Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Respect for Elders

I wouldn’t say that I don’t have respect for elders. I will acknowledge right now that my grandparents have lived a lot longer than I have, have seen a lot more things, have lots more rich experiences and know a lot of things I don’t. I also love joking around with my grandparents, they love it when my sisters and I push the limits with our humor at the dinner table, but if they are wrong about something I’m going to let them know it.

Here, it just doesn’t happen like that. Elders are respected, you are not to talk back, debate or tell someone older than you that they are anything but perfect and right. I knew this but I got a little sloppy the other day and it came back to me. I have gotten in the habit of telling people they are rude. This is almost always in response to being called Tubab, Xonq a nop (red ears – a derogatory term for white person), or to someone who has told me that I don’t understand Wolof or French or any language for that matter (the Senegalese way of encouraging you).

At lunch the other day, my friend Sarah was over, Sarah studied in Dakar for a semester during college and therefore was way ahead the rest of our group when it came to Wolof. At lunch my host-grandma, who had been acting uncharacteristically obnoxious for a few days(I think because she had a guest), was speaking to Sarah and lapsed into Pulaar, her first language. When Sarah showed she didn’t understand host grandma says ‘Deggul Wolof, deggul Pulaar, deggul dara.’ Translated, ‘She doesn’t understand Wolof, she doesn’t understand Pulaar, she doesn’t understand anything.’ To which I respond, ‘Dem na université ci Dakar, degg na Wolof, yow, danga reew.’ Translated ‘She went to university in Dakar, she understands Wolof, and you, you’re rude.’ Nothing was said at the time but I heard later from my brother Guelaye that it’s not acceptable to talk to her like that.

This got me thinking. Could this cultural norm be standing in the way of development here? Of course it isn’t a huge factor, but if an elder tells you to do something a certain way, or not to do something, you must obey orders. How many elders are going to be telling young girls that they should join the football team or study instead of washing the clothes and preparing meals, how many elders are going to tell young boys to go study or read instead of helping in the fields. Since it seems to be pretty universal that older folks are more conservative than youth, I don’t think we are going to be seeing many grandparents encouraging kids to go above and beyond for education or encouraging girls to do things that aren’t within their traditional gender roles. I see more of an ‘I did it this way when I was your age, it’s good enough for you,’ mentality than anything else.

When I think about any sort of social advance or social revolution made in developed countries in the past couple hundred years, there was always some sort of disobedience involved, people saying ‘NO!’ to their elders and to the way their elders did things. I’m not saying it can’t happen here, but development will just be more difficult and slower with people adhering so strictly to the ‘Respect your elders’ norm.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. It would be a lot easier to leave comments if we did not have to create an account first! ;)

    Anyway, this seems to tie in with refusing to question authority in general. We're used to being able to respectfully and politely disagree with just about anyone. In many cases, we must still obey authority, but we're always allowed (even encouraged) to ask questions and discuss alternate views. If it is considered rude to thoughtfully and respectfully question authority--be it religious authority or elders or government leaders--that indeed would hold people back from exploring their potential.

    Does it also seem that authority is established, rather than earned, in Senegalese culture? With just your education and capabilities and hard-earned credentials, you were unable to get people to come to your training sessions on time, until a previously-established authority (their bosses) told them to go. Your tremendous ability to teach did not automatically give you the authority to teach--some other authority had to give it to you. Yet, any elder, regardless of how little or how much they might understand, has authority over the rest of the family.

    If this all fits, then once you establish your authority, do you have a hell of time getting them to ask you questions?