In many ways, I’m lucky to live with a Senegalese five-year-old, even if the five-year-old in question is, nine days out of ten, driving me up a wall. I’ve noticed that the act of disciplining children makes explicit features of a culture that would otherwise be left beneath the surface. The first example I had of this phenomenon was in my first weeks here. My host sister handed something to my five-year-old host brother, and he reached out to take it with his left hand. “Take with your right hand,” she told him, drawing her own hand back. “It’s more correct.” Happily, this was a cultural practice I already knew about because of the fine job my program does with its cultural orientation. But even so, it was a fascinating instance of enculturation, and it was neat to get to see an unspoken rule be vocalized.
But back to the five-year-old. Benoit, my youngest host brother, can be a hard kid to live with. He cries a lot, he’s more destructive than even most other five-year-old boys, he wants someone to be paying attention to him every second, and he never needs to rest (and to my loving parents who are probably reading this and thinking that I’ve finally gotten a taste of my own medicine, well bully for you). It’s not just me that gets tired out by him; I feel like he spends half his life either getting scolded or punished by the adults in my host family, and my host mom has admitted that he’s the most difficult of her four children. But what I find fascinating is that the things that he does that I get angry about have nothing to do with the reasons why his family gets irritated with him.
Case in point: this past weekend, I went to the beach for a friend’s birthday party. My friend had rented a beach house, and a number of kids in my program had stayed overnight. Since I was having the homework weekend-from-Hell, I opted to come out on Saturday morning instead. I spent a nice morning at the beach, and was happy to come home in the afternoon and tell my host family all about it. Benoit, over-hearing the conversation I was having with my host mom and sister, ran into the room and had what I can only call a meltdown. “It’s finished!” he yelled, and launched into a long-winded and completely fabricated story about how I had taken all of his friends to the beach but had made him sit at home and write lines.
To my American eyes, this was unacceptable behavior on just about every level it’s possible to be unacceptable. For starters, while Benoit has told me a number of times over the last three and a half months that he likes going to the beach, he’s never once asked me to take him. Even if it was my responsibility to take my host brother to the beach, how was I supposed to know that he wanted me to unless he asked me? Next, even if I did take my host brother to the beach, I certainly wouldn’t have taken him to a friend’s birthday party. And finally, to my mind, telling lies about someone is Just Plain Wrong.
But my host family on the other hand, even though they didn’t think he was behaving himself particularly well, also didn’t think he had done anything that terrible. He had wanted to go to the beach, had told me that he wanted to go to the beach – in hindsight, I realized that “I like the beach” is a very Senegalese way of saying, “I’d like you to take me to the beach” – and when I had gone without him, he made up a story that expressed how wounded and left out he had felt. The fact that everyone in the room knew that the story he made up was a lie took all the teeth out of it.
Another example of this same phenomenon is Benoit’s habit of giving me one-word orders. Every once in a blue moon, these orders will coincide with one of my real responsibilities – for example, I now say the prayer before every meal, and he might tell me, “Pray!” But more often, he seems to be ordering me around simply because he likes the sense of power it gives him. “Play!” or “Sing!” or “Read!” or “Come here!” or “Take this!” or “Give me that!” He doesn’t just do it to me, either, but to all of my host siblings. To my American ears and mind, this never fails to rankle me, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve bitten back a “What’s the magic word?” or a sharp, “You say, ‘Will you read me this, please,’ not ‘Read!’”
With this one, there are a couple of different things going on here. First of all, in Wolof the imperative tense contains no connotations of being impolite or abrupt, and there’s no good translation of the English word “please” (the only thing that comes close is “Baal ma,” which also means “Sorry” and “Excuse me”). Even though all of my conversations with Benoit take place in French, he’s clearly thinking in Wolof and translating into French in his head – and in Wolof, his words aren’t impolite at all. The second thing going on is that I’m not yet competent enough with Senegalese culture to be able to express through body language, like my host siblings can, that I’m only doing what he says to humor him, and not because I feel like I have to obey him. As insignificant as this might seem, it ensures that every interaction we have quickly devolves into a hurt-feelings-on-all-sides situation. He’ll tell me to do something reasonable like, “Read!” to him out of one of his school books, and I’ll do it. Benoit, amazed by my docility, will then proceed to give me more and more difficult and bizarre tasks, such as “Read this in English!” “Read this in Wolof!” “Read this in Wolof while standing on your head!” until I finally refuse point-blank. Unlike orders, open refusals in a Senegalese cultural context are more impolite than they are in the American cultural context, so often my saying “No” will cause him to burst into tears.
On the other hand, there are a slew of things that Benoit does that I think are pretty trivial that my host family takes very seriously. The best example of this happened just a few days ago. I was eating dinner with my four host siblings around the communal bowl, as usual. Rather than eating sitting down with a fork held in his right hand, which is proper, Benoit was taking pieces of bread, piling hunks of meat and French fries onto the bread, and then eating his little sandwich while wandering around the room. As a girl who grew up a picky eater in white, suburban America my reaction is, “Well, it’s good that he’s eating.” My host family, on the other hand, took this as a grave misbehavior that had to be corrected loudly and immediately. After the rest of us had finished eating and Benoit was still munching on his sandwich – setting it down on the table between bites to wander off and play with his toys – my host father stormed into the room, picked up Benoit and sat him down at the table. “You eat correctly and you eat with your family,” he yelled, and then stood over his last bites to ensure that he took them properly. The thing that interested me about this is that it wasn’t Benoit’s poor table manners that really needed correction, it was that Benoit had been getting up throughout the meal to eat by himself over his toys, breaking the community of the dinner.
My family’s attempts at disciplining Benoit definitely give me a fascinating insight both into surface-level cultural practices – such as taking things with your right hand – and deeper, underlying cultural values – such as the fact that, during mealtimes, community is more important than the mechanics of self-nourishment. While I’m grateful that I have such a unique opportunity to witness Senegalese culture at play, I have to admit that I’m glad I get to leave the small children behind when I go back to the States.