A lump formed in my throat and my heart grew strangely heavy. An inappropriately dramatic reaction to being handed the fifth bowl of peanuts in a week. I sat in my green plastic lawn chair, my most prized piece of furniture, eyeing the various sized heaping bowls of groundnuts in my room. I was running out of receptacles for them all. I took a deep breath to relax. In through the nose, out through the mouth. My room was the sickly sweet smell of burnt sugar which was still hanging in the air from my experiment with honey roasting peanuts earlier that day.
“Am”, my little host cousin squeaked in Wolof from my door, “Here”. She extended a tiny arm. Handing me the Tupperware in which I had given her roasted peanuts. Whew, a mouse proof container for my newest delivery of nuts. She peeked around the room hoping for a refill, but I had given them all out already. “Sorry, all finished!”, and she nodded and made a click sound of agreement and skipped off. There was that lump again.
It is a few days after my one year anniversary living in this village and it seems I’m already worried about my time here expiring. I only have one year left to live a life it took me one year to feel completely at ease in. This hut, this household, this family, and this village are all the same word in Wolof. I have begun to feel pangs of nostalgia and guilt when I think I will leave them all. I’m sure these feelings are premature and amplified by the milestone of my one year mark here, but powerful none-the-less.
At five o’clock that day I hoisted out of my lawn chair to go out and do my evening work. But, not before I grabbed yet another handful of raw peanuts to snack on. I contentedly munched on the gift while I strolled to my garden, thankful for the clouds and the approaching cool season. The many bowls of peanuts being offered to me were part of a custom created out of a culture where sharing and reciprocity are the ultimate relationship builder and societal balancer. The bowls from my family members represent my share of the harvest as a member of the household, while another bowl-full came from a generous friend, and yet another from a woman I just began a year-long project with. Each of them solidifying my place as part of their family.
A pile of peanuts was even given to me so I could offer them to my family and friends back in America. My host aunt explained that my ‘people’, my family, back home, was now connected to my village and my host family and therefore they deserve their share of these peanuts as well. This touching offering exemplifies, symbolically, the literal was family systems work here in Senegal; all things are expected to be shared, but anything you may need is also offered, and everyone is family.
I arrived at my garden and the friend who gave me the bowl of peanuts was waiting next to my tall, clumsy hibiscus plants with her 10 year old son. He occasionally comes to my garden to help and learn, which usually ends with me yelling at him not to destroy something, but we have fun. I offered his mother, Fatou some of the ripe hibiscus flowers to make a sweet drink with. The sunset over the tree line was aiming to be glorious, and I thanked the clouds for a second time. I hauled watering cans over to each garden bed and tree while Fatou and I chatted.
I had never known it before, but she mentioned that her 3 year old daughter was not hers biologically but was technically her niece from her husband’s side. Fatou gave birth to her one son, followed by several miscarriages and then the inability to become pregnant. In Wolof, she used the same term I had ‘to offer’ hibiscus flowers, or roasted peanuts, to explain that her daughter was offered to her since she was unable to have any more of her own. All things are expected to be shared, but anything you may need is also offered.
The offering of a daughter to a woman who has none has a social importance here as well as economic. Roles and responsibilities within the household amongst the genders are fairly rigid, and without a female child the system of work and the general dynamic of the household could be upset. To offer one’s child, or to raise someone else’s, is a normal occurrence here and exhibits how sharing and family functions in Senegal.
That night, sitting under the stars with my host mother, I shared with her my fears of eventually having to leave here. She reminded me of how often I speak of my family and friends back in the U.S. and it will be happy to go home despite it being, at the same time, sad to leave here. She told me the only thing more important than one’s health is family. “Plus”, she said, “Your orange cat misses you and needs someone to take care of him.”
Her words eased my mind but for some reason I felt a flip in my stomach and a lump in my throat yet again. I may have grubbed on too many raw peanuts.