Teranga Tangible

Teranga—Senegal’s signature virtue, its ethic, its vibe, as my American students might say—was evident throughout our visits to its current capital Dakar and to its former capital Saint-Louis.  Whether we were sharing meals around a platter on our hosts’ living room floor, navigating the chaotic streets of its vibrant cities, or entering its classrooms full of kind and generous students, we witnessed Teranga as a pervasive cultural value rather than a mere decoration.  Here, on our way to our teaching destinations in Saint-Louis, we enjoy a meal at the home of our guide Mouhamadou, whose family spread a splendid repast for us when we arrived at their home in Thies.  My colleague Rebecca's expression of delighted surprise speaks for us all.

One of the secrets of Teranga, I learned, is taking the time.  Whether it was a teacher’s morning greeting inquiring after how well you slept the previous night, receiving generous snacks upon visiting a classroom, or taking tea under a seaside ramada, Teranga was founded up slowing down the rapid pace of modern life.  Here, my teacher-host Dominique relaxes with my Fulbright colleague Brenda, guests of a family who lived near the Langue de Barbarie outside Saint-Louis.

Lycee Charles DeGaulle’s English Club treated William and me to an English-language program celebrating Senegal’s youth and the joys of learning a foreign language.  (Really—they were passionate about learning the tongue we shared; it was inspiring to me and likely would have been a revelation for my monolingual New Mexico students.)  In the courtyard of Lycee Charles DeGaulle sits a pedestal bearing the words of Charlemagne—in English!—“To have another language is to possess a second soul.”

My Fulbright colleagues enter the playground of Alie Codou Ndiaye Primary School in the Medina neighborhood of Dakar.  It wasn’t long before we were lured into Phys Ed class with the young students, here wearing their team bandanas in the three colors of Senegal’s national flag.  Alas, my discreet (timid?) camera work prevented me from documenting the ensuing student-teacher footraces and—in yet another gesture of Teranga—an impromptu student chorus singing “Happy Birthday” to my colleague William, thereafter forced to wipe his eyes on the sly.

This joyful image enlivens the entrance to Ndiaye Primary School in Medina.  Senegal is what I’d call a “good mural country,” and this brilliant example was one of my favorites.  The image bespeaks the country’s attitude toward its children, I think:  their celebration of children and Senegal’s recognition that their future depends on their investments in education and pediatric care.

After my flight from El Paso to Chicago was delayed, I ended up arriving in Dakar a day later than the rest of the Fulbright delegation.  My delay meant that I missed an essential trip to Île de Gorée, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site that educates visitors about the Atlantic slave trade.  My hosts could have easily chalked the delay up to “tough luck” and moved on with the program, but the ever-attentive Mouhamadou arranged for one of his student, Nabi, to serve as my private guide to Gorée one afternoon.  Besides being an excellent and attentive English-speaking guide, Nabi was master of four languages and was working on a fifth.

During a day off from teaching duties, we spent a lovely, lazy afternoon in a fishing village, guests of a family who stuffed us with food and took us for a ride along the Senegal River in their pirogue.  (A larger version of these sturdy but simple craft are still used for the long, desperate journeys of migration from Senegal to Spain.)  We ended up at a lovely stretch of wild beach, where we counted ourselves, once again, fortunate guests of this generous, beautiful nation.

Melisha is lessoned in the strategies of this traditional board game, here played with sea-shell markers.

When I was first offered afternoon tea in Senegal, I feared I would be choking down the sweet (and often instant) apple tea I’d been served on Istanbul tourist outings.  But Senegalese tea was another kettle altogether.  The elegant woman who prepared our tea under the ramada spent several minutes pouring and repouring the beverage till it built up a froth on the top of each cup.  To be sure, the tea was sweet—seldom my taste pref—but beneath the sweet was a perfect deep bitterness.  Alas, I doubt I’ll be able to reproduce the taste unless I return to Senegal someday.

Anne-Michele, ever enthusiastic about Teranga, enjoys a cup of Senegalese mint tea that utterly redefined my definition of said beverage.

Upon my arrival at my hotel in Saint-Louis, our driver Papis (who happened to be a close family friend of our host teacher Dominique) pulled a measuring tape from his pocket and began to measure William and me for out “traditional outfits.”  Eventually we made a visit to Papis’ tailoring workshop and received out elegant garb.  Here—per the code of Teranga—we were greeted with enthusiasm from the men and a demure smile from the women.


Despite the chaotic traffic patterns in Dakar, drivers of all manner of vehicles—motorcycles, horse-carts, taxis, bicycles, and scooters—peacefully puttered along its city streets.  In this city of 3.5 million citizens, I recall seeing only one or two stoplights while cruising its streets.  In the dearth of traffic-control devices, politeness prevailed—alongside an expectation that a driver would “keep moving” and be predictable.  I witnessed only one collision during my time in Senegal, and it was, in its own way and because the results were not injurious, rather comic:  a cyclist rammed into a vendor’s cart, which cart was festooned with a couple dozen multi-colored brassieres.  Happy ending:  cyclist, vendor, and merchandise emerged unscathed.

During our visit to the Fulani village of Guélack (described in some detail elsewhere in justteaching.org’s “Travel” section), we were—inevitably—treated to a sumptuous platter of poulet yassa.  Though the photo is no masterpiece, some details are worth noting:  the conversation, the optional utensils, the floor covered in fabrics (usually removed after a meal), mostly floor seating, the incessant need for us to document our travels (that’s William on his phone-cam), and—a detail I didn’t always see—a woman from the village joining us around the platters.

Brenda, Sara, and Anne-Michele enjoy yet another enormous platter of Thiéboudienne.  I hope Sara will forgive me posting this photo, but I detect in her expression just a hint of being overwhelmed by the plenitude inherent in Teranga.  Indeed, I may have myself betrayed such exhaustion when greeted by yet another splendid platter during my travels, almost always accompanied by the cook’s urgent plea that I “keep eating!”  At such times, I wasn’t sure I could meet Teranga squarely in the field of gastronomic endeavor.

On our last night in Saint-Louis, we were invited to a “cultural performance” at a school in Gandon, a short drive from the city.  Bedecked in our newly tailored traditional garb, we were escorted to the best seats in the house, where a keyboardist and a percussion section of at least eight traditional drummers provided the soundtrack.  One by one, young women emerged from the sizable crowd and danced in the middle of the sand arena to the delight and cheers of the crowd.  Of course, it wasn’t long before the Americans were part of the entertainment, as we were pulled from our fine seats into the center of the arena and did our best to meet the challenge of the dancer who pulled us, one by one, into the center.  Somewhere a video of me meeting their challenge exists, though I have endeavored to destroy all evidence of my performance.  (I think I was the only white man at this cultural event, and my dancing no doubt underscored my heritage….)  Here, Anne-Michele meets the moment with her usual grace.