I have only been in Senegal for 12 days, and all I think I’ve figured out up until now is this: the first word that you should learn in the Wolof language, is probably jërëjëf. Jërëjëf means thank you. And, if your experience is anything like mine, you’ll find yourself saying it on almost every interaction, often more than once.
From the moment that we first arrived people have been doing everything to make us feel welcome and at home. At Dene, where we spent our first three days in Senegal, the community received us with a welcome song at 1 am (“welcome night and day” is not just a figure of speech), and shared their most important holiday of the year, Tabaski, with us. We were cooked delicious Senegalese meals, and were invited to eat them in people’s homes. Children played with us with enthusiasm and patience, and adults were happy to talk to us, even if we could only exchange two phrases before running out of Wolof vocabulary.
I can’t explain how grateful I am to all these people. All I can say is jërëjëf. So many times, it has felt like this one word wasn’t nearly enough to express how overwhelmed I felt by the way that people have welcomed us into their country, culture, and homes.
On our last day in Dene, there was a celebration for us, with music, singing, and dancing that lasted until the early hours of the morning. People from back home know that I usually don’t dance, ever. But this girl that I had become friends with dragged me into the circle, and for once I didn’t feel like refusing. I ended up dancing and laughing for hours, feeling incredibly fortunate to be there, with people who were so happy to have me. Near the end of the party, when I was dancing with one woman in the middle of the circle, I was so happy and moved and overwhelmed with emotion, and I was thinking about what I could say to express to her how much this meant to me. When the music stopped, she smiled at me and said “jërëjëf”. I couldn’t really get any words out after that.