If you ask someone who lives in Senegal to choose one word to describe their home, they’ll most likely say “teranga” (in Wolof) or “teddungal” (in Pulaar) — a word that most closely translates to “hospitality.” The linguistic correlation isn’t perfect. Americans say ‘hospitality’ and picture a welcome mat, a place to take off your shoes, a ready plate at the dinner table after a long day. Teranga is deeper and more layered than a happy homecoming. It’s maybe the thing I love best about Senegal. We found it in Mouit, in Thies, and in Mbacke Cajor, but nowhere is it more obviously present than here in Temento Samba — our instructor Samba’s home village.
For one thing, teranga does not offer you a welcome mat, because such a mat implies a door to walk through behind it. There are no closed doors in Temento Samba. People duck in and out of huts to share powdered milk and Nescafe. The women nurse their newborns together, laughing and teasing one another. The men, young and old, drink ataaya together under the shade of the biggest tree in the village, which belongs to everyone and no one. Any person can recognize the goats and chickens of his or her neighbors. Every child in this village has as many mothers as there are mothers.
For another, there are no places to take off your shoes, because no matter where you put them they are bound to be returned to you the minute you need them again. Pairs of flip-flops and sandals get kicked off, shared, worn in, and returned. You’ll never forget where you put them, because the three or four children that your homestay mother has instructed to care for you will remind you of everything you could possibly need — as well as what time it is, what you’ll have for lunch, and how long it’s been since you last showered. This is not a breach of privacy. Privacy insinuates that there are secrets to keep, and this is not possible, because everything is felt more deeply when it is shared.
And finally, teranga does not promise you a single plate of any food at any sort of dinner table, for a number of too-obvious reasons. First, your homestay family does not own a table just for eating food. The table is in the kitchen, where it can be put to far better use as a chopping board, spice storage unit, and surface for kneading dough. Second, your homestay family would never make you eat by yourself during a family meal. You are of course invited to sit around the communal bowl, heaping with rice and grilled fish spiced with onion and pepper, topped with diced potatoes, carrots, and cabbage. There, you can enjoy your freshly-cooked dinner with the family who sees you as one of their own, next to the sister who teaches you how to count to ten in Pulaar, next to the brother who does not believe that it can snow in California.
Yesterday, we met with the chief of this village, a man who had been in charge of community affairs for decades, a man who had every reason to see our group of foreign students as just that — foreign. There, underneath the shade of an orange tree, he said the very opposite. “You have always lived in this village,” he told us. “We know you because the man who has brought you here knows us, and we see you through his eyes. You are as good as our own.”
This is the truth of teranga. The truth is that teranga is not a homecoming, has never been a homecoming, because teranga ensures that you are always at home. The truth is that of everything I’ve seen in Senegal, this is what I’m most excited to bring back to the States — this instinct to love, to trust in what can’t be seen, to let someone in by saying, “Well, why are you standing out here by yourself? Come inside, we’re here, we’ve been waiting for you.”