By Talia Katz, ES’17
In Tomboronkoto, Senegal, a rich tradition of communal greetings structures each day’s rhythm. This ritual, which once served as a tool for reducing ethnic tension, ties village members into a web of intimate daily connections. This piece explores how repeated, quotidian greetings shape the worldview of all those who participate in the practice.
For a year the sunrise, the Adan (the Muslim call to prayer), and the Malinke tradition defined the rhythm of my days. It was the year in which I lived in Tomboronkoto, a small village in southeastern Senegal. It was the year in which, to my luck, a community of 500 Malinke adopted and integrated me into every aspect of their lives.
In Tomboronkoto, and in West Africa more generally, the day begins with the question “Hera sita” (Have you spent the night in peace?), to which the answer is “Hera dorong” (peace only). The answer is always “peace only,” even after a night spent awake because of insufferable heat or hunger pains, even after being bitten by mosquitos all night long, even after spending the night alongside your best friend in the hospital. As long as you are alive you’ll always answer that you spent the night in peace. It is important to note that the interaction does not end with just one question. After “Hera sita” follows “Kor tana man si” (Has there been no evil in your night?). From there, one proceeds to ask if your husband, mother, children, grandmother, cousins, and friends also spent the night in peace. The answer to all of these questions is, of course, peace only. Moreover, it is not enough to ask these questions to one representative from each family in the community. According to the informal rules of the village, one must ask these questions to each family member, despite the predictable response.
Consequently, every morning after waking, I arranged my mosquito net, placed my feet on the hut’s floor, and breathed deeply for a minute before opening the door and launching into the greetings tradition. Every morning began with greeting Grandma Bintou and closed with Ibou, the five-month-old baby. It is forbidden (or at least strongly frowned upon) to shower, brush one’s teeth, or even go to the bathroom before greeting each and every person. Thus, the greeting tradition influenced my plans every evening: how much water to drink, when to shower, when to go to sleep.
Once, I unfortunately forgot to greet a close friend named Mamadou, a young man who worked in the gold mine. I ran into him on the street and saw how distressed he appeared. Before I even managed to ask him what was wrong, he took my hand and asked:
“Bintou [my Malinke name], is everything alright between us? Why are you upset with me?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about… I’m not upset at all. Why would you think that?”
“This morning you didn’t come to greet me.”
“I’m so sorry, I really am,but I need to explain something to you. In my culture, we don’t greet everyone every morning. For me, this tradition is completely foreign. I would like to promise you that I will never forget to greet you again, but unfortunately it could happen. I have trouble with the greetings and it doesn’t help that we greet in the early morning when I’m still tired.”
“Wait, there aren’t greetings in your culture? That seems strange to me.”
“Correct, we don’t have greetings, at least not ones this intensive.”
In the distant past, the greeting tradition served as a mechanism for reducing and relieving ethnic conflict. The long and complex process of greeting the passing shepherd or merchant humanized the foreign tribe. The villagers would invite him to eat, and during the meal, one would passionately ask the greeting questions, as if the two were soulmates. The mutual expectation of greeting and hosting, which is found across West Africa, produces unique social connections.
For an entire year, the question “Hera sita” dictated my daily routine, my relationships, my goals, and thus, unsurprisingly, my worldview. Here in New Haven I no longer wake alongside the sun and braying donkeys, and I definitely don’t ask the student who sits next to me in seminar if he spent the night in peace. Nevertheless, the mosaic of Malinke questions still accompanies me every day, when memories of mornings in Tomboronkoto break the silence of mornings in New Haven.