Standing up for boulettes

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.


9 responses to “Standing up for boulettes

  1. You go! Not letting your pride go and standing up for yourself the way you did is really impressive.

    At the same time… “After concluding that successful verbal communication wasn’t going to happen tonight” <– It strikes me that this mindset is the kind that is bound to lead to difficulties. What do you think? Of course you can't become fluent in Wolof overnight, but could you make sure your host sisters stick around when you have to conduct any sort of business with Fatou or someone else who doesn't understand you?

    • Excellent advice on using my sisters as translators. Don’t know why it didn’t occur to me earlier. I’ll be sure to do that next time instead of wandering in confusion. :)

  2. You go girl! Never take the nonsense from anybody. Are they putting everybody on a food rationing? Does anybody in the house eat either/or meal? Proud of you!

    • I’m very confused about the way meals (and snacks) work in our house. I should ask but I could accidentally step into offensive territory (like that night).

      It’s hard to find that balance of submitting to your family’s desires (because they’re called your host “family” and I don’t want to turn our relationship into a business one though sometimes I feel like that’s what they’re doing) and standing up for yourself.

      This particular night I was just tired of being a smiling, submissive daughter. By now I’m familiar enough with the city that if they decide to not like me, I know where to go to escape. Still, I’d prefer to have them like me because, again, they’re my “family”… and because I’m still iffy on whether they’re intending to give me enough water every month.

  3. I think it is “have little jousts with the host family week.” Just remember that even though you have gotten to know your host family better this is still an awkard relationship and you are still in the process of learning cultural norms. Take care of yourself and stay sane but also try to compromise on the little things so that they don’t become big things. I have definitely learned my lesson that talking to your host family about any issues is the best thing to do.

    • Haha, this is my least favorite week then. Everything’s fine now – this morning I said mangi dem ekkol, ba ci kanam to my host mom and we exchanged pats on the arm and genuine smiles.

  4. I went through the same thing the other day minus the translation issues which I know can make it 10 times worse. My host sister got mad at me the other day for taking coffee instead of tea for breakfast. She said we buy the tea for you and you take the coffee that we buy for mom. I can’t tell you if she was actually mad or if she just seemed mad because she also just says things really loud and some times looks pissed off but either way I was thinking what is the big fucking deal?? If you don’t want me to take the coffee then don’t put it out and if I’m not drinking the tea STOP buying it. Problem solved. I’m glad you didn’t let it get to you =)

  5. I just got the trackback from your blog today (silly slow wordpress).

    I am so glad that my gumption inspired you to stick up for yourself. Often times when in a foreign country we error on the side of being too submissive out of fear of being “culturally insensitive” when in reality we are just letting people walk all over us. Good job standing your ground–BTW there is nothing wrong with fish balls in your porridge. I did far worse to my food, and my family would usually just roll their eyes then secretly copy me to see if their toubaco was on to something good…

    • Thanks for stopping by! By the way, I shared your blog with other students in my program and we laughed for weeks over your “I’m not a bitch, I just play one in Senegal” series. Please keep updating – I love reading your posts and just because you’re in Korea doesn’t mean that your gumptiony adventures have stopped!

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