Stories from Senegal: Tolerance

By: Jessica Steele

I wrote these stories a few months ago when I was reflecting on my time in Dakar and the things that I had learnt. Throughout my internship I was pleasantly surprised at the tolerance shown between Muslims and Christians.

Here are some examples:

Sundays in Dakar were a complete contrast from the rest of the week. From Monday to Saturday, Dakar was a buzz of markets, crowded public transport and bustling streets. But Sundays everything changed. On Sundays, the buses were almost empty, most markets closed down and you could walk down the street and only run into a couple people (a rarity for Dakar!). But I loved it. It felt like the city was taking time to breathe before the chaos of another week. I would explore, take the ‘Car Rapides’ to sight-see or go for a quiet brunch (In Dakar, the Quicksilver store has a small café at the back that does Sunday morning brunch. By a pool. With a resident dog that looks like a brown version of Clifford. What more could you ask?!)

This particular morning, being one of my first Sundays in Dakar, I had decided to check out one of the local Catholic churches. Before moving to Senegal, I had heard that the Senegalese church choirs were not to be missed: amazing voices combined with incredible energy. Arriving at my gate, I started talking to one of the guards on our road. After the common greeting of “Salaam Alaikum” and the response of “Alaikum Salaam”, he asked me what I was planning to do with my Sunday morning. I explained that I was going to church and he responded with:

“My parents are Catholic but I am Muslim. Here in Senegal, it is common for families to have both practicing Catholics and Muslims. There is a Catholic church just up the road. I can call my Catholic friend and he can show you the way and tell you when the Mass starts if you would like? Just do what makes you feel at home!

Oh, and when you are at Mass, please pray for me”.

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During the Easter weekend, I had the privilege of going down to the village of Mbodiene for their Easter Celebrations. Mbodiene is a small village south of Dakar that is primarily Catholic (a stark difference from the rest of the country that is 95% Muslim).

While not a National Holiday, Christians are allowed to take Good Friday off. But Good Friday is not a day of rest. Instead, Christians spend most of the day (and often a few days before) preparing a dish called ngalax for their Muslim neighbours. Ngalax ingredients include peanut butter, steamed millet couscous, baobab juice, sugar, vanilla, nutmeg and orange flower water. The resulting brown looking sludge (I know, I’m making it sound extremely appetizing) is then given to all the Muslim families in the neighbourhood. A lady I met who is surrounded by Muslims made 23kg of ngalax for her neighbours!!

On Easter Sunday, everyone dresses up in their Easter best (the brighter, the better) for Easter Mass and then returns home for a feast. The common call of “Kai rer! (Come eat!)” is heard all around town as people invite friends and strangers to share around the common bowl. If you imagine the rice platter cut like a pizza, Senegalese are taught to eat in the “pizza slice” shaped triangle in front of them. Using a spoon, or more traditionally, your right hand, you are invited to eat your portion. There is often someone who is in charge of serving the large pieces of meat and vegetables but if it is not placed in front of you, it is not yours to eat. Regardless of the number of people eating around the bowl or the amount of meat, during my 6 months in Senegal I never heard someone say that they didn’t get what they wanted or didn’t have enough. You were thankful for what you received.

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While fish is the regular meal in Mbodiene, during holiday weekends, families will kill their pig and make pork dishes. I noticed one of the woman was plucking a chicken and knowing that the pork dish had already been prepared, I went over and asked her what she was preparing:

“I’m making a dish for our Muslim neighbours of course. How do you think our Muslim friends will celebrate Easter with us if all we have to offer them is pork?”

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The Merriam Webster defines tolerance as “Sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own”.

My time in Senegal made me re-think how we accept those of differing beliefs and practices in our own Canadian communities. Perhaps it goes beyond simply allowing our neighbours to have different views than ourselves. It goes beyond saying “You can do what you want as long as you don’t involve me”.  I challenge you to have conversations with your neighbours and engage with them, even if you don’t agree with them, in order to create stronger, less fearful, and more accepting cities.

 

 

 

 

 

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