Group Update from Senegal: Senegal Time


Family Activities (by Josie)

Sunday morning soccer - will it be at 9am? 9:30am? Maybe 10am? When I first started the weekly outings with Jansen, Alessandra (plus her family), and my homestay siblings and cousins, Sidir (my eldest brother) and I set the meeting time to 9am. With me being a newcomer to the family, I think my siblings decided to be extra timely, so we arrived at the meeting place even a little early on the first Sunday. Needless to say, we waited for my Senegal-time adjusted xarits (friends) for a while. With the free time, we passed the soccer ball and loitered. Once the group was completed, we headed out with no questioning of the lateness, just happy to see my friends and make our way to the beach!

Sandy beach with many people running around and playing soccer in the distance as the sun shines through the clouds

The next Sunday was similar, but the third was characterized by some lateness on our part - maybe about 9:30am. I slept in for a while and breakfast was a bit of an ordeal with lots of back-and-forths to our yaay’s (mom’s) nearby boutique. I found myself worrying that Jansen and Alessandra would be waiting for us for a while, so I called about twice to update them on our ETA. Thinking back to this, I wonder why I was so stressed…everyone runs late here at times, and I think we all expect some tardiness at this point. This response of worry is definitely hardwired in me, worrying that I’ll waste someone else’s time or not communicate well, but I see here that it’s not such a big deal. There is more recognition of the fact that our lives aren’t defined by time; we determine the time of our actions by the needs of our lives. 

Now, looking toward the fourth week, things have slinked their way later and later, as expected. Given our late arrival last time, I suggested we change the time to 9:45am, which was met with no complaints in my family. That morning, though, four of my cousins decided to tag along…but they didn’t announce their desire to join until about 9:25am, when we were ready to head out the door. The ensuing process of rounding up the troops was an effort, and by the time we made it to the meeting spot, it was around 9:50am or so. This time, Alessandra and her siblings were waiting for us - a funny flip of the script! 

Though Jansen is still yet to be the most timely person on Sunday mornings, I find it comforting to know that no matter who is late, and how late they may be (ahem - Alessandra), soccer will go on! Sunday soccer stops for no one…rather late than never, as they say. I also find that, as we push the meeting time back to a more naturally smooth starting time, I arrive with more energy from the extra bit of sleep. Maybe instead of forcing my life to fit the mold of time, I can give myself more slack, and arrive when it works for me. And similarly, I can be more understanding when I spend some time waiting for someone to arrive for our plans. I hope that, by the time I leave Senegal, I will be well-wizened to the relaxing and beneficial powers of ‘Senegal time.’

Transportation (by Athena)

Growing up in Anchorage, Alaska, I had close to zero experience with public transportation. Very few people use public transportation at all, let alone on a daily basis. I can count the number of times I’ve ridden on a People Mover (Anchorage’s public bus system) on one hand. So, when I learned I would be taking buses and klandos (like group taxis that go back and forth from point A to B) extremely often, I was a bit worried, especially considering that there is no published bus map or schedule.

busy highway traffic in both directions with a blue sky above

Without a map or schedule, how would I know what bus to get on? How would I know what time I should show up at the bus stop? How much would it cost? When do I get off? How do I get off? These questions were racing through my mind as I went to work for the first time. One of my mentors gave me an address on Google maps, but I had no idea where I was going. Supposedly there was a bus that would take me from Yoff (our neighborhood) all the way to where I needed to go–Oukam. Babacar, our on-site director, accidentally told me the wrong bus number, so I stood waiting for a nonexistent bus to come for about 15 minutes. A couple of days prior, we went as a group to a cafe. The cafe happens to be right next to my workplace. I remember that you can take pretty much any bus to Ngor (a roundabout about ⅔ of the way between Yoff and where I wanted to go), then hop on the 49. So, that’s what I did. I waited for about 10 minutes at the Ngor bus stop with two nice women who asked where I was going and reassured me that I should get on the 49. 

The 49 finally came and I eventually made it to work, only about 30 minutes late. In the US, if you show up to work late, especially on the first day, it does not go over well. When I walked in the door, I apologized for being late. My mentor, Zoe, did not care at all. She welcomed me and introduced me to the work we would be doing. One of my mentors came about an hour later. 

Now, I give myself plenty of time to get to work in the mornings. There is no way to predict how long I will have to wait before the bus comes. Traffic is ok some days and absolutely horrible on others. With so many factors out of my control, I cannot tell you how long it will take for me to get to work. It could take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour and a half. Sometimes, when it’s taking longer to get to work, I start to stress out. For the last 18 years, the idea of being late was terrifying. Sports, school, you name it–I never wanted to be late. But, Senegal time is growing on me. Five, ten, or even fifteen minutes isn’t going to change anything. While it annoys me at times, I am finding joy in not constantly worrying about what time it is, when I need to leave, and whether I’m going to be late. 

Meal Times (by Claire)

overhead view of dish of food with child looking down at the food

Back home in California, my family eats somewhat late by US standards. We’ll have lunch between 1pm and 2pm, sometimes cooking a larger meal as a family or just letting everyone sort it out for themselves. We rarely eat dinner before 8pm or 9pm, usually even later if we’re cooking up an adventurous project and overestimate our timeliness. For me, it’s hard to believe that some people in our BYP group usually eat dinner as early as 5:30pm. 

However, what surprised us all was just how late Senegalese families tend to eat their meals, making my “unusual eating times” seem fairly early in comparison. In Senegal, lunch is usually around 2:30pm or 3pm and dinner can be any time after 9pm. My homestay family takes that to another level — eating lunch usually around 4pm. Someone who eats dinner around 6pm might think this is far too close to dinner time, but the amount of time in between meals remains “normal” when dinner is eaten around 10:30pm to midnight. 

My homestay is slightly different from the others due to the fact that they run a restaurant in the evening. Lunch preparations begin a few hours before eating, and at the time that most other homestay families are eating their lunch, the women of my family are busy peeling potatoes and carrots for the enormous pot of soup that they serve to the neighborhood in front of the house. Whenever I enter the kitchen to say hello to my yaay (mom) after coming home from work, I’m greeted by the sight of buckets of vegetables and sheep hooves, my baby homestay-niece crawling across the floor, and a few smiles from my yaay’s sister and her daughters. The kitchen atmosphere is calm, free of that sense of hurry as one might find in kitchens back home in the US. Instead, there’s a steady rhythm to peeling the vegetables and pouring the meat into the pot. Slow and steady does not mean any lack of efficiency, but rather that they know exactly what they’re doing. Around 4pm, my yaay will decide it’s time to eat and bring out a large bowl of thieboudienne (a traditional Senegalese fish and rice dish), calling out to those in their rooms to come down and join us for lunch. Gradually, her daughters, their children, and whoever is in the vicinity (a neighbor, a family friend, the women helping with the laundry, the plumber who is fixing the tap, etc.) will join us on the mat in the courtyard outside of the kitchen, and the ten of us sit around the bowl scooping red rice into our mouths. My homestay father, who is blind, eats from his own plate and will often eat before the rest of us, sitting on a plastic chair outside. 

While we eat at a gradual pace, the lunchtime conversation is lively, with some light teasing or a heated conversation that I can barely make sense of. There’s a genuine sense of leisureliness to lunches at home, which is a refreshing change for me. In previous years, I would try to finish my plate in a matter of minutes in an attempt to cram in an extra fifteen minutes of studying before my test or to run to my next meeting. Though I am still unsure exactly why Senegalese meal times are so late compared to back home in the US, these times seem to make perfect sense within the schedules of my family. The 4pm lunches leave plenty of time to prepare both lunch and dinner, and the late-night dinners cap off a long day of serving the neighbors at the restaurant. Over the last two months of living with my homestay family, I have decided that lunches are by far my favorite time of day. Not only is it the one time that the whole family comes together, but it also seems to reflect the culture of valuing leisure time together and the effort that goes into preparing each meal.

overhead view of dish of food
overhead view of dish of food with meat, potatoes, and carrots
overhead view of dish of food with fish, fries, vegetables, and bread
overhead view of dish of food with dark sauce and white rice
overhead view of dish of food
overhead view of dish of food

Walking Slow (by Jansen)

street in Senegal with dust on the road, a person washing their car, and an animal crossing the road

Senegal time runs deep throughout the culture. Not only is it on the surface–showing up a little late, taking your time, and so on–but it is a way of life. The pace of life is slower, leaving more time for enjoying what is around you. An obvious example of this is the pace at which people walk. It is, quite frankly, extremely slow.

Yes, I know that hard deadlines are few and far between here in Senegal. I’m aware there is no reason to rush to my next activity, but for some reason, I just can’t walk slowly. Sometimes I’ll catch myself calculating at what point I can overtake the group of yaays (moms) in front of me while keeping out of traffic, or sometimes I'll take that step into the herd of taxis just to pass some guy taking his time. While it does bring more thrill to my daily walks, it’s not something I do intentionally. It’s a westernized autopilot: perfecting efficiency and not losing a minute to ‘laziness.’ I’m fully aware there is no reason to speed-walk to my next destination, for I have all the time in the world. But when I try to cut down the passing and match the pace of everyone around me, I struggle. It just feels so… abnormal. I find my mind tricking itself into thinking that I need to walk faster, always making reasons to stress me out. For example, when walking to the gym, I stress that the earlier I get there, the less people will be there, which is true, but the difference in walking pace is completely negligible. 

This struggle to walk slowly has helped shine light on my innermost Western values. While I may no longer feel the need to show up exactly on time, I still feel these deep roots of stress, stopping me from slowing down, greeting every third person on the street, and enjoying what’s around me. Maybe it’s the stress of living here, or maybe just a chronic thing–something I’ve grown up with, being a servant to the clock and all. It’s very minute, a small need for speed that hinders mindful walking. I would not have noticed it if it weren’t for the Senegalese walking pace. So thank you, Senegal, for helping me to downshift and enjoy the journey a little bit more.

Let the Unexpected Happen (by Maddy)

When thinking of what to write for this reflection, I found myself struggling to find a topic. I started to think more of what the notion of “Senegal time” values, instead of its literal manifestations. It is a way of living life alongside the obstacles of daily life instead of working against them: in other words, embracing the unknown parts of the day, celebrating them instead of having them feel like a wrench in the plans. As I thought more about this realization, I realized that the way I spent last Sunday perfectly illustrates this idea.

three people dressed up in dresses, smiling and posing for a photo against a pink wall

Late last Saturday night, my homestay family asked if I had program activities the next day. When I answered, “no,” my homestay father excitedly told me I would be going to a wedding with my yaay (mom) and homestay sisters. I was a bit taken aback at this assertion; I was thinking that I would spend a chill day at home watching the start of the World Cup with my host brothers, but I knew I couldn't pass on this opportunity, so I agreed and was told that we would be leaving after breakfast. 

If you’ve read any other parts of this post, you may be asking yourself, “Well, what time would that be?” And while I thought probably sometime between 10am and 12pm, it turned out to be more like 10–wait for it–pm. Not knowing this, I set my alarm for 10am and wandered downstairs for breakfast around 11. After eating, I waited to be told what to do next, so I settled on the couch with my brothers to watch the lead up to the World Cup. A little later, one of my older homestay sisters came out in a traditional Senegalese outfit and asked me if I was coming to the wedding. I answered, “Yes,” and she said I would be coming to the party in the afternoon. I estimated that this would be around 5 or 6pm. So, I spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon lounging on the couch with my brothers. My older homestay brother, sister-in-law, and their two kids left for the wedding around 3pm, making me confident that my estimate would turn out to be at least a little off. This wrench in my plan gave me the perfect excuse to do the relaxing that I had originally planned.

I waited, watching Ecuador easily beat Qatar and playing a little Catan on my phone until around 5pm, when I realized that because no women were home, there was going to be no lunch, and I was pretty hungry. I subtly mentioned that I was hungry to my homestay brother, Illyman, and he promised that we would be making lunch together. With a 1000 cfa bill in hand, we went to the boutique to grab eggs and potatoes to make omelettes with a side of fries. The only time I had seen my brother in the kitchen was to grab some water out of the fridge, so by default I started peeling and cutting up potatoes, and sending him to get the oil that he didn’t realize was needed for fries. About an hour later, our 6pm lunch was ready, and it was delicious. Illyman and I joked around that maybe we have a future in cooking. I can confidently say this late lunch gave me a huge appreciation for the comparatively early lunches we usually eat, and the added bonus of bonding with my homestay brother. 

Fast forward a bit to 9pm when my sisters came home with full hair and makeup done, and I realized I was going to be way underdressed for this function. I went upstairs and put on my only Wolof (Senegalese) dress, hoping that this would be similar to what others would be wearing. Wrong I was again when I came back down to see my sisters in pretty western dresses. They reassured me that the dress I was wearing was okay. I just had to accept that I would be sticking out at the wedding and embrace it as a moment of cultural learning.

After some pictures in the house, we were finally off. I quickly realized that I had no idea what I was getting myself into. What do Senegalese wedding parties look like? Who was getting married? Would they mind that a toubab (white person) was there? And what time was this going to be over? Those and more questions raced through my head while I tried to quiet them and just embraced the unknown. 

I still don't quite know what happens at Senegalese weddings. We were there for an hour and a half, and I’m pretty sure I didn't see the bride or groom. There was a circle with the older women who seemed to be going through some of the gifts and a big tent with most of the younger people and some music. We did a little dancing, and suddenly, it was time to leave. 

Looking back, that day helped me to learn to embrace each part of the day. Being in Senegal means I need to start living in the moment instead of wondering when the next thing is going to happen. It’s a lesson in living life as it's given to us and embracing the unexpected.

Spending Time (by Nathan)

One of my biggest continual worries is whether or not I am spending enough good quality time with my homestay family. Going into this program and talking with past participants and hearing their stories, I had imagined that I would spend the year going to the market, cooking, and playing games with my family. So when most of the time I am with my family is spent sitting in a room watching the TV or just listening to a conversation I cannot even begin to understand, it is hard to not feel like I do not spend nearly as much time with them as I should.

This whole reflection post already thoroughly talks about “Senegal Time” and the lateness and cultural reasons that might be the root of it, so I’ll skip that shtick and go on to its other effects, mainly how it affects how time is spent. I think the best way to portray it is to talk about my younger brothers. The two of them, both somewhere around ten-years-old, are by all means exactly what you would expect from boys that age. They have unlimited energy, are constantly moving, and love wrestling and smacking each other as hard as they can with pillows and shoes. But last week, I came down to my living room to wait for lunch, prime energy hour for the two of them. Instead of the normal ruckus of the house, everyone was sort of just sitting around silently. I went and joined them, finding a good spot on one of the small benches and looking around. While I was sitting, I saw the impossible: my two brothers, doing the same as me–not fighting, not talking, not watching anything, not even fidgeting, but minding their own business in peace. 

My brothers helped me realize a pretty key thing about how people spend time here. The lack of stress and pressure to always be moving and always be on time translates to people enjoying just sitting and relaxing in a way that would be impossible back home in America. While I don't think I will come to a place where I feel like I am doing everything I can at home for a while, I’m happy that I can feel like I’m getting a hang of the sitting around and doing nothing part of my homestay experience, and hopefully my family clocks that I’m there and appreciates the time I try and spend with them.

Mindfulness (by Alessandra)

Last weekend, we went to Saint Louis, a city on the northwest coast of Senegal, to learn about the effects the man-made changes to the Senegal river have had on the surrounding ecosystem as well as the history of French colonialism, since the city was the old capital of their West African empire. To get there, we had to wake up bright and early at 5:30am, the morning after Thanksgiving, to make the 7am bus. We boarded the bus, and the five-hour journey went without a hitch. I passed the time alternating between two books, playing Sudoku, eating snacks, sleeping, and journaling, all while listening to music. I am sure the others in the group passed the time in a similar fashion, maybe watching Netflix or listening to podcasts in addition. But whenever I was not staring down at my phone, I noticed that the man sitting next to me was thumbing his prayer beads and staring straight ahead out the bus’s windshield. He remained like that for the entire five hours. 

How do people in western countries define productivity? I always grew up with the notion that it was doing my homework every night and getting a head start on future assignments. But as I entered high school and its culture of over-achieving, my life became much more defined by and entrenched in productivity. I saw the value in spending more time “being productive” in the way it enabled me to keep up and stay competitive with my peers. As a result, my perspective on how I spent my time shifted. I studied more, and my hobbies, new and old, became ways to be productive; I stopped doing them just for fun. I signed myself up for more extra-curricular activities, and my free time dwindled. I multi-tasked with fervor; for example, I watched educational videos while cooking and practiced my dance club’s new routine while showering. I always tried to find something to do–kill two birds with one stone–so I could have that extra time to do more. This led to much discomfort when I found myself with free time, even just twenty minutes. Striving to spend my time well stayed at the forefront of my mind. This pattern of thinking became my norm in high school, and despite now having already graduated, I still fear wasted time. American culture has taught me to aspire to always being productive, and high school rooted in me the belief that every minute is an opportunity to get ahead. 

Having thousands of miles between my home country and Senegal has given me the ability to look at this culture of productivity through a different lens; the slower pace of life has given me the time to reflect on this difference. I see more clearly the effects of American productivity culture after spending some time in a country that does not place as much weight on productivity. A positive outcome of this cultural priority on productivity is that I have good academic habits that have allowed me to get where I am today. I had strong motivators and, as a result, accomplished more than I might have in a different culture. However, this same mindset has made integrating here in Senegal difficult. 

sheer door covering blowing in the wind

Three months of living here, and my bad habits started by productivity culture are already being challenged. In an effort to fit in here and adapt, I have observed behaviors of my family and of Senegalese people in general and found that people live much more in the moment. I have seen this in how slowly people walk and how little I see people with headphones on or people on their phones when they are out and about. I especially notice this with transportation; whether taking a bus, a klando, a taxi, or a megabus, hardly anyone is on their phones. Most of the time, people are doing nothing except for saying the occasional greetings or farewells when people board or depart respectively. 

In a lot of ways, I think productivity culture in the United States also manifests in people always doing something, whether it's truly productive or not. Mostly, this means that everyone is on their phones when not actively doing a task that requires their full attention. And the main difference in “productivity” between the two cultures of these countries is just that: distraction. I notice that people here are more present in the moment. For example, back in the States, if I was waiting for the bus for more than five minutes, I would be furiously checking my transportation app to see when the next bus was coming. Here in Senegal, I just watch the cars go by and allow my mind to wander, trusting that the bus will come soon. Last year, I would rush home after school to get on with my day and homework, but now I occasionally go to a coffee stand after work to sit down and enjoy a cup of Café Touba with strangers, even if it means I lose time at home or reading time. These actions would be considered unproductive in a Western context. I am realizing that this mindfulness is meaningful. Not only is it valuable in its own right, but also it makes for better focus on tasks that are actually important.

Granted, if there was a Dakar bus transportation app that had the arrival times of buses, I would have it downloaded on my phone in an instant, but living here is forcing me to undo these unhelpful habits. After reflecting on this, I make an effort to be mindful. I keep my earbuds and phone in my bag when going to work; I sip and enjoy my ataya (Senegalese tea) with my family on the mat around me; my family and I eat lunch and dinner without distractions; and I do not use cellular data. Not everything is a means to an end, and I am beginning to enjoy the mindfulness that comes with living fully in each moment, free of distractions. 

Novogratz Bridge Year Program