9.   Hello But No Cadeau

By Paul Vanderveen

Copyright © 2003 by Paul Vanderveen

Our guard asked me for some hours off to attend a funeral--or so I gathered, as we communicated one day using the few words of English he knew and French and Wolof I knew. He would alert the neighborhood guards, who would keep an eye out, but Jan and I also wanted to know whenever he left, so we could be more cautious ourselves. He and I were at the front door. He had left our iron gate open behind him and was going with a friend, another guard, who was also standing in our small yard, by the gate. A woman, neatly dressed in a bright yellow print, had also come into our yard. She had a baby strapped to her back, in typical African fashion. When I looked toward her, she started speaking to me in French, so I said, as I usually did, that I didn't understand French -- and asked our guard and his friend if she were their friend, too, and going with them. It turned out that they didn't know who she was. She was just a stranger who was going to lunch and wanted me to buy it for her.
     This was probably culture shock all around. A total stranger walked through our gate into our front yard to ask me to buy her lunch! She looked hurt when I declined and turned to go back inside. Begging was really a way of life in Senegal. She was probably surprised that I didn't give her money. Our guard and his friend were probably amused that I thought they would be going somewhere with a woman, since men and women in Senegal usually did not hang out together.
     Still, I stuck to my policy of "acknowledging people's existence" and not making assumptions. As Jan and I walked across the main thoroughfare in our neighborhood one evening, another woman with a baby tied on her back approached us and started talking. She had just gotten off a bus. We stopped and tried to figure out what she was saying, fearing that she was most likely begging. She was asking us for directions to the pharmacy, however, and Jan pointed it out to her across the street. I suddenly felt at home in this strange land. Here was someone asking us for directions. We would never have known, had we assumed that she was begging.
     As my skills and repertoire increased, wide disparities between my own and many local people's attitudes were becoming increasingly evident.
     Late spring, we decided to take our walks early in the morning, before Jan went to work, rather than during the hottest part of the day. One morning, when we reached the Corniche, the road along the ocean cliffs, we passed a young man in a bou-bou. I said, "Bonjour," as we passed each other, and he responded in kind. A short while later, after our brief look along the ocean, he came back and asked for a gift. Jan had to translate for me, and she responded, "No." After getting her translation, I looked at him with curiosity, while also declining to give him anything. I wondered about him--what a cultural gap! We saw an independent equal, out enjoying the morning as we were; he saw beneficiaries of some kind, rich strangers or "patrons" from whom it is acceptable to beg. I resolved to continue to say "Bonjour" to strangers, but not support this widespread practice of begging. We were not patrons and beggars, members of unequal castes. I did not want to be seen as a benefactor, but an equal who might bring something of worth to an interaction, as might they.
     A friend told the story of being approached,while shopping, by a young man asking for a cadeau. She offered him a job carrying her bags instead. He seemed offended and told her, "I'm not a porter!"
     It was one thing to deal with adults, something else begging children. Many seemed neglected. Giving them money, which they turned over to their marabout, was not helpful. Feeding them did not even seem that helpful--none were overweight, but they were obviously being fed. I was more concerned with what they were--and weren't--learning on the streets.
     When I was out for a walk, one of the begging children came up as I was crossing a street. He had the standard pitiful expression that came with most people ignoring him. It must be difficult, I thought, not knowing what to expect from people. I decided to try my own approach with him -- to ignore his begging, but not him. I figured these kids were supposed to talk to strangers and, while they were doing their job, I might as well make it interesting for them by speaking to them. Of course, language was a big problem. This kid didn't speak English, but he seemed to understand my "Parlez-vous anglais?" He smiled when he understood that I was trying to communicate with him and didn't try begging anymore. I became more interested in learning more French and a little Wolof even--so I could say hello to these kids. I wondered if they really cared whether anyone gave them money or not--or, at least, whether I gave them any.
     I remembered what I had learned in Morocco about the importance of learning a bit of the local language. In Senegal, the local language was really not French, the old colonial language which I was beginning to learn, but Wolof.

  1. First Bribe
  2. You Decide
  3. Acknowledging Others
  4. Passing Grade
  5. Two Foreign Cultures
  6. How Do You Say "Help" in Arabic?
  7. Risks in the Developing World
  8. Un, Deux, Trois
  9. Hello But No Cadeau