Back in the states, I am not exactly known for speaking in old sayings and platitudes. I, like, talk like your average millennial. But here, when I’m not joking and teasing like a pro, I’m handing out wise sayings left and right. And I’ve learned a few, too. Some translate perfectly, some… not as much. Here’s a little list for you, in absolutely no order.

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imagine me exchanging meaningful sayings while we shell peanuts. 

“petit a petit, l’oiseau fait son nid” – this was the first saying that I learned here in Senegal. People say it in French instead of their local language mostly, and I think its origin may be French, but people have adopted it as their own. It translates roughly as “little by little, the bird makes its nest” and means essentially that working away bit by bit at a task is what finishes it. The Wolof version of this is perhaps even more amusing and translates as “slowly, slowly, you catch a monkey in the bush”. I’m not certain that I know enough about catching monkeys to judge the truth of this saying. There aren’t really any monkeys in my area and I’m not sure why you would want to catch one in the first place. But I’m glad this idea is one that crosses cultures.

“Sey du ñaari fan” – this saying has helped me in countless ways. It has shut up men and women, both young and old, and cast upon them a mood of serious and solemn contemplation. “You should love me, why don’t you love me, I’d be a good husband!” to which I retort “you don’t even know my name, nor did you greet me, ‘sey du ñaari fan’”. The translation is ‘a marriage is not only two days’, referring to the two day wedding party we have in these parts and many other places in Senegal. To which people usually laugh at the person annoying me and all agree that yes, a marriage is not just the two days of wanton song, dance, and stuffing your face that comprise the wedding, but a long and serious commitment. I’m not sure if this translates well into English, but I can appreciate it without its usefulness in America.

“You get what you pay for”. I explained this to my family one evening after a long complaining session about the quality of jewelry, shoes, or really anything meant to last that plagues Senegal. Despite everyone applauding me when I translated this saying, and saying, yes, it’s true, you have to pay for quality, it didn’t feel like an honest saying to use in this context. How can you tell someone that they really should spend more to get something of value when people survive on so little here and when money from one day to the next is so unpredictable? The saying translates, but I don’t know that it’s appropriate for my time here.

“Time is money”. Here is a saying that really didn’t translate. After the fifth time trying to meet with a local official I was upset and irritated that he couldn’t make just 10 minutes to sign off on a project I was working on that I had already explained several times to him. What a waste of my time for me to keep calling him to arrange a meeting, walk all the way to his office, only to find he wasn’t there! I calculated that I had I had wasted almost 12 hours so far just trying to meet with this person. Not worth it! But it’s also true that when I sit with my family in the afternoons under the neem tree no one is looking to get paid or make a buck. When we take time to greet everyone at an event, it might take a while, but it’s more important that everyone is acknowledged. And in the heat of the day, time can’t be money anymore because it’s literally just too hot to do anything useful besides relax and be with people you love, which is valuable, too.

If you offer a man a horse and in six months it’s not doing well, don’t let him marry your daughter”. This one is a longer saying, but the logic in my opinion is sound and I think it speaks for itself. In a culture where the social contract dictates that men are expected to provide and women to obey, a man who does not provide for a horse can’t be trusted to take care of a wife properly. Now, in America, I’m not sure this logic makes sense. Not that many people own horses, and the needs of horses and women are different. Not to mention that the woman is likely able to look after herself thankyouverymuch. But here sadly it’s a pertinent thing to say. I wish more people took the advice to heart, as I have already seen quite a few marriages (or especially marriages to second wives) of men who I can prove do not provide for the very basic needs of the people who depend on them. But I also have yet to find anyone willing to go offering men horses to test this theory out.

“Be careful what you wish for” – I taught this to my older brother as he cautioned me against praying too hard for lots of rain. The first rain of rainy season got me excited; it was cool, it was wet, and it made everyone sleep in. Every day I asked “soooo…. Think it’ll rain today? A lot?” and he would always chuckle and shake his head at me “Ndeye Khadi, you sure do love the rain. But please don’t pray for it too much. Too much rain means floods”. He understood the idea behind ‘be careful what you wish for’ immediately and I have toned down the rain talk.

“Don’t shit where you eat” – this was actually the experience of another volunteer, who explained to her family that no, she would not marry her work counterpart because she works with him too much and didn’t want to ‘shit where she ate’. They didn’t get it. Because here that’s no problem! Teachers date and marry students, professional relationships can be personal, and keeping it in the extended family is what it’s all about. At least in my village. So this one doesn’t translate, and relationships are seldom, if ever, confined to the personal or professional lane. Most of the time it just means more friends, sometimes… People suggest you marry your work partner.

“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” I was teasing my older brother about how his son likes to yell at people. “I swear, this boy likes to yell at people TOO much” he announced to the family before storming off to his room and then yelling at his wife that it was all her fault. I turned to my twin sister “the fruit never falls far from the mother tree”. We laughed. That one translates well, and its wolof translation, from what I understood, is something along the lines of “the monkey is as ugly as his father”. In that context, both worked.

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The ‘buy’ doesn’t fall far from the ‘guy’ (the baobab fruit doesn’t fall far from the baobab tree)

“Taatu neen” – I tried once to suggest to my cousin that he wear his ‘birthday suit’ to his school’s dance that night. It took so long to explain that in the end everyone was just confused and no one laughed. That joke bombed. But on a positive note the equivalent for ‘birthday suit’ is ‘taatu neen’, which translates directly as ‘egg butt’, which doesn’t make much sense until the little toddler refuses to wear pants and his little but really does resemble two big brown eggs. Next time I will suggest that my cousin wear his egg butt to the dance.