Tired of the usual tourist vacation, packed with full itineraries and no time to breathe and soak up local color?
Living with a family in a foreign country can be a fascinating event and may be the new experience you are looking for — even if it’s your first time abroad and your first time to Africa.
Living with an African family is a richly human affair and more rewarding than taking the usual tours and visiting museums. You will learn the real significance of traditions usually thought of as colorful. Unlike most ordinary vacations, which, after a time, fade into oblivion, only to be recalled now and then through photographs, this foreign affair will remain a living memory.
Who could forget an experience wherein one shares the world, work and pleasures of a family and at the same time provides the host’s family with the opportunity to learn about your world?
I was fortunate to have such an affair with the Diouf family, who live in a small suburb of Dakar, the capital of Senegal, West Africa.
My hosts, Coumba and Moussa, are the parents of five children: Fatou, the eldest daughter, followed by Anna, Primera, Sakho, and the newest member, born one month after my departure, who to my delight was named after me — Bintou. That name was given to me by the chief of Juffure (Alex Haley’s ancestral village). Others in the household were Pape and his brother Boubacar, a niece, Coumba Aw, and cousin Daba. And then there was Mbalo, the ever-present neighbor.
Each morning during my stay, Coumba insisted I wear one of her grand boubous, the national dress of Senegalese women. This elegant, flowing gown is made out of an abundance of cloth — which requires a lot of walking and posture practice for those of us used to jeans and skirts. You can get the hang of it, though. Simply gather the sides under your armpits and strut!
When I’d go to town, Coumba would point her finger at me and say, Bintou, don’t be late for lunch. There was good reason for this warning, because Coumba would start preparing lunch almost immediately after breakfast. From her mattress perch, Coumba would supervise the preparation of the food as well as the house cleaning chores which were shared by the other girls. I couldn’t help but notice that the two boys did absolutely nothing. They just rose from bed, bathed, had their breakfast and then disappeared until lunchtime. Oh, those lunches! Senegalese love to eat Tiep Bu Jen, a mixture of fish, rice, and pungent spices. It takes hours to cook on small Hibachi-like stoves. Coumba would also prepare my favorite dish, poulet yassa, a succulent dish of chicken and onions.
Sharing, I learned, is a characteristic of Senegalese life and applies virtually to all the cultures of Africa. It was not unusual to find several friends and relatives present at meals. The backyard, alive with our laughter as we ate with our hands out of a communal plate, became a delightful dining area.
After a satisfying meal, we would stretch out on straw mats beneath shade trees and exchange stories and anecdotes about life in our different worlds. Senegal is a Moslem country where devotees are required to pray five times a day. It was not surprising to find Coumba praying while the rest of us were busy chatting and laughing.
There were several important kingdoms in Senegal’s ancient past. Many were part of the Sudanic empire of Ghana in the 700s to 1000s AD Later, in the 1300s, areas were claimed by the Mali empire and in the 1500s the Songhai empire. During the 1700s, a militant Islamic State, Fonta Toro, ruled in the Senegal River Valley.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to land on Senegal’s shores, but it came under French control by 1895. In 1960, Senegal became an independent republic.
Dakar, the capital, is Senegal’s, transportation and commercial center. The most important exports are peanuts—and the merchandise is piled high along the docks waiting to be loaded onto ships. Also, the first World Festival of Negro Arts was held in Dakar in 1966.
My hosts were bent on sharing the richness of their native cultures with me. Seydou, another family friend, for example, insisted I learn Wolof, a language often used in Dakar. Seydou would constantly speak to me in Wolof in the hope that sooner or later I would pick it up. However, I quickly found this Arabic-sounding language to have some real tongue twisters! Sakho and Primera, the two younger girls, were particularly endearing in their valiant efforts to teach me Wolof. They would shyly approach me and say in French, ca c’est kass (cup), or ca, c’est jen (fish). After several earnest attempts, I learned only to remember simple words like na nga def (hello) and magidem (good-bye).
When Pappa got home from a hard days work, he was never too tired to take us all out for a drive. One afternoon, we all ventured to Joal, located at the end of the Little Coast. This is the birthplace of Leopold Senghor, the President of Senegal. Fadiouth, a small village in Joal, is virtually an island of sea shells. While watching Coumba bargain over the price of fish at the seashore, amongst the gayly decorated fishing boats drawn up on the sand, I got my first lesson in bartering.
I learned so much more from her and from her entire family — about love, caring, and, of course, sharing. After a while, it was as if I had become a part of the family and what had been only a short visit appeared to have turned into a pleasant eternity. I knew that leaving the family would be like leaving my own kin. But, eventually, I had to say magidem. On the day of my departure, it was heartbreaking to see Coumba almost in tears. But I knew one thing — I would return.
If you too would like to experience a vacation with a family abroad, SERVAS provides a list of potential hosts in 82 countries. Write to US SERVAS, 11 John Street, Room 406, New York, NY 10038 or call (212) 267-0252. Also, the Travelers Directory offers a registry of several hundred people who have agreed to host foreign travelers in their home. They can be contacted c/o Tom Linn, 6224 Baynton Street, Philadelphia, PA 19144 or call (215) 438-1369.