“Most meals taken in Senegal are eaten with either your right hand or a single spoon… when in doubt, just watch others at the table (or floor) and, again, simply follow their lead and example.” – Where There Be Dragons Participant Manual
As I tried to mentally and physically prepare for Bridge Year this past summer, a few things stuck in my mind: I wouldn’t be needing toilet paper for nine months, and the above description of how I would be eating. At the time, the thought of sitting on the floor and, eating from one bowl with people I didn’t know seemed pretty daunting, and honestly kind of unpleasant. I could not stop thinking about how many peoples’ hands would be on my food before I ate it.
The night we arrived in Senegal, tired and hungry from our day of travel, we walked into our home in Dene, and two shiny bowls overflowing with Ndambe sat on the ground on a bright, woven, plastic mat. Confused at the time, I did not know how common a site this would become over the next month. “Bowl eating” is an art form here. It took me a while to catch on, but I slowly figured out the rules of communal eating. 1- You eat the semi-circle portion in front of you. 2- You wait to be served by the bowl mother. 3- You leave the bowl when you are done eating. 4- You insist sur naa I am full neex na bari na it was delicious and plentiful at least five times, and still, most likely, no one believes you. Over the past month, I gained fluency in the language of bowl etiquette. I realized quickly how wrong my gross, dirty depiction of bowl eating was.
In the United States, my family never ate meals together. We all woke up and left the house at different times in the morning, we never were in the same place during lunch, and people arrived home from practice, school, work, and activities at various times throughout the night. We rarely even ate the same thing. I was the only person in my house who was a pecscatarian, so I cooked for myself often, my brother, being a thirteen-year-old boy, ate family sized meals himself, and my parents generally ate together when my dad got home from work. This never bothered me. Honestly, I never thought much about it. Back in the United States, my meals served one purpose: nourishment.
The fifth rule of bowl eating, the one I did not mention above, is that you ask anyone and everyone to “kai lekk!” ” come eat!”. Usually, when one person finishes at the bowl, someone new walks into the room and is invited to take their spot. You never know how many people you will be eating with, or even how many people you are preparing food for. Every day I am offered at least three lunches, and sometimes people can be quite persuasive. Yesterday, I ate my second lunch, in a “take a knee” style squat, pressed between my Senegalese grandmother and my three-year-old brother, who usually ends up with more food in his lap than in his mouth. As random people trickled into the room for one reason or another, they joined us at the bowl, even for just a bite or two. My sister helped my brother scoop food onto his spoon. My three-year-old brother tried to rearrange the bowl so everyone had more rice, of course leading to half the bowl ending up on the floor. A yaay mother sat on a low stool, taking turns feeding her daughter and herself. Yesterday I shared my meal with eleven people, my biggest bowl since arriving. At my hectic household meal times can get quite eventful.
I have become accustomed to bowl eating here. My first two nights in Yoff, while my father and two older brothers were away, my yaay handed me a plate to eat in my room. Eating by myself felt so far from the norm, but I realized that more than strange, it felt lonely. I missed the hustle and bustle of eating at a bowl; I missed continually being told to keep eating; I missed feeling the heat of all the people squished around one platter; I missed the crowded room. Even though we usually eat in silence, through the silence, we are all there together. I tried to explain to my homestay dad last night why I loved this seemingly unfamiliar practice of bowl eating. “Nit, nitay garabam.” My father quoted an old Wolof proverb that directly translates to “man is the medicine for man.” He explained that all the food we eat was planted by someone, picked by someone, packaged by someone, sold by someone, bought by someone, prepared by someone, and then eaten together as a community. The concrete ground that we eat on was poured by someone. The fan cooling down our stuffy makeshift dining space was assembled by someone. We as humans cannot do anything alone. Celebrating our human connections and ties is as important as nourishing our bodies.
Every afternoon and evening I look forward to coming home. Of course, I look forward to overflowing bowls of mouth watering Ceeb bu Jen, soccer with Babacar, and whatever sort of mischief Rassoul has found himself in, but mostly I look forward to the bowl. Here in Senegal, my meals serve two purposes now, well maybe three: to nourish the body, to celebrate community, and of course to be absolutely delicious.