Walking home from class one day, I noticed le Chef of a restaurant where I go salsa dancing exiting a house. I greeted him and wondered aloud if he lived there, if we were neighbors. “No,” he replied, “I was just buying peanuts for the restaurant.”
Senegal produces and exports thousands of peanuts a year, and the peanuts here are incredibly delicious. Senegalese women use peanut grilling and salting as a way to make money; they set up street stands and make sacks of peanuts on demand throughout the day. As such, eating peanuts has become a veritable addiction for me here—a healthy, delicious snack which is inexpensive, easily accessible, and culturally appropriate.
I inquired, delighted, if le Chef could show me where he bought peanuts for the restaurant. “Right here,” he replied, and pointed to a house, just like every other house on my block, except gated and dark. He rang the doorbell several times and we waited for a man to open the door. He looked at his client quizzically, as he had just finished their transaction, and then his eyes shifted to me. “I love peanuts!” I exclaimed in Wolof, and a smile crossed his face. “Come on in.”
Le Chef and the peanut vendor walked me through three pitch black rooms, lined with peanut sacks on all sides. Then, suddenly, we appeared in a kitchen—not unlike my own host family’s—and I greeted his wife. Le Chef waited until we had exchanged pleasantries to leave me in the hands of the couple, who then proceeded to show me the process of manufacturing peanuts. There were peanuts galore—grilled, salted, sugared, bottled, shrink wrapped—all prepared to be consumed. It turns out a nation-wide business of peanut production and distribution lives two houses down from me, but I would never have known since there is no sign, no cards, and no advertisements.
This rather humorous experience illustrates the familial and underground nature of the Senegalese economy. Had I not seen le chef, I never would have found the peanut kingdom. I bought a bottle and promised to return embarrassingly quickly. The next day, I brought a fellow American who also established a rapport (almost entirely in Wolof) with the couple and was invited to return on her own in the future. Few businesses here advertise because, as I did, clients bring in friends and family. Moreover, the localized nature of the businesses creates a rather limited nature of production possibility, so no one tries to attract surplus demand.
If I was in the U.S., I would probably react to my peanut house find with an analysis of the inability of the Senegalese government to regulate the economy and collect tax revenue from profitable businesses. I am afraid, however, that all the toubabs here have acquired a bit of the c’est comme ca attitude I have discussed in previous posts. For example, many friends in the U.S. contacted me upset over a New York Times article on the Islamic talibé students who are financially exploited by their marabout teachers. Though the article nicely summarized the widely acknowledged problem, it ignored the deep-rooted cultural facets connected to the inaction by political figures. The religious community exerts considerable influence over both voters and the politicians themselves, and the state is viewed disfavorably when it attempts to regulate religious action or Islamic schooling. Citizens need the talibé in order to comply with zakat, the Muslim principle of a daily charitable donation. Moreover, children here are considered the responsibility of the community overall, not just their parents. Childhood is a time to learn humility and above all learn social standing in the place of elders. Although there have been judicial cases which highlighted the issue—for example, a child who murdered his marabout as a result of his mistreatment—it is absolutely unforeseeable that any state action will be taken on behalf of the children. It is difficult for me to explain that such inaction no longer promotes the kind of emotional reaction it did when I arrived here.
Instead of critiquing my new peanut supplier’s practices, I feel a great sense of pride in forming a relationship with them. Financial exchanges are not simply transactions here like they are in the U.S., and—interestingly enough—power lies exclusively in the seller. The buyer must greet, charm, and cajole in the simplest purchases, particularly if one is attempting to use a large bill that needs change. The peanut supplier is a working relationship I formed entirely by myself, without the help of any of my Senegalese friends and family—another marker of my growth and acclamation to my Dakarois community.
As my American friend and I left with smiles on our faces and our peanuts in our bags, the lady—“sanu yaay (our mother)”—asked us to wait and gave us nougat peanut bars as a parting gift—an illustration of her appreciation of our good humor. Ah oui, finalement je suis bien arrive—Finally, I have arrived.