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Nourishing Body and Spirit: Family, Food, and Community in Senegal

preparations for a communal meal

Preparations for a communal meal served to participants in the Senegal faculty seminar. Photo courtesy Mbye Cham.

In this essay, De Anna Reese, a 2019 participant in CAORC’s faculty development seminar to Senegal, discusses West Africa’s rich communal traditions of shared food, music, and dance and how they resonate with the strong family traditions of African-American communities.

As one who teaches and studies one of the strongest and most enduring institutions in the Black community, the Black family, I was delighted to visit and dine with Senegalese families in Touba and Sokone during the CAORC-WARC Faculty Development Seminar to Senegal.

Our group invitation to these Senegalese homes was among the most memorable and heart-warming aspects of my sojourn in Senegal—and one not soon forgotten. Family ties have always occupied a meaningful, relevant, and sacred space among African Americans, especially for the enslaved who gathered among loved ones whenever they could for respite, belonging, and mutual support.

In Senegal, meal time strengthens family ties and builds community, especially for guests who are welcomed and made to feel at home. The delicious lunches we had in Touba and Sokone ignited conversations around topics such as gender, marriage, religion, and local custom, but there were other elements that helped me place these meal-time traditions alongside those within African-American families.

A powerful cultural symbol and staple in many West African cultures, the kola nut was among the welcome gestures at our lunch in Sokone, similar to offering one a beverage. Split into pieces and shared with family and friends, the kola nut serves as a symbol of togetherness, generosity, caring, and trust. The same is true in the way meals are served—family style and in a circle.

As seminar leader Dr. Mbye Cham explained, gathering around the same plate or bowl is a long-standing tradition in West African cultures as no one eats alone, but communally as a group. While it depends on what the family can afford, roast chicken, grilled fish, and jollof rice are typical dishes, prepared as part of a special treat for guests.

seminar group shares communal meal

The seminar group shares a communal meal of grilled fish, vegetables, and rice. Photo courtesy the author.

Food and music contributed to my understanding of the richness and vibrancy of Senegalese culture. During our stay, we listened to instruments from the Mande such as the djembe (drum), balafon (wooden xylophone), ngoni (several string harp), and keseng keseng (shaker-type maracas). In Sokone, a drum called the tama along with upturned bottle gourds known as calabashes were played for us.

These distinct sounds made me think about the music of the Caribbean and how many of the instruments historically used by African Americans, such as the banjo and the drum, have roots in the musical traditions of West Africa. The participatory nature of the entertainment following our meal in Sokone was also reminiscent of family celebrations across Black communities. Communal dancing gave us more social interaction with the family and one another, but it was also transformative in that it melted language barriers and invited us to become part of the community.

traditional West African communal dancing

Seminar participants enjoying traditional West African communal dancing after their group meal in Sokone. Photo courtesy the author.

Our travels during the seminar made me reflect on the 400th anniversary of Africans in the United States and the meaning of “coming home.” The kindness and hospitality of all of the families who welcomed our group reminded me of cherished memories I’ve had with loved ones at barbeques and reunions. Likewise, in every Senegalese city or town we visited, the warmth and friendliness of the people reaffirmed the way in which family and community in West Africa continue to cement one’s place and purpose regardless of circumstance.


CAORC’s 2019 faculty development seminar to Senegal was organized with the West African Research Center in Dakar, Senegal, and supported by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the following U.S. National Resource Centers in African Studies: Boston University, Howard University, Indiana University, Michigan State University, University of California, Berkeley, University of Kansas, and University of Wisconsin, Madison.


About the Author

Errol Montes Pirzarro

De Anna J. Reese is Professor of History and Africana Studies at California State University, Fresno. She was one of 17 participants in the CAORC-WARC Faculty Development Seminar on Diversity, Religion and Migration in West Africa, January 6–23, 2019.

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