Go Your Own Way, Seal Press
Chapter 8: Unwelcomed Hospitality
by Katie Krueger
A pile of phone numbers is wedged between the pages of my journal, a visual testament to the teranga, or hospitality, of which the Senegalese are so fiercely proud.
Welcome a stranger into your life and share what you have, they say, and someday God will reward you. As a traveler, living in this land of hospitality is paradise; as a woman, it is exhausting.
I am unpacking in my new apartment in Dakar, having left my host family’s house yesterday. I sit down and flip through the pile, finding numbers for teenagers, men my father’s age, married men, widowers, professors, street vendors, lawyers, waiters, bus passengers, beggars, bankers, and taxi drivers. They were men who approached me everywhere: on the street, in cyber cafés, at the corner boutique, at bus stops. A woman traveling unaccompanied in Senegal, I quickly learned, is a magnet for men wishing to accompany her. Our exchanges would begin in a friendly way, but in a matter of minutes I would find myself dodging personal questions: Are you married? Do you have a Senegalese boyfriend? Would you like one? Why don’t you marry me and take me to the United States? Before long, my guard was up nearly all the time. It was difficult to believe that the invitations to dinner, the beach, day trips, or downtown tours were simply hospitable.
There was only one number, in fact, that I actually wanted: Amse’s. I pluck a folded slip of paper from the stack and open it to see his neatly printed name and number. At the memory of his cheerful face, I smile ruefully.
Amse. I met him in Marché Sandaga, my least favorite place in Senegal. There, in the heart of downtown Dakar, already-narrow streets are lined with fabric boutiques, electronic equipment stands, wandering fruit sellers, and vendors hovering over three square feet of carefully aligned merchandise. In front of each store, there is an exterior wall of West African men: the vendors and the touts. Walking past them as a Toubab, or foreigner, a woman often feels like she is walking the gauntlet. You look straight ahead, avoid eye contact with all people, and try to make it safely to the other end while being bombarded by men who come up to you and assail you with personal questions meant to win your loyalty and, eventually, either your business or your hand in marriage.
Amse popped out from a fabric store and started off like all the hawkers do. “Bonjour! Welcome to Senegal. Ça va? Nga def?”
I had found that the best way to make a quick break from the mass of overly aggressive salesmen who volunteer themselves as marriage potential is to tell them that I am going to meet my husband, who works in the city. After lunch near his office, we will go to our friend’s shop on the other end of the market. My imaginary afternoon lets the hawkers know I have lived in Dakar too long to be tricked into a Toubab price, and that my husband negates any relationship possibilities.
I gave this spiel to Amse and expected him to politely leave, but instead he burst out laughing. Because of my rusty French, I had actually said that I worked in the market, and that I was on my way to the shop of my husband, on the other end.
“I have heard a lot of stories before,” he said, “but I have never had a Toubab tell me that we share a job!” I was embarrassed and wanted to be angry, but his good looks got even better while he laughed. I could not help but smile, and then suddenly we were sharing a moment of genuine laughter. Before leaving that day, I visited his friend’s fabric shop, and on my way out he accompanied me to the bus stand, where he gave me his phone number and I happily stuffed it into my pocket.
A month went by and I did not hear from Amse. I grew skeptical of ever developing a real friendship with any of the men I met in Dakar. They seemed to want one of two things: sex or money. Amse was probably after the same thing, I thought. I was just too naive to see it.
A week before I was to move into my apartment, I returned to Marché Sandaga. Although I dreaded having to put on my invisible armor just to buy dish towels and clothespins, I knew it was the only place for affordable one-stop shopping. I took a taxi to the Place de L’Indépendance and stopped at the ATM. I scolded myself for wearing a sundress with no pockets and forgetting my money belt. Plenty of nightmare tales of pickpockets and purse-snatchers at the market normally had me distributing my money strategically—some in my money belt, bra, purse lining, and wallet—but today’s outfit left me with no choice. All my money would be in my purse. Leaving the ATM, I walked quickly and braced myself for Marché Sandaga. Sure enough, nearly four blocks before I got there, I was spotted.
“Bonjour! Welcome to Senegal. Ça va? Nga def? My name is Pop.” I ignored him, but he continued the one-sided conversation by asking me about my country, my life here in Senegal, and, of course, my marital status. First I tried to gently blow him off by giving him disinterested one-word answers, but that did not work. Then I asked him, in no uncertain terms, to leave me alone. He ignored this, too. His personal questions and offers continued to the point of making me uncomfortable. Did he really expect me to tell him whether I had experienced all of Senegal’s teranga yet, or accept his invitation to do so? Finally, I lost my patience. “Go away!” I snapped.
He changed from French to broken English, probably to make sure I understood the insult draped in foreign policy analysis. “What? Why you no friend of mine? Why you come here making war? Why no peace? You hate Senegalese people. Americans love war.”
Something in me changes when I travel alone. I have an endless reserve of courage to speak my mind and to protect myself. At home, I smile at people who cut in front of me in line to avoid conflict, but as I get further from my comfort zone, I get more and more courageous. An insult to me will not go unchallenged. I take off my sunglasses and look Pop straight in the eyes for the first time.
“I don’t hate Senegalese people, I just hate you, Pop. You have been following me for ten minutes, even though I have asked you to leave me alone. You have been asking me personal questions and making me disgusting offers. You stole all the patience I had, and then insulted me when it was gone. I am here because I love Senegal and its people, but one day I will leave because I hate men like you.”
I stunned him long enough to get a good five feet in front of him, before he caught up with me again. “Mademoiselle, I am so sorry. I did not mean to make you hate me. I just wanted to be your friend. Please, come to my house for tea. You could share lunch with my family and meet my mother. You will see that I am not a bad person.”
I tuned out his apologies and continued my shopping, ignoring him completely. I walked up to a stand that sold most of the things I needed and started reading my list off to the vendor. Pop was still hovering near, standing in a group of men a few feet from me. As I bargained for a decent price, he piped in a few times to tell the vendor to be nice to me, because I was his “friend.”
The vendor and I finally agreed on a price, and I opened my purse cautiously to get my wallet. I could not find it.
Panic set in. I checked all the purse pockets. Empty.
I took everything out of my bag and shook it. I patted myself down. Nothing.
By now the vendor and the men standing nearby realized what had happened and offered their advice.
“Recheck your bag. Empty your pockets.”
“Look around on the ground. Maybe it fell out as you were taking things out.”
“Where have you been today? Where did you come from?”
“Was there anyone who followed you? Someone who would not leave you alone?”
I looked at Pop. Sure, he had bothered me to the point of losing my cool, but I could not remember his getting close enough to reach into my purse or pockets.
“Mademoiselle,” the man repeated, “did anyone follow you today?”
Sheepishly, I hesitated. Stealing is so socially unacceptable in Senegal that thieves who are caught are usually severely beaten by the public, sometimes to death. But it was strange how Pop had followed me after I insulted him. Maybe the rejection had made him bitter enough to seek revenge and take what he still could from me. The one thing I hate more than blaming an innocent person is being taken advantage of.
“The only person who I have talked to today is . . . him,” I said, pointing to Pop. My eyes met his for the second time that day, and instantly I knew I was mistaken. He had taken nothing from me but time and patience.
My purse slipped off my shoulder, my confidence slumped. I glared down hard, burning an invisible hole in the concrete. Was I really going to have to apologize to this man? He may not have been the vengeful pickpocket I imagined, but he was still an obnoxious merchant with questionable sales techniques. Blaming him was a mistake, though. As I looked around the group of a dozen strange men, I realized he was the closest thing I had to a friend.
“Katie,” someone cried from the other side of the street. “Katie! Hello! It has been a long time. Do you remember me?”
Before anyone could react to my accusation, we all turned to look and saw Amse coming across the street towards us.
“Katie. How have you been? What are you doing here?” He smiled brightly at me and I felt a flood of relief about seeing his familiar face. He gestured to Pop. “Have you met my brother, Pop?”
His brother! I sputtered for a moment in horrified embarrassment, then began talking quickly to fill the air, hoping the words of my explanation would push aside those of my accusation. I explained to Amse that I had lost my wallet. How everyone, including Pop, was helping me to find it . . . my words trailed off.
“Why don’t you let Pop and me retrace your steps with you? Three sets of eyes will be better than one,” Amse said cheerfully. He looked at Pop, who smiled at me, nodding.
We walked silently. Pop never gave any hints about the harsh words we had exchanged. Instead he kept his eyes on the street, scanning for my wallet. After an hour of walking, we arrived at the ATM, the starting point of my day. I leaned against the wall to rest, defeated.
“Hey, Toubab,” called out a man. “I’ve been waiting for you.” He strolled over and handed me my wallet. I opened it up. It still had all of my credit cards and cash in it. “You dropped it as you rushed out of the ATM booth this morning, and by the time I picked it up, you had already walked out of sight.”
Amse and Pop spent the rest of the afternoon with me, helping me find and bargain for all the things I needed and hailing a cab for me when I was ready to go. It felt good to be able to trust strangers to help me again. As they helped me put my purchases into the cab, I thanked them profusely for their help. Before I stepped in, I turned and faced Pop, searching for the right words. Pop waved his hands, silencing me. They were just sharing with me Senegal’s teranga, he explained.
“Teranga is considered a long-term investment. If you welcome a person into your life, God will see to it that someone shows you the same welcome sometime in the future.”
Amse elaborated: “It will be a reward to you or your family. Traditionally, a Senegalese mother welcomes guests into her house so that her children will be well received by others on their journeys.”
I am on my way to my old house, keeping my promise to my host mother that I would visit as often as possible. As I settle back into the taxi, the driver turns to me and begins a familiar dialogue. “Where are you from?” he asks.
“The United States.”
“Are you married?”
“Do you have a Senegalese boyfriend?”