Teranga and Family Values

The Pullman Teranga Hotel, Dakar, Senegal. At the very tip of the peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic, the entrance is not the finest point. Tucked away behind the grimy city-center grayness, the high-rise phalanx protects the ocean-front pool from street-hawkers and the buzz of suited businessmen at the African Central Bank. This is where I met with business leaders for my Rotary Scholarship and where Okwen and I shared a Christmas meal while the rest of the city had a normal day in 2011. The name, Teranga, is misplaced for a secluded setting when the true meaning of the Wolof word is akin to (but much grander than) "hospitality."

Preparing  thiebou jenn

Preparing thiebou jenn

I heard a radio interview this morning with Pierre Thiam, a Senegalese chef who has just written a cookbook on his traditional cuisine. he describes how teranga is the word that symbolizes Senegal the best:

"Teranga is much more than just hospitality. It's a value. If there's a set of values in Senegal, teranga would be the most important one. It's the way you treat the guest. It's the way you treat the other, the one who is not you. That person becomes the one to whom you have to offer teranga. You have to treat him with so much respect. You have to offer him what you have. You have to invite him to sit around your bowl.
There's always room for the other around your bowl. Why? Because we believe that the other is bringing blessings. When you share your bowl, your bowl will always be plentiful. This is the deep-rooted Senegalese belief; we believe that there's always more. You will never lack by sharing. Actually, when you share, you guarantee yourself that tomorrow if there's more, there's going to be more food in your bowl. This is a country that values the wealth of a person not by how much he has, but by how much he shares, by how much he gives."

I experienced teranga when I lived with a griot family in the old-town part of Dakar. Although the family shared a latrine with twenty people and had to carry water from a neighborhood spigot, when it came to food there was always more than plenty. The cook insisted that everyone passing by the compound should join the family at meal times. 

The belief that "there's always more" is something that I have trouble holding on to as an American. I feel like there's an overwhelming message in this country that "you better use as much as you can for yourself now because it will be gone soon." The struggle to succeed individually creates a frenzy to get ahead. 

Hotel Pullman Teranga

Hotel Pullman Teranga

Three years ago, I was in a business school intensive where the topic was how to create sustainable global enterprises: how to help all people climb the ladder to success. As the the group circled the metaphor of the ladder, it took me a while to figure out my issue with the discussion. Finally, I raised my hand and said, "I don't think climbing the ladder is the goal for everyone. In my experience in Cameroon and Senegal, the objective of becoming more personally successful is to share the wealth. Social status is tied to how much you have to share, so a sign of success is giving drinks, food, clothes, and even houses to your family and friends." The teacher wrote me an email later, "Wanted to send you a quick note--you had some great comments today. I thought they were quite thoughtful and added an important element to the discussion!"

When I came back from Senegal, I experienced a little culture shock. My parents and I went to lunch at a good friend's house. I was wearing gold bobble earrings which I'd recently purchased in a Senegalese market. Our friend exclaimed, "I love your earrings!" Automatically, without a thought, I took off the earrings and gave them to her. She looked startled and then my mother, also perplexed said, "I think Lucy wants you to have them." This is what I'd experienced time and again while abroad, a compliment means that the other person wants the item and the wearer happily gifts the item away. Thinking back, I wish that this value had been more deeply ingrained, I seem to have lost that. 

Back to thinking about the values that I want for our daughter, I hope I can have the presence of mind to demonstrate a sharing value for her. I witness every day how her imitation of my actions grows more acute and thorough. While my husband and I are focused on the academic skill-sets we want her to acquire (alphabet, colors, elocution), I realize the things that are unspoken, our values, circle our every interaction and far more important to get right.