On a hot day in Senegal, a lesson in generosity.
“Can I sit here?”
I was seated at a wide table with three empty chairs. After a quick look up at the beautiful woman, I hastened my response: “Sure.”
We didn’t speak another word, reading our respective books. But an invisible fist knocked my head: asking permission is a common ritual in Canada, there is little flirtatiousness in politeness. But why have I suddenly found it unusual rather than polite to ask permission?
A year earlier.
We are seven people crammed in a station wagon. The heat is relentless throughout our eight- hour drive from Dakar to Casamance in southern Senegal. Dusty blue curtains cover the car windows to shelter us form the scorching sun. I’m very thirsty. Even warm, the bottle of water between Amina’s feet glitters like gold.
“What is the word for ‘please’ in Wolof?”
“We don’t have one.”
What began as an attempt to be polite shifted into a reassessment of my fundamental assumptions. Sensing my bafflement, Amina discusses the concept of property in Africa. You do not possess things per se; there is an inherent sense that property goes beyond an individual.
“What is mine is yours and yours is mine. Why would I tell you no?”
I later come to understand that in Africa generosity is organic. There is almost a competition to give things away. Compare this to Western ideas of competition, as described by Canadian author John Ralston Saul in The Doubter’s Companion: A dictionary of aggressive common sense:
“Competition: an event in which there are more losers than winners. Otherwise, it’s not a competition. A society based on competition is therefore primarily a society of losers…”
In the African context, there are serious consequences when taking becomes more valued than giving. The ‘takers’ can easily exploit. The ‘taking’ is more than just physical: it kills the spirit.
Initially oblivious to the conversation in the car, I kept an orange I had bought earlier. When we arrived in Casamance, I forgot my orange in the car. Someone picked it up and put it in a cooler at the house where we were staying. My first thought was to find an isolated area where I could eat it: I was very hungry and there wasn’t enough for everyone. I reflected back on the ‘giving’ conversation we held earlier. I peeled the orange and started to walk around the house, giving a piece to people. Soon, I had nothing left. Including my hunger. It was gone.
Fodé Beaudet is a Canadian who explores his activism through writing.