Stretching my legs after a cramped bus ride from M’bour, Senegal, I waited for the porter to throw my backpack down from the roof. I had a bus transfer in the village of Samba Dia on my way to the country’s Sine Saloum Delta.
I looked around the bus depot, a dusty field lined with boutiques. I strolled through aisles of vendors squatting next to their goods. Faded secondhand T-shirts. Multicolored plastic buckets and kettles. Sticky pyramids of mangoes, their nectar glistening in the afternoon sun.
Finally, I found what I was looking for: an old woman selling peanuts. She had about 40 plastic bags, each holding plain or sugarcoated nuts. Her head was wrapped in pink fabric and she was chewing on a neem branch, a favorite toothbrush of many rural Senegalese. When we started to talk, she pushed it to the corner of her mouth, where it bounced with every word.
My Wolof was not native enough to avoid being quoted the toubab, or foreigner, price. I decided to bargain Senegalese style: taking my time with small talk. I asked about her family, if she felt at peace, and we both praised God. Eventually, I asked how much the peanuts cost.
She asked my Senegalese name.
“Kuumba N’dour,” I replied. By sharing my adopted last name, I was revealing that I belonged to the Sereer, one of dozens of ethnic groups in Senegal. If she were also Sereer, I would have no problem negotiating.
“What a terrible name,” she said. “You must be very stupid.”
Without flinching, I asked her name.
She was Joola. In fact, the Joola are considered cousins of the Sereer.
“Joola?” I asked, raising an eyebrow. “You are selfish and love to eat rice, you pig. Begg nga cebb.”
The vendors on either side of her burst out laughing.
The peanut vendor had not smiled once. The neem stick dangled out of her mouth.
“Begg na cebb?” she asked. “I like rice? I don’t think so. You,” she said, pointing at me. “You are my slave and I know you spend all day eating peanuts.” At this point, the growing crowd erupted in laughter. The woman smiled, and with relief, I started laughing too.
As members of cousin ethnic groups, we were “joking cousins.” Whenever we meet, as a sign of friendliness, we insult each other without hesitation. Every ethnic group in Senegal has at least one joking cousin, so an encounter is rare enough to be a delight but common enough to be protocol.
Once everyone surrounding us settled down, she sold me the peanuts for half the original asking price.
“Kuumba N’dour,” she said. “Come eat dinner with my family tonight.”
More of Katie Krueger’s writing can be found online at www.katiekrueger.com. Excerpted from World Hum(July 15, 2008), an online repository of stories about travel and being a traveler; www.worldhum.com.