Senegalese Respect

I never should have made that French toast. I had missed cooking and American food so badly that I’d spontaneously decided to buy dehydrated milk, eggs, bread, and oil and managed to prepare a half-decent “dinner,” that sweet, thick, crispy dish I used to make every Sunday morning after a late night. Matar, my 26-year-old brother, liked it. But I didn’t realize how much at the time.

He mentioned the “pain au lait” (bread with milk) quite a few times over the next few weeks and, despite my dwindling reserve of cash, I tried to make it again. But I could only find the dry, hard mburu and resorted to making an onion omelet, much to Matar’s dismay and complaint afterwards. There was no “thank you,” or “that’s okay,” even though I had just bought and prepared his dinner in a foreign kitchen with a stove made out of an old oil barrel.

Today, he asked about the French toast again, specifically what ingredients. After informing him, I told him I could show him how to make it. He laughed and said nothing more. At nine in the evening, he called me into his room, showed me the ingredients needed for dinner for one, and ordered me to cook for him. I was a bit shocked to say the least, and replied again that I could show him how to cook it.

He said, “No, I don’t have time,” with a big grin on his face, after spending the last three hours watching TV and speaking with his girlfriend on the phone.

“Can you at least help me?”

“I told you, I have to go, bring it to my room when you’re done and I’ll be back soon.”

In my three months inhabiting this mysterious West African country, gender and age roles have been perhaps the most apparent aspect of Senegalese culture. There’s no word for just brother or sister, you must either say older or younger brother or sister. The oldest brothers eat with spoons while women their age and older eat with their hands. At any points, my brothers or I can ask one of our younger siblings to bring us water, or buy candy from the store. The young must respect the old, and women must keep the house and clothes clean, while men either work or listen to the radio.

This division of labor is very unlike my childhood in the United States. I have always set the table, help my father cook dinner, and do the dishes as long as I was tall enough to see into the sink. When I told my family that my papi prepares dinner most nights, they grabbed their bellies and roared, how can a self-respecting man cook! Up until this point, I had been enjoying this part of the culture, too.   I haven’t washed clothes, or cleaned dishes, and when I try to sweep or clean anything the broom is instantly confiscated by one of my hard-working sisters.

So when I told the oldest brother in our family and my English-speaking best friend here Ibou Laye about my dislike of Matar’s demand, he smiled and explained me the rationale for this social hierarchy.

“Matar is your older brother. If he asks you do something, you have to do it. You also have little siblings, who must do whatever you ask. Matar is my little brother, so if I tell him to cook dinner, he must. It’s part of the culture. It’s respect.”

“But respect should be mutual. That respect only goes one way,” I retorted.

He laughed again and went to spend time with his girlfriend.

I have no clue what I will do if Matar asks me to make him dinner again.