From my experience in America, practicing sustainable habits often requires extra thought. When doing laundry, it can be hard sometimes to wait until I can wash a full load in order to conserve water. During the semester, I watch my tiny waste bin in my dorm accumulate trash at an alarming rate, which is a reminder to consume fewer disposable products. As for food, it can be difficult to make smart, local choices when there are so many ready-to-eat processed foods and fast food restaurants calling my name during the days leading up to a big exam. While it feels sometimes as if I have to go out of my way (or spend more money) to live sustainably in America, since I arrived in Senegal, I have been continually impressed that the majority of daily tasks I’ve observed are done in a sustainable fashion.
In my family and all my friends’ families the laundry is done by hand and dried outside on clotheslines. At my house, one must put one's clothes in the mountainous laundry pile before Jeudi (Thursday) and on Vendredi (Friday) two women come and wash, hang, and press the laundry. Laundry day is one of my favorite days because the women bring Michel (4 yrs old), Madeline (3 yrs old) and Denise (18 mos) who are so precious and whom I end up playing with most of the day!
Senegalese children learn at a very young age how to wash their clothes properly, especially how to work the suds into the clothes—which when done properly makes a loud “squish-squeak” sound that is impossible for me to make no matter how hard I try. There is a big tub with detergent where the clothes are washed—“squish-squeak, squish-squeak”—and a second tub of clean water is used to rinse out detergent. Once rinsed of detergent, the clothes are skillfully compacted, wrung out and then hung to dry on the line.
The last but maybe the most important step of the process is ironing the dry clothes—I won’t mention why; I’ll let future students discover on their own when they arrive. At my house we don’t use an electric iron but a coal-powered iron which is very heavy, and frankly a bit terrifying to use (I feel like I’m a second away from burning my fingers). To start the iron, one must heat up coals which are then put in the iron. From then on the iron only gets hotter and hotter; therefore, a bowl of cold water is nearby to dip the iron in to cool it down a bit.
Fun fact: One day I tried to wash my own clothes and all the women resting in the courtyard, including my host mother, burst out laughing when I started. Apparently they found my method of washing hilarious and quickly one of the women came to my rescue and showed me how to make the “squish-squeak”. Afterwards my host mother told me she was going to call my mom and tell her I was becoming more Senegalese day by day! J
Bottom line: The Senegalese seem to do the laundry once a week and the process uses substantially less water and no electricity to complete.
The Trash Can
In America, the trash bin may be one of the first things you locate in a household (think of how many times you ask “where is the trash? I need to throw away ____.”). But it took me a solid week to figure out where the trash can was. Eventually I discovered the trash bin, which is the size of a large waste basket, tucked away in one corner of our courtyard. I was proud of my discovery but also startled at how little waste my family produces each day. Over time I’ve noticed there is very little food waste because we will continue to eat a left-over meal throughout the week, and whatever food is left over goes to our two dogs, Lucky and Jebbi. In other families, I’ve seen leftovers, including vegetable peelings, fed to their sheep and goats.
The garbage truck, or in some cases the garbage horse-and-carriage, comes by a couple times a week and it’s a sight to see the garbage man blow his whistle or honk the truck’s horn and everyone in a half-mile radius runs out to crowd around the back of the truck to dump out their garbage bins.
At the Market or Neighborhood Boutique
It is true that for many here it is a hand-to-mouth way of living. Therefore, if you pay attention at the markets or at the many neighborhood boutiques (which sell anything from spices to bread to flip flops), you will see that you are able to buy very small quantities of one product. For example, at the boutique there are several small prepared baggies of a tablespoon of salt, or pepper, or bleach. At the market, a merchant may be selling mostly fried pastries but on the side he may have a pile of cigarettes where you can buy just one at a time when you need it. At vegetable stands I have even seen half an eggplant, suggesting someone may have only needed half at the time. This process of selling small quantities of products makes products necessary for daily living more affordable.
It is not customary here to buy in bulk. For the most part, one buys what one needs the day (or meal) one needs it. While it is seen as a luxury to be able to store food in bulk in the States, it is often wasteful, especially with fresh food that doesn’t keep very long. Here, most of the food is cooked with whole foods (unprocessed) and eaten that day leaving nothing to waste. Also neighbors and extended family members often join meals unexpectedly, which makes leftovers even rarer.
Each day I discover new and different ways that the Senegalese carry out their daily lives. While home life is very sustainable, unfortunately when it comes to the streets and public areas, littering is very common. During the day many Senegalese buy little plastic satchels of tasty juices and water along with coffee served in tiny brown plastic cups, which are all sold in the street. The trash from these treats ends up in the streets because it is customary here to just throw waste on the ground. Fortunately, there is an environmental movement here, and at the center and around town there are advertisements that read “La mer n’est pas une poubelle”—the ocean is not a dump. Good to know that the Senegalese are becoming more environmentally conscious about littering!
Hopefully this window into daily life was interesting!
Psychology Major, Art & Francophone African Studies Minor