I think the moment I fully felt the uniqueness of Senegal was sitting in a little wooden shack near the Marché Soumbédioune. Like so many others, I had made my way down to the sea at dusk to peruse the catch at the daily impromptu market. By the time I had arrived, the beach was lined with colorful pirogues, the fish having been removed and placed on plastic tables in long lines, their scaly bodies glistening in the fading light.
While I examined each table, I was set upon by friendly, no-nonsense women eagerly pointing out the best specimens. Fishing in Senegal is a family activity; the men are expected to bring in the catch, and the women are tasked with preparing and selling it.
It didn’t take me long to find myself selecting a particularly plump example of Senegal’s signature fish, thiof (white grouper). After it had been eviscerated and its innards tossed into a garbage can, the fish’s skin was deftly pulled from its body and presented to me, a slimy white sack of meat with two cold, black eyeballs staring into space.
I took my prize in a plastic grocery bag up to the Corniche, the busy road that runs along Dakar’s coast, in search of a taxi home. Normally, you can have your fish grilled right there on the beach, but high winds had kept the usual makeshift restaurants from appearing.
I had already flagged down a taxi when a glint of color caught my eye. An old woman in bright dress stood bent over a deep concave pan, her yellow turban covering all but a few strands of black curly hair. Immediately, I waved the taxi off and walked over to her rickety little hut.
“Can you cook my fish?” I asked in horribly accented French.
“Depends on the fish.”
I showed her the flayed lump sliding around in the plastic bag.
“Mil franc,” she said.
Handing her the bag, I took a seat on a little wooden bench while the woman tossed the fish into the pan and stoked the fire. The flames roared, and the oil began to sizzle as the acrid smell of spice mixed with the noxious fumes of the passing cars.
Around this time, a young man stopped at the little restaurant and bought a mackerel that had been precooked until its body was charred black. He sat down beside me and after a quick “bonsoir” offered to share his purchase. It was done almost without thought, like an innate reflex. At his insistence, I tore off a piece of the crisp cold flesh and savored the intense concoction of encrusted spices.
The man sitting next to me was named Abdoulaye, and he harvested mussels. As I continued to wait for my own fish to cook, we shared the meal he had purchased while chatting about life in Senegal and the great joy he experienced every week when he returned home to his parents with fresh seafood.
Abdoulaye had been working the waters off Dakar since he was eight. It’s difficult, wet work, often made worse by intense winds that blow off the coast. Each day, he and his brother bring in 20 kilos of mussels, worth about CFA 20,000 (USD 35). Some of it they take home, the rest they sell or cook for a premium on the beach.
When the fish had been consumed, Abdoulaye left, no doubt exhausted from the intensity of his daily labor. Shortly thereafter, my own meal was placed in front of me. And while the pan-fried fish, its meaty white flesh easily pulled from the bone, was perhaps some of the best I ever tasted, it wasn’t the food that made this particular dinner so memorable.
Teranga is a Wolof word that loosely translates to hospitality, but the English language doesn’t encapsulate its true meaning. Rather teranga is a value system deeply rooted in showing respect and generosity to others. It is ubiquitous in Senegal society and so much a part of the national psyche that even its football team is nicknamed the “Lions of Teranga.”
Many countries have a culture of hospitality where guests are lavished with food and attention. But there is something refreshing about the genuine kindness of the Senegalese people. Here, food is meant to be shared, and it’s not uncommon to see someone handing over a chunk of dry Baobab fruit, or a handful of peanuts to a stranger who just happens to be walking by.
Teranga is also about forgiveness. When I asked how Senegal has managed to avoid ethnic and religious strife, Mawdo, an economist in Dakar, suggested it may have something to do with how the community interacts. “Every year we have two or three big parties in our neighborhoods or our villages. It is at this time that we ask forgiveness from our neighbors and our neighbors forgive us. It’s become almost something automatic.”
Such mass exercises in catharsis would go a long way in explaining how the Senegalese are able to live so well together. Respect, generosity, forgiveness: teranga is who the Senegalese are, and it certainly wouldn’t hurt to follow their example.