Eating out of a communal bowl, sharing tea cups, these are both little things that distinguish Senegalese culture from what I’ve grown up with. Growing up in Peru and New York, my eating habits have remained consistent: everyone gets a personal serving in a plate, sharing is uncommon, table talk is encouraged, and table manner expectations include eating with forks and cutting with knives. Senegal holds two eating rules: share the food and eat quickly so that the next person can have their meal. Here, table manners are about giving everyone access to food, and that means that more often than not, people are in your personal space making sure you’re well off. The difference between home and here is astounding; there’s a mindset that sharing is dangerous and in a way dirty, the truth is, it’s not. To share is to include, to accept- it’s a sign of appreciation. It’s a beautiful way to feel at home. I know many friends at home that don’t sit with their families for dinner, but here, everyone is forced to come together as a family, whether related by blood or not, to enjoy a carefully crafted meal. This tradition highlights another major difference between cultures: here, everyone -no matter what- is family. I have so many uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, moms, nanas, and papas, I’m enveloped in love and family at all times. There hasn’t been a time when I haven’t had access to a helpful family member. Growing up, I’ve categorized certain people as uncles and aunts, but they’re always referred to as family friends. People are close, but it rarely gets as close to family as my Senegalese family does. I now have family all over the country; I have a great-grandmother and two sisters in Thies, a city in northwestern Senegal; I have a brother in Dakar, the capital; and I have 32+ family members in Tamento Samba, a small village in the south, half an hour away from a beautiful city called Kolda.
There’s this tea called Attaya. It’s served a solid four times a day, and shared among everyone. Usually two shot glass sized cups of searing hot tea are passed around, and you’re not supposed to hold onto yours for long: you get the tea, drink it quickly, and give it to the next person. At home, everything is separated, especially drinks. But this tradition of serving attaya tea, getting the cup, and passing it on, makes me feel as though I were part of a uniting ceremony. Makes me realize that the people around me see me as someone they can trust and that they like to spend time with.
Senegal holds different standards when it comes to table manners. Inclusivity, appreciation, and acceptance, are key components of any meal, and I have happily fallen in love with those standards.