As I waited to board a flight to Dakar from New York, a woman draped in colourful fabric and a bright headwrap asked if she could use my mobile phone. Hesitating with a perplexed smile, I wondered about the odd familiarity to ask that of a stranger. While I wavered, a similarly dressed traveller presented her phone to the woman without a second thought. Experiences like this continued throughout my journey to Senegal, and I quickly realised that they weren’t bold requests from strangers. They were my introduction to teraanga.
Senegal is known as the “Land of Teraanga”. Travel guides often define this Wolof word (also written as “teranga”) as meaning hospitality, but that’s “a loose way of translating it,” said Pierre Thiam, the Senegalese chef and co-founder of Teranga restaurant in New York City. “It’s really much more complex than that. It’s a way of life.”
As a visitor, I quickly noticed that this value permeates many aspects of daily life in Senegal. Teraanga emphasises generosity of spirit and sharing of material possessions in all encounters – even with strangers. This builds a culture in which there is no “other”. By being so giving to all, regardless of nationality, religion or class, a feeling grows that everyone is safe and welcome.
By being so giving to all, regardless of nationality, religion or class, a feeling grows that everyone is safe and welcome
During the summer I spent volunteering at an educational centre in Yoff, a dry and dusty 90,000-person beachside community north of downtown Dakar, teraanga helped me learn about and embrace Senegalese culture. I was invited to stay with a local family and accepted daily offers to visit neighbours’ homes and drink tea. As I immersed myself in this Senegalese way of being, my Western walls melted away. Openness, generosity, warmth and familiarity – the key components of teraanga – took their place. I constantly felt like the 16-million-person family of Senegal was welcoming me home.
During lunch at work, seven of us would sit on the floor around a huge communal plate covered in rice, fresh fish and vegetables. Knowing I was vegetarian, my Senegalese lunchmates would push veggies my way, and I’d slide fish theirs. When we went on trips to the beach, children who barely knew me would jump into my arms to escape the unpredictable waves. I was shocked by their ease with me, until I remembered that they were raised to believe that community members – even relative strangers – will always lift each other up.
Four-year-olds walked home alone from the centre where I worked, and no-one worried. I often saw adults taking the time to educate and guide neighbourhood children, much as a parent would. According to Dr Ibra Sene, a Senegalese historian who teaches at The College of Wooster in the US state of Ohio, this is part of teraanga, where, “you would be willing to look at people and counsel them as the members of your own family.”
Its origins remain something of a mystery
Despite how ubiquitous teraanga is in Senegal today, its origins remain something of a mystery. But historians agree that it has been an integral part of the region’s culture for centuries, existing long before the 300 years of Dutch, British and French colonial rule that lasted from 1659 to 1960.
“That mindset of interaction, exchange and openness to the other could probably be traced back to the time of the big empires of West Africa,” Sene said, referring to the great Mali, Ghana and Songhai Empires that once flourished in the region. Sene explained that for more than 1,000 years this region based its economy on trade, and that the exchange of goods and ideas on which these empires were built flourished because of this spirit of generosity and openness. “Even if it [was] not called teraanga, you see it in different shapes and forms throughout the history of West Africa.”
Though an early form of teraanga likely existed across West Africa, some believe that the modern-day concept originated in the north-western Senegalese city of Saint-Louis (Ndar, in Wolof). Scholars, however, say there’s no basis for this assertion, though they do have theories on where this idea may have come from.
A Unesco World Heritage site, Saint-Louis was a key city in the French colonisation of West Africa. It was where they built their first settlement in the region in 1659 and established the capital. But Sene explained that while Saint-Louis served as the “first foothold of and launchpad for French colonial expansion in West Africa”, simultaneously, “the city gradually became a place of a subtle yet multi-faceted resistance against colonialism. The African community in the city boldly celebrated its cultural specificities in this colonial space.” Over time, the people of Saint-Louis developed a great reputation and became known for their manners, cuisine and religious knowledge.
Teraanga was used as a way to shape the nascent country’s identity
Whether or not teraanga began in Saint-Louis, it remains especially strong there today. Astou Fall Gueye, a doctoral candidate in the University of Wisconsin’s Department of African Cultural Studies programme, explained that Saint-Louis “represents the epitome” of this value. “Whenever you think of teraanga in Senegal, you also think of ‘teraanga Ndar’,” she said. “It’s very important in that city’s culture. People from that city kind of brag about being the ones who know best how to practice teraanga.”
When Senegal became independent in 1960, the word “teraanga” was used as a way to shape the nascent country’s identity. Making teraanga more visible through efforts like naming the national football team the “Lions of Teranga” helped the nation to rally around the virtue and present it as a distinct Senegalese value to the world. Today, a variety of businesses – from mineral companies to guest houses – bear the name “teraanga” and visitors see and feel this concept throughout the country.
Teraanga is especially visible in Senegal’s food culture. Marie Correa Fernandes, a Wolof lecturer at the University of Kansas, explained how hospitality is baked into every meal. “In many families, when they cook, they keep in mind that someone might come; it can be anybody that you know, or you might not know.” To prepare to greet even unplanned visitors with teraanga, there’s often an extra plate ready, “just in case”.
We truly believe that the more you give, the more you receive. That’s really what teraanga is
And for guests who do show up at mealtime, the Senegalese way of eating embodies teraanga’s spirit of sharing. Traditionally, all diners eat from one large plate or bowl together. “But the best part [of the dish] is always going to the guests,” Thiam said. “They give you the choicest pieces of meat and fish and the vegetables.” As Thiam sees it, the reason for this practice is simple. “We truly believe that the more you give, the more you receive. That’s really what teraanga is.”
According to Fall Gueye, food’s role in teraanga doesn’t end with meals. It also unifies members of different religions. Senegal is a majority Muslim nation, and around Easter “Christians have this meal that they prepare that we call ngalax, made of millet and peanut butter and baobab fruit powder,” she said. “You will have families, Christian, bringing that food to Muslim families.” The holiday food sharing goes both ways: during the holiday of Eid al-Adha, Muslim celebrants offer lamb to their Christian neighbours.
“We celebrate both religions, and it makes us feel good in the community,” Correa Fernandes added. “In teraanga, we have tolerance for the other. We are a very diverse culture.”
Senegal is made up of several ethnic groups, including the Wolof, Pular, Serer, Mandinka, Jola and Soninke. But unlike neighbouring Guinea Bissau and Mali, which have struggled with political coups and ethnic violence, Senegal’s diversity hasn’t historically led to much conflict. In fact, the World Bank labels Senegal one of “Africa’s most stable countries”, and according to Sene, teraanga has helped unify Senegalese of all backgrounds. “The thing that Senegalese share the most is the idea of teraanga,” he said.
The thing that Senegalese share the most is the idea of teraanga
Correa Fernandes says that one of the most important aspects of teraanga is the greeting. “You can’t just come and be like, ‘Where is the post office?’. Hello… greet me first!” she said. “Greetings are very important. It’s very rude to just come in and start talking without greeting the other.”
This spirit keeps neighbourhood life harmonious. “There’s this famous [Senegalese] saying that your neighbours are your family, because if anything happens to you, before even your immediate family comes to rescue you, it’s going to be your neighbours first,” Fall Gueye said.
Community celebrations also display teraanga’s welcoming principle. Momentous events are typically open and inclusive. “You cannot say to one person, ‘You can come,’ or to the other, ‘No, you can’t come’,” Correa Fernandes said. “Everybody’s invited.”
When Correa Fernandes got married in her village, there were no invitations. Her parents let the neighbours know when the wedding would be, and “that day, everybody just showed up”.
This openness to neighbours extends to strangers passing through a community, too. Growing up in a rural area, Sene’s family often welcomed travellers into their home for a night or two, sometimes even longer. He thinks this hospitable spirit still holds today.
“In Dakar, even with the increasing anonymity that big cities are known for, people would be willing to share whatever they have,” he said. Requests to strangers for a place to rest, a bathroom, a phone or water, would likely be answered with teraanga. “You can walk around Dakar, knock on the door, and say, ‘Could you give me water?’. People will give you water without any problem.”
One of the country’s most revered singers, Youssou N’Dour, has a song about teraanga that sums up the concept. “Nit ki ñew ci sa reew, bu yegsee teeru ko, sargal ko ba bu demee bëgg dellusi,” he sings. According to Correa Fernandes, it means, “Someone who comes to your country, when they arrive, welcome them, honour them so much that when they leave they will want to return.”
It’s no wonder we visitors to the country can’t wait to go back.
Why We Are What We Are is a BBC Travel series examining the characteristics of a country and investigating whether they are true.
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