Finding 'teranga' from Senegal to the streets of Paris
You can fall in love with a person, but you can also fall in love with moments in time, the sounds of drums on the beach and roosters crowing while women pound millet at dawn.
You can fall in love with the way the Atlantic Ocean smells at sunset and the way all those things come together to become your memory of a place.
After two and a half years living in Senegal while serving in the Peace Corps, I was smitten.
The country is 92 percent Muslim and French is the official language, but there are more than 30 local languages spoken throughout the country.
While serving in the Peace Corps, I lived in a tiny village where I learned Pulaar, a traditionally nomadic language spoken all over West Africa. I loved my community, but it was hard. I craved electricity and plumbing, cheese and raspberries, and feeling cold once in a while. I hadn’t left the continent in over two years and was eager to go home after completing my service, but planned to spend traveling on the way.
In Senegal, there is a concept called "teranga," which means when you meet a stranger you treat them like family. You feed and take care of them until it is time for them to go on the road again. Teranga can be loosely translated as hospitality, but it means so much more than that: teranga is a basic foundation of Senegalese culture.
So when I told my friend Hamidou about my plans to travel after service, he told me that if I got lonely and missed Senegal and needed some teranga, I could call his brother, Soori, in Madrid. Hamidou’s mother got very excited about this and asked if she could send a small gift for Soori. Very small. Just a cadeau tosooko, the tiniest of gifts. I agreed.
On my last day in my village, we had a huge party and I cried and cried. Hamidou's mom came with her cadeau tosooko, which turned out to be a giant plastic bag filled with 20 pounds of lacciri. Lacciri is millet that has been pounded by hand, dried in the sun, and rolled into little balls, kind of like couscous. She must have seen the horrified look on my face because she quickly explained that Soori couldn't get good lacciri in Spain, it wouldn’t be that heavy and she was sure her son would cook some for me.
I wanted to say no, but she and her family had shown me so much teranga and she was so persistent. I gave in, although we negotiated that I would take only half of it, which was still 10 pounds of millet I would be carrying in my backpack for the next three weeks.
When I finally got to Madrid, I called Soori. He turned out to be very difficult to reach in the days before cell phones. Each time I called, one of his roommates told me that Soori would call me back. He never did.
After 36 hours, it was time to say adios to Spain. I gathered my belongings, which still included 10 pounds of dried millet. I took the lacciri out of my backpack and thought about throwing it away, but I just couldn't do it. It was the one thing that kept me still firmly connected to the land of teranga. I was on my way to London to visit a friend – maybe I would try to cook it for her. I put it back in my pack and left for the train station.
After a long night on the train, I arrived in Paris. I looked around for my connecting train but didn't see "London" on the boards. I dug out my Eurostar ticket and showed it to a nice-looking woman.
"Ou est le Eurostar?"
She looked at me with pity and pointed at the ticket where it said "Gare du Nord." We are at Gare de Lyon, she explained. Gare du Nord was five kilometers away.
I was at an entirely different train station. I had no map, no money and a backpack full of dry millet.
I left the station to see if I could walk. I asked a couple of people in my terrible French where Gare du Nord was but they pointed in opposite directions. I tried to explain that I was lost, needed a taxi and was about to miss my train.
I wandered around, looking for a bank to exchange pesetas into francs, and then spotted a tall African woman, her hair in tight, expertly woven braids. She wore an indigo batik and a long, tightly wrapped skirt. She had to be Senegalese.
To confirm my belief, I went up and asked "Vous etes d'ou?"
"Je suis Africain," she said.
"Qu'elle pays, Senegal?"
"A nani Pulaar?" I ventured, hoping she spoke a language that I could actually communicate in besides French.
Her eyes widened. "Eey, ko mi Pulo," she replied. Yes, I am Pulaar. She told me her name was Aissatou, and she had lived in France for four years. She cleaned houses for a living and missed Senegal terribly. She had never met a toubab, or white person, who spoke Pulaar.
Aissatou grabbed me by the hand and took me to four different Lebanese groceries, negotiating the way she would at a market in Dakar to find someone who would change my pesetas into francs. It came at a price. My $20 of pesetas turned into $10 of francs, which she did not think would get me to Gare du Nord. It was almost 7:30 a.m. and time was running out. She offered to give me the extra money. I refused, but she insisted.
Standing on a street corner in Paris, I suddenly remembered I had ten pounds of lacciri in my bag. I pulled it out and gave it to Aissatou. When she opened up her thank you gift, she laughed so hard that she was crying. I was laughing too, because it was the most ridiculously perfect thing that could have happened to either of us. Parisians were turning around to look at what we could be laughing about in the streets of Paris at 7 a.m.
I took Aissatou’s money and address so I could pay her back. Because she is full of teranga, Aissatou insisted on waiting with me for a taxi.
I caught my train to London and slowly readjusted to life. Aissatou and I even exchanged a few postcards. I repaid her, and she invited me over for lacciri the next time I was in Paris. I have since lost touch with Aissatou, but I think often of the teranga she showed me, even in a land where she was a stranger herself.
I can never truly repay Aissatou’s hospitality, but I try to channel her teranga and extend it to weary travelers I meet in this country, as well.