle in readjusting to the invisible handcuffs that come with living with a host family.
Sunday night, if you’ll remember, is also when families “change up” the menu by offering porridge, usually laax, mixed with sugar and sweetened yogurt for dinner, although my host mother always hypocritically gets a special plate of nonsweet food (tonight was fries and fried chicken). Tonight Fatou brought me to the kitchen, where she showed me individual bowls, a pot of grayish gruel, and a plate of boulettes de poisson (fish balls). Fatou was saying numerous things in fast Wolof, and I didn’t understand anything she was saying. After concluding that successful verbal communication wasn’t going to happen tonight, I did what seemed logical due to routine – I reached for a bowl of the gruel and refused, as usual, helpings of sugar and sweetened yogurt in an effort to stave off the impending diabetes the Senegalese diet is insistent on foisting upon me.
Then I put a boulette in my bowl. You would have thought from the reaction I received that I was trying to put a baby on a stove. Fatou immediately began scolding me (I still didn’t understand the Wolof) and my host mother entered the kitchen to berate me. Apparently the situation was either/or for gruel versus boulettes (who would ever choose the gruel!?). Their reaction wasn’t “Look at the adorable confused American messing up her food!” No. My host mother shot me a look of pure disgust and added some more angry FranWolof.
I went back to the dining table to eat my meal with my tail between my legs. The porridge with the boulette was actually quite good, but I had only had the chance to add one boulette and soon I was eating plain sour gruel.
My host mother re-entered the dining room and began talking to my host sister/cousin in FranWolof – I was pretty sure my mother was debriefing my sister on the situation right in front of me (I caught “la langue,” “pays,” “francophone,” and “assimiler”). In other words, she was talking about me behind my back right in front of me, disparaging my irresponsibility in choosing a country, Francophone as it may be, and not learning the local language. I felt so indignant. A single month of nonimmersive language classes is inadequate for fluency and I’d just come from an area of Senegal where Wolof isn’t even used. In all of my research I had not known that decent French would be insufficient to communicate with our host families.
My sister made a sound of derision in response to what my host mother was spewing and suddenly I couldn’t sit under the dim light and swallow another spoonful. I stared into the bowl for awhile, and then put it aside, feeling for the first time my eyes physically creep into tearful homesickness territory.
Was this the moment that would do me in? After such a smooth transition?
All day I’d been reading Girl with Gumption, a blog written by a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal who had picked up the skill of standing up for herself, quite feistily. I didn’t care if my family thought I was a disgusting, incompetent weirdo. I wasn’t going to beaten down by disgusted looks and trash talk! This was my dinner. I wanted some boulettes to mix with my porridge and I was going to get them.
I swallowed down those beginning tears and marched over to Fatou to ask that if I wanted to, could I mix the boulettes with my gruel? She didn’t understand my French so I asked my sisters, who translated my request to Wolof, with looks of disgust on their faces. I kept my own game face on.
I got the boulettes.