The Things We Don’t Talk About

As most people around me know, I do not have a filter between the thoughts in my head and the words coming out of my mouth. This is a blessing and a curse. I am who I am and feel very comfortable in my skin and personality. That being said, there are things I do not talk about with everyone or if I do only with a select group of friends. Same is true of what we volunteers talk about versus what we blog about, tell our family and friends about or is known to the general public about our work and Senegal.

Thinking about this, this past week it made me realize that there are many things that we do not talk about as culture, group or human beings in general. They might not even be taboo, they more likely just make everyone uncomfortable.

I might write about these things, but I most likely I will wait until I understand them better and get more perspective.

  • Child rearing with physical punishment: I grew up getting spanked I don’t have any negative thoughts against the way my mom choose to correct/punish my bad behavior. That is not to say it is a good or right way to rear your children. I have seen a sliding scale of punishment in Senegal for the bad behavior of children, I try not to judge it. But it is very hard. Simply getting up and leaving the situation shows your unapproval of it.  All in all, it make me wonder as Americans over the course of the last century how did we learn to rear children with praise rather than punishment. (I assume county and state extension agents have something to do with this)
  • Toubab: Toubab is a term for a westerner or anyone that is light-skinned. Senegalese will call other light skinned Senegalese Toubabs. Neither of these make it any easier to hear be called Toubab, sometimes it feels like 100’s of times, in a day. Sometimes I think my Senegalese name is Bob (the only part of the word heard in the distance) not Arame. It’s annoying and frankly I feel, rude. To me Toubab is the Senegalese equivalent of the n-word. Lets repeat, TO ME. Not all volunteers feel this way. It wears on me alot. Same as hearing children screaming my name repeatedly rather than greeting me and leave me on my way. This is a wonderful post I’ve just read on this idea.
  • Prostitution: The oldest profession they say. In a Muslim country where you can have up to 4 wives you would think there wouldn’t be a need for prostitutes. But there still are. The first time I had heard about this was actually an article about European women visiting the beaches Senegal for a hardbody play boy. I have not seen this happen personally. But even my cultural teacher said in even the most modest places they exist here.
  • Nakedness: There are so many pictures I can not take here due to naked children or women breast feeding children or simply it being Senegal and very hot out, people will commonly walk around with a shirt on at all.  You become unfazed by it eventually. Thankfully they don’t ask you to participate. I’ve actually heard about another volunteer in another West African country who did and her village asked her to put clothes on.
  • Binge eating/food/care packages: Since it’s difficult to prepare oneself for how you will cope while being in another country, different language and culture than your own, food is the simplest (sometimes) and quickest way to eat your worries away. We don’t talk about the amount or size of care packages we get (of mostly American food) to drown our sorrows, cares and frustrations in. We try not to judge and hope those who are more blessed will share there wealth with the rest of us. 
  •  Diseases/Illnesses: Be thankful I don’t share pictures of mango worms, staph infection and other wounds I have seen since being here. Sadly, being a responsible adult and helping children and adults clean and care for wounds correctly or taking them to the closest health post (because they can not afford the the $3-5 to see a doctor). Also there is wolof medicine here as well that are tinctures, eating barks, having wooden/cloth/leather charms made to wear closest to the wound. Or as the kids do, rub dirt into it. I have no clue why or where this came from or if it simply a child’s response to stop the bleeding.
  •  Here versus There: The most annoying thing to me is when Senegalese want to go to America for work because they thing there is more work there, people are never sick, and only beautiful people live there. Recently I found out that Senegalese think we all have cooks and maids (so I’ve gone on a rampage to explain this in almost every conversation I have) I have to explain time and time again that America doesn’t have any money right now and to explain the idea of debt. Why do you think I’m here if there are all these jobs in America? Senegalese (and for that matter the rest of the world) thinks America is what they see in mass media. I’ve had to explain that if I was coming to Senegal what I would I see;  the hotels, encampments, the most beautiful places. Not their village with them in it. Just like you don’t see my tiny little town where I grew up.
  • “Always think for them”: This was said to me yesterday about Senegalese. I found myself nodding my head to this but in after thought this makes me very mad. Senegalese have there way of life, culture, language, social structure for a reason. Who are we as outsiders to say what is good, bad or indifferent about it. When you are trying to help, at what point are we hurting? Throwing money at people and a problem doesn’t make it better, but only causes more issues for people who have to live and deal with it day in and day out. How do you motivate people to fix problems themselves rather than stepping in and doing it for them?
  • Dating/sex/marring young:I don’t even know where to begin with all of this. I have a Senegalese guy friend (not boyfriend) that I talk to when I’m at my office, other Senegalese in village ask about him when they greet me which is normal in this culture. We are simply hanging out and because he understands English, he helps me with my Wolof and his English improves because we talk. This in America is normal, people talk, hang out and there is nothing implied-usually. Here because I’m a Toubab and he’s Senegalese (Gambian actually) people think I’m his girlfriend (because of the amount in which we talk and people see us do this). I’ve had to correct many old ladies when they ask me how my husband/boyfriend is. It’s also common for men to have up to 4 wives, and sometimes with large differences of age between them. I find this to be a bit gross (but who am I to judge). I have talked to a few younger Senegalese about there thoughts on dating and sex and am glad to know they understand about using protection and they’re parents would kill them if they got pregnant. (Pretty similar in the U.S.)

I’m sure there are more that I’m not thinking of, but the point is WHY don’t we talk about these things? What as humans makes these things taboo when they happen and are apart of every day life just as much as babies are born and people die.  Are there any you can think of I forgot or reasons to why these topics are not easily discussed?

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1 Comment

  1. I am always impressed with how you think. Some cultural norms, like nakedness and comfort with open breastfeeding, are easier to accept than corporal punishment or poor wound care. In fact, it would nice if people were a lot more comfortable with breastfeeding in the US! I think the Peace Corps has always walked a fine line between helping and intruding. Quite unlike missionaries that did want to change cultures, you want to help make things better, without changing the essence the culture. It is a lonely job and I think you for doing it! Keep writing and we will keep reading.


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