Adventures in Sngal:

Nora Hertel

As a native English speaker, it’s interesting to experience a bilingual culture in which neither language is English. Because I don’t understand everything that is said, certain phrases and words in Wolof and French stand out.
I’ve become quite accustomed to hearing “toubab,” which is a benign term for a white person in Wolof. My favorite word in the Franco-Wolofian vocabulary in Dakar is “doucement.” Doucement is used in many different contexts and can be translated in a number of different ways.
Literally, doucement means sweetly, and is a frequent command to children and awkward exchange students. It can be interpreted a few different ways, for example: “easy does it,” “careful,” “slowly” and “with finesse.” The diverse uses of this term highlight the grace – and lack thereof – involved in walking, eating and dancing around the city.
Maneuvering through the streets of Dakar is not a simple task. Sidewalks are inconsistent, to say the least, and vehicles swerve around potholes and people, honking frequently to make their presence known.
A few days ago I was walking by myself when I tripped on a rock. I looked up to find four young men laughing and advising me to be careful. Doucement, pay attention. This has happened more times than I would like to admit, including two or three times in the same day.
I am becoming immune to the embarrassment that accompanies my awkward stepping more quickly than I am adjusting to the rough terrain. Even if I continue tripping, my recovery will be graceful because I’ve done it so many times.
Eating here has been an experience that I approach with hesitance and care. Since my family often eats with their right hands, I observe as much as possible before I dig in. Not only do I want to be inconspicuous, but I am also afraid of eating more fish bones than my stomach acid can handle.
The Sngalese diet is based around fish and rice, and the fish are often fried and served whole. A few nights ago my host family was discussing their eating habits. I was singled out as a very slow eater. Nora eats one bite at a time, doucement, doucement. I’d much rather err on the side of caution when it comes to bone-picking.
The strangest use of the term doucement was when it described a dying kitten. My neighborhood is full of stray animals, including numerous kittens that are left for dead. The group from Lawrence often discusses the heartbreak that we experience when we hear the tiny cats or see their little carcasses.
We tried to explain to a professor why we were so saddened by the animals. We were struggling to say that one cat was dying slowly, day by day. Once she understood she said, “Oh, it was in agony, doucement, doucement,” to describe the cat slipping away.
When doucement is not describing my eating habits or dying cats, it is also used to command finesse. I was making my way to my first party in Sngal with several friends from Lawrence. We had learned a few dance steps in music class a few days earlier and were joking about dancing poorly.
Meghan M. started dancing in the middle of the street in an exaggerated fashion and was quickly stopped by a young Sngalese man. “Oh, no, no, no, no, no, it’s not like that, doucement, doucement,” as if she would hurt herself if she continued dancing in that way.
Doucement has become a catchword for me, and I seem to hear it everywhere, addressed to me or to various children and describing slow processes. I am impressed at the spectrum covered by such a tender word.
I think I will return home with either more grace or more shame of my awkwardness. In any case, I now approach my daily activities with as much sweetness as I can muster.