Living in Senegal as a rather obvious foreigner means receiving lots of advices (and sometimes out-righht commands) about a thousand little details of living here. Some of the suggestions, however, amount to nothing more than supersitions and "urban" legends, which are prehaps more persistent in villages than cities. Voila a sampling of Senegalese superstitions for your enjoyment!
Phone calls from anonymous numbers could kill you! According to a friend's brother, some people will not answer their cellphone if they do not recognize the number. Apparently, there was a scare a year or two ago when several people died shortly after receiving a call from the same unknown number. No one actually remembers the number, though it was from an Orange provider (77### ####), so all unknown callers are avoided. This story reminds me a bit of the videotape in The Ring, with the whole watch this video and you have 7(?) days to live. However, I find this story rather hard to believe, since people always seem to be borrowing other peoples phones when they run out of credit or battery life, and many don't oen their own personal phone.
Bury your hair or beware; witch doctors are lurking... Some people believe that witch doctors can provide spells and amulets (gris-gris) to promote their interest and welfare. And apparently, just a couple strands of hair are enough for a witch doctor to cast a spell on a person. So whenever you get your hair did, or cut, or a shave, make sure you bury the hair so that no one can find it and harm you. Sounds reall voodoo-like...
In case of a thunderstorm, turn off your cellphone and flashlight, and cover any mirrors. Last month, two local teenage boys were killed when lightning struck their hut and it caught fire. The cause? Their illuminated cellphone had attracted the lightning, according to local reports in the village. Villagers also caution that flashlights and shiny mirror surfaces will also attract lightning bolts, so turn off all electronics and cover up those mirrors! This isn't far off from many misconceptions people in America have about lightning and what causes it to strike either; there is a fair share of lightning bolts striking through telephone wires in American folklore as well.
Take off your shoes just so or a family member will die. Several times I have been reprimanded for hastily shedding my flipflops and letting them fall off my feet with one or both soles facing up. This is bad and people rush to correct my mistake. Apparently I am inadvertantly inviting death into the house if the soles are up.
Whistling at night will bring a famine. My host family in Mbour got particularly aggitated when I would whistle after sundown. I usually whistled unconsciously, out of habit and, therefore, I faced their anxious plea for me to stop a few times. Yet, they would never tell me what all the fuss was about. Finally, my language facilitator provdided the answer; some people in the Fuladu believe that whistling at night will ruin the harvest and lead to famine.
Accidental ingestion of cat hair gives you TB. Back when I still had a pet cat, my family was weary about me throwing the fish heads and fins for her to munch on. They did not want her anywhere near the family's food, which makes sense from a sanitary prospect. But the explanation they gave was slightly more snazzy: if you eat just one cat hair, you will cough and cough until you become very sick and die.
Tamarind trees are the home of the owl-form (ngirabandulu) of vampires (bu'a). My counterpart was apprihensive when I decided I seeded 64 tamarind tree in the nursery at our project site and suggested that he could sell the crop to juice makers when they matured. He was not comfortable with working with mature tamarind trees, as the belong in the forest far away from the village so that the bu'a, vampire-like creatures from the netherworld, will not find a home near people. We settled on keeping the tamarind trees in the nursery as long as I remove them before they mature.
Pink eye? More likely an attack from invisible elves... A couple months back, I came down with pink eye; I was taking medicine, but my eyes were taking a while to heal. My family was convinced that my "white-people" medicine was not working, because I didn't actually have an infection. Prehaps the small, invisible people (kudeni)who live in the forest had scratched my eyes on the way back from Kounkane one evening... They have long, sharp nails and just love to scratch at people's eyes. So my dad ran off in search of a working bicycle he could borrow to bring me to the witch doctor: I needed to have their poison licked out of my eyes by the witch doctor. Thankfully, a bicycle could not be found, so we had to settle with dangling a needle on a string in front of my face all afternoon. The needle would draw out the poison according to the thierno, religious healer.
This is just a short list of the thousands of little stories and superstitious that influence the everyday actions of my Senegalese friends and family. In addition, there are a host of amulets (gris-gris) that people wear on their arms, legs, necks, waist, and hair to protect them from snakes, frogs, sickness, drowning, thieves, fights, and devils. But then we've got our own rabbits feet and lucky charms... we've even got a cereal based off them! And in the end, it is the little querks that make life interesting.