Picture my family at home: my brother sits on the couch in the living room playing video games. My dad is outside, gardening. My mom works from her office downstairs, and I nestle myself into my bed with my computer and glare at whichever of the aforementioned family members has the audacity to open my door. If I am sitting in the living room, my brother gets mad at me because my being there somehow interferes with his ability to play NBA2k17, as if the living room isn’t a communal family space. “You have a private bedroom if you want to be alone,” I say, but I still appear a foreign presence in the living room to him.
Fast forward to dinnertime. “Dinner’s ready!” my mom calls up the stairs. I emerge, grab my plate, and turn around to sneak back off to my room. “Come eat with family,” my mother insists. “I’m busy working,” I call down the stairs, having already almost made it back to my room. I snuggles myself under my covers, grab my plate and my laptop, press my reading glasses snugly to my face…and promptly start watching netflix.
When my parents ask me how my day was, I mutter something snappy and carry on what I was doing before I was interrupted.
Despite all this, I know my family will love me unconditionally. I take their love for granted; I know that they will love me no matter what, and I take that as an excuse not to pull my own weight or treat my parents with as much respect as I should.
My Senegalese family is making me rethink that. Because family is so important to Senegalese culture, I know my family loves each other unconditionally. Unlike me, however, they demonstrate by demanding of one another and, in return, giving to one another. My older sisters cook for me. Every meal, they’re in the kitchen while my tubaab (foreigner) self watches them from the window of my bedroom. Although I intend to learn how, I can’t contribute to my family by cooking right now, but I can help in other ways. Yesterday, my sister went upstairs to get something and because her hands were preoccupied, wordlessly handed me her infant child and walked upstairs. That evening was Tamxarit, the Islamic new year. Traditionally, the night of Tamxarit, children dress up and walk around from house to house, banging on drums and demanding gifts such as money or sugar. I was sent out with a horde of seven children, the oldest of whom was only ten years old. Clearly, I was the “responsible adult.” These moments, I realized, were my family’s way of accepting me into the family. They trusted me with their children because if I was a member of the family, I, too, would love them unconditionally and therefore make sure no harm befell them.
Here, unconditional love means you love your family and want to not only take care of them but also be around them. The way I act with my family is very similar to the way guests are treated here — locked in the room with the fan and the TV, given personal meals there, and left alone while the rest of the family chatters together and eats out of one communal bowl. Family talk and spend time together and act like they love each other rather than just knowing they do.