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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.
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.