Adventures in Senegal

Nora G. Hertel

My house is situated in a neighborhood adjacent to the police school, so it’s not unusual to see large quantities of young Senegalese men in their police uniforms. Last week I accidentally went to a nearby telecenter – a small shop with phone booths – at the same time that the police school has its break.
The center is about the size of a single-car garage, has a single booth, three chairs, a table to sit on, a refrigerator, and – notably – a counter that sells liquor and beer. When I arrived with Cline V. there were about 15 men moving in and out of the store.
Cline grabbed a chair and I the table, and we were each immediately engaged in conversation by several men. After the usual salutations the next question posed was, “So, do you have a husband?”
This made me uncomfortable not only because of the nature of the question, but because I was already warm from the heat outside and there was a considerable lack of space between myself and the man asking.
While Americans are most comfortable conversing at an arm’s length, “personal bubbles” are much smaller here. The forward comments continued, “You’re not too young to get married,” “Maybe you can take me back to the U.S. when you leave,” “Where do you live?” etc.
Even though I felt awkward from the attention, I appreciated it as an opportunity to use my French and Wolof. Because marriage is a far-off prospect for me, I found this whole situation laughable. When I looked to Cline for some relief I found she was laughing at me and dealing with her own “suitors.”
I imagined that she was also refusing marriage proposals and found out later that I was right. To the surprise of those around her, she scolded one officer for telling her he wanted to marry “une blanche,” which means “a white woman.”
We were told to expect discussion about marriage as well as proposals, but it is impossible to experience the display in the telecenter without reflecting on gender and race issues. It wouldn’t be fair to let the men from that evening represent Senegalese men, because drinking is not prominent and the police, in general, aren’t viewed very favorably.
Many of the Lawrence women here, however, have received marriage inquiries in a variety of places. I have to wonder at the average success rate of these efforts, because all the women I’ve talked to are – if not offended – amused by the proposals.
I think that men target local and foreign woman equally, but my language and cultural deficiency make it difficult to respond.
I may take the path that several friends have already tried and answer, “yes, I do have a husband,” in order to end further discussion on the matter.