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Photo by Elke Schmidt, Senegal Bridge Year Program.

Mornings in Ndioukhane

I’m not a morning person. Mornings are usually times when I have to muster all of my strength and put it to the seemingly impossible tasks of getting up, forcing my brain to start functioning like that of a reasonable human being, and making myself presentable for the day. Back home, going through my morning routine usually meant shuffling around in a grumpy fashion for about an hour. My mornings in Ndioukhane, however, were very different.

I should probably start by explaining that in our Bridge Year cohort we have group roles, and each participant has a different role to play every week. During our stay in Ndioukhane, I was the “food person”, which meant I was in charge of things like making sure we had the items we needed for breakfast, keeping track of our snack supply, and –for the time that we were in Ndioukhane– buying bread. This last task, which somewhere else might have seemed like a mindless little errand, became a key aspect of my time in Ndioukhane, as it often was one of the most educational and enjoyable part of my day.

Each morning I would walk out of our compound at 7:30 am, clutching a CFA bill in one hand and an empty bag in the other, while quietly muttering to myself the words I was planning to say when I got to my destination. On my way there, I walked through other families’ compounds, and I passed many people who were going about their morning routines. As is Senegalese custom, I exchanged a few greetings with each of them. Since my Wolof vocabulary is quite limited, I had a very set dialogue that I memorized and repeated to everyone: say hi, ask how things are going, and ask how they spent the night. The first couple of days I did this, it felt a bit robotic. My greetings were not very genuine; I was just following a cultural norm and trying to get to the bread store and back as quickly as possible. Here’s the thing though: you can’t really have people seeing and greeting each other every morning and not have them become at least slightly fond of each other. After a few days, my morning greetings got a tiny bit longer, and a lot more sincere. Even with my limited Wolof skills, I would manage to have some sort of 30-second conversation about bread or breakfast before I stopped understanding anything that the other person was saying, at which point we’d both laugh and I’d be on my way to the bread store.

The “bread store”, by the way, is a term that I am using very loosely to refer to the place where I got our bread for breakfast. It didn’t actually resemble a store at all, but was rather the courtyard of another family’s compound. In this courtyard there was a yellow metal stand with the word “boulangerie” painted on it, and inside this stand were a few products for sale: candy, powdered cooking flavoring, coffee. The actual bread, however, was kept inside one of the family member’s room. I usually encountered a woman or two sitting in the courtyard, while many others were walking around, on their way in and out of the shower, or getting breakfast ready. They all smiled at me and clearly found it amusing that a “tubaab”, a foreigner, was coming to buy bread every morning and making poor attempts at speaking Wolof.

On one of my first mornings buying bread, I walked into the courtyard, greeted a woman who was sitting there, and asked for seven baguettes. “Am nga sept kilo mburu?” I asked using the French word for number seven. She frowned. “Juroom ñaari kilo?” She replied with the Wolof way of saying number seven. I thought that was a bit strange, because our instructors had told us that people normally use the French numbers, but made a mental note nevertheless to use Wolof the next day.

The next morning rolled around and when I asked for nine baguettes, I said “juroom ñeenti” instead of “neuf”. As I was waiting for my bread, feeling very proud of myself for my masterful use of Wolof, another woman walked into the courtyard to buy some “mburu” too. I couldn’t really understand anything that she said, but I clearly heard her say the number of baguettes that she wanted, in French. This left me feeling quite confused. Apparently, I’d gotten it right the first time, so why had the woman corrected me?

After I got my bread, I said thank you in Wolof “jerejef” and was preparing to leave, when one of the women from the bread-selling compound said something to me that I didn’t understand. She kept repeating a phrase, and at some point I realized that she was trying to get me to say it. I repeated what she was saying, and she looked very pleased. She explained that what I’d just said meant “jerejef”, or thank you, in her native language, Seerer. It suddenly clicked in my brain: they were trying to teach me. They would ask me to use Wolof numbers instead of French for my own sake, so I’d learn the language. And they’d repeat some phrases I’d already learned in Wolof, like thank you or see you later, but they’d say them in Seerer, so I would learn how to say that too.

This is why my mornings in Ndioukhane were so special. Every morning I went on my little bread adventure, and every morning I came back with more than I’d left. I had inevitably gained a little story, a new word, a funny anecdote, an acquaintance. Oh, and a few baguettes too.