I took this photo on Sunday at lunch time, sometime between 3:00 and 3:30pm. Two minutes before, 10 people were sitting around the table, as I mentioned in my previous blog post. Questions I didn’t even know I had were answered in class today, Tuesday. It helped me understand this photo more completely even though I hadn’t known I was missing information.
Before I talk about what I learned let me first give some context about the picture. I don’t remember what was in the pan, but it was something with rice, beef, and some sort of sauce and vegetables. With every meal we also eat a lot of bread. Each person has at least nine or so inches of a baguette. We never use utensils. This was the only day we ever have, and I haven’t figured out why we might have used spoons. The meal wasn’t more spoon requiring than any of our other meals. In fact, I found that my spoon didn’t make things easier at all – I missed using my hands. The only guess I can make is that we used spoons because there were so many people around the table and it was easier than having all our hands in the bowl at once. Lastly, when eating around a bowl like this, it’s only appropriate to eat the food just in front of you, in your part of the bowl. Even if the potato piece on the far side of the bowl looks especially appetizing you wouldn’t reach for it.
This is the view from just outside my bedroom door. I live on the second floor. Above this table, straight up – the sky. This is our open air room.
Here is the first question I had answered that I didn’t know I had:
Why, every meal, is mama ripping off pieces of meat and fish and throwing them into my section of the bowl?
I didn’t have this question because I thought I knew the answer. I figured it was because I was new to the game, and she wanted to make sure I ate the meat even if I was too timid to reach to the middle of the bowl and rip some off. I also thought that she was encouraging me to eat more meat, because admittedly I had been shy about taking it and sometimes even wary of eating too much of it. I would quietly say “Merci” and wait a little bit before until eating it because as soon as I did, I knew she would feel that she had to throw me another piece.
Today in Wolof class (my favorite class, a blog post will come eventually), the professor starting talking about meal time. He explained the role of mothers at the table. He said that during the meal, the mother is constantly surveying the bowl, making sure everybody has enough food in the part of the bowl in front of them. Sometimes, with especially good meals, my section will be cleaned out. Mama will push some more rice or noodles into my section so I can continue to eat. She’s also in charge of breaking off pieces of meat and fish for the children around the bowl, who aren’t necessarily supposed to do this for themselves. Now I understand. She is treating me like a child when she breaks off meat for me. I’m not offended. In Senegal, I am a child. I have a lot of learn yet.
In Wolof class today we also went around and told the class an embarrassing moment so far in Senegal. (I’m not sure I will share what I said on this blog. But I’m a pretty open person, so maybe.) One student said that her family told her that she says “Merci”, thank you, too much. She was thanking them for things that were simply expectations, cultural norms. (I also think that we over apologize and over thank in the U.S.) I thought about this in relation to meal time, and vowed not to say thank you every time mama passes me meat. She is simply doing her job as a good mama. I’m experiencing a lot of things at home but starving will never be one of them.
Why, every meal, do people just walk away from the table, leaving mom alone to clean up?
This is another question I thought I knew the answer to, but my answer was incomplete. Now I understand. At the end of the meal, when everyone has had their fill and left the table, mama can relax and just worry about feeding herself. Now she will eat until she is full, and while doing so, clean up the plate, organizing the leftovers into the middle and taking the rest of the meat off the bone. I’m assuming they save the leftovers but I’ve never seen what happens to the plate after it leaves the table. Sometimes after I’m full, I will stop eating but still stay at the table waiting for mama to be done too. Now I realize that it’s probably good that I leave, so I can be officially off her feeding radar.
That’s meal time! Of course, even within Dakar there are many differences between families and the way things run. But I think that many of the things in this post are generalizable to Senegalese culture. At the very least, they are my humble observations of mealtime in the Georges family.
Learning Wolof: Waxal ndànk ndànk, Speak slowly (This will become a useful phrase.)