Adventures in Sngal: Marijuana – Forbidden and Prevalent

Nora G. Hertel

I was just starting to feel culturally proficient when I was reproached for unknowingly putting my reputation – and therefore the reputation of my family – in a precarious position.
I have met several young men in my neighborhood, some of whom are sketchy, some of whom are nice. One such friend happens to smoke marijuana right outside my house.
I was curious as to what my family thought of this, but no one had addressed the issue to me, and I didn’t bring it up for fear of 1) proving that I know what pot smells like and 2) bringing it to their attention that it was being smoked outside their house.
After several weeks of brief interactions with Mour, my neighborhood friend, I agreed to eat lunch with his family. His family was incredibly warm, including his sisters, which was especially great because girls my age are quite reserved.
I really appreciated having the opportunity to experience a different household, and all aspects of the meal were enjoyable. Despite this great experience, my interaction with Mour excited some concern in my host family.
Sunday morning my host dad came into my room and told me – as nice as possible – that he and his wife do not associate with the guys in the neighborhood. He told me to ask them not to stop by to see me or to pick me up.
While he said that I’m totally free to do what I want outside of the house, he clearly condemned my association with these guys. That same day a family friend came in my room to elaborate on all the vices of my new friends. He sat on my bed and after telling me to avoid “those types of people,” said very earnestly, “Do you know what they do, just outside the house, all day long? They are doing drugs.”
I am obviously going to respect the warnings and wishes of my family, but I’m having a hard time accepting this stigma against marijuana because it is a very prominent but unspoken part of the culture here.
When I recounted the above story to a few other American students, they had stories of their own. One friend in a Muslim household has a host brother who was caught smoking pot in the house, moved out, and has since moved back in and resumed smoking pot – in the house.
Another friend in a Christian household has a host brother who smokes in his room, and while the maids cough conspicuously every time the odeur wafts downstairs, his parents seem to be oblivious.
In addition to habitual smoking in houses and neighborhoods, reggae parties are notorious for having marijuana. These parties are held multiple times a week throughout the city. To avoid conflict, the entry fees to the parties are used to pay off the police. Marijuana may be reserved for one part of the population, but its use is incredibly conspicuous.
I have not sought marijuana once since I’ve been in Sngal, but it seems to be everywhere, notably around the youth culture. I haven’t noticed any use by young women, but young men smoke it almost unabashedly. When I told one of our tour guides – a female Senegalese student – about someone offering me a joint she looked really concerned and said, “you should avoid that man, drugs are very bad for you.”
I’m having a hard time reconciling the stigma against pot to the fact that I smell it every time I walk through my neighborhood. The same fear of drugs exists here as it does in the U.S., and it seems that youth rebel in the same way to those restrictions here and at home. My host family treated me as a daughter and I have no desire to rebel.
I have a feeling that bad associations and tainted reputations are more hazardous here than in the U.S. While I lament the stereotypes that exist in Sngal and in the States, I’ll have to dance around them even more carefully here than at home.