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I’m (not) Writing About My Family – An Essay by Fernanda Romo

Posted on

09/12/19

Author

FERNANDA ROMO

PHOTO: Fernanda and her homestay mom, Ouleye; dad, Ibou; and brothers, Sidikh, Rassoul, and baby Mame Cheikh.

WORDS by FERNANDA ROMO

SENEGAL PRINCETON BRIDGE YEAR PROGRAM ALUMNI

Mungi dox literally translates to, “it walks.” In conversation, however, one might use it to mean “it’s going,” “it’s fine,” or “it works.” When I set out to write this piece, with the prompt of mungi dox in mind, I immediately thought about my family. After all, I’m living in a homestay with a total of nineteen people (I think), including three married couples and twelve kids of various ages. This is naturally bound to be a bit chaotic and might seem like a headache for people more habituated to smaller “nuclear family” living arrangements. For this reason, writing about how my household functions, how everyone pitches in, and how living in these big families actually works was sure to be a crowd pleaser. Wouldn’t everyone love to hear the conclusions I’d drawn about African family structures from my experience living with the Mbayes?

“Wouldn’t everyone love to hear the conclusions I’d drawn about African family structures from my experience living with the Mbayes? Regrettably, as appealing as that piece might sound, I’m not writing it.”

Regrettably, as appealing as that piece might sound, I’m not writing it. Mainly, because I can’t. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized that the chances of me being able to provide a fair analysis of this family’s dynamics are about as high as those of snowfall in Dakar. The mere idea of scrutinizing the way these people behave within their family, just to arrive to the conclusion that it surprisingly “works,” feels foolish at best and condescending at worst.

However, my impending erroneousness is not the only thing holding me back from writing about the people in Senegal who are so dear to me. For a long time I couldn’t exactly pinpoint why I felt a tinge of discomfort every time I thought about turning the people I consider family into the subjects of my writing, especially when said writing is directed to Western audiences. I remember once, I considered blogging about Mame Maty, my instructor Babacar’s 10-year-old daughter, who I love like crazy and who is definitely one of the people closest to my heart here. I ended up deciding against it, because something about it wasn’t sitting right with me. And even though I didn’t entirely understand why, one thought kept popping up in my mind: she’s my friend.

That’s also what I feel today when trying to make myself produce some insightful conclusions or lessons gathered from analyzing my homestay family. I don’t want to “report back” on what Senegalese families are like, both because it’s not possible to do so accurately, and because these people are, first of all, my family. Not subjects of study, not sources of all-encompassing revelations, but people who treat me like a daughter, a sister, a friend. And just as I wouldn’t write up a couple pages about my best friend back in Mexico and send it to an audience of people who she will never meet and who will form their entire perception of who she is based on my words, I don’t particularly feel inclined to do that here.

And maybe that’s a good thing. After all, I think the main reason why the Bridge Year Program works, and is so incredibly meaningful, is because of relationships. The moments when I have felt that my time here has the greatest value have all been centered around having strong bonds, familiarity, and overall friendship with people. It’s really beautiful to think about how my Senegalese family and I genuinely care about each other, and how our lives have been enriched as a result. So I guess if you asked me, “Does it work to put a random toubab1 in the middle of a household in Dakar, Senegal, and have her be a part of this family for a few months?” I’d say yeah, mungi dox.

FERNANDA ROMO left her home in Mexico in 2017 to travel to Senegal for nine months as part of Dragons Princeton Bridge Year Program. She is currently a student at Princeton University, where she spends her days looking at pictures of her time in Dakar at 3am, facetiming her five dogs, and going on rants about the fake Mexican food in the dining halls.

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