Should you trust senegalese people?

As a Senegalese girl, I’ve grown up in my culture and been taught the way we should trust people. However, since I also went to an international school and traveled, I had the opportunity to also witness different cultures' way of trusting people - and it's very different! Every culture has its own way of viewing trust - when and how, and what it is to trust someone.

What is trust? According to Merriam-Webster, the universal definition is "having a strong belief in a person's goodness or ability." I believe we can all agree that to trust someone, is when we believe they are reliable and we feel safe around them, whether physically, emotionally or mentally. We can also add that when we fully trust someone, we feel comfortable to share personal information that can be potentially detrimental to us if shared.

However, as mentioned earlier, the way Westerners believe in someone’s goodness might differ from the way we Senegalese do. For my American friends, they usually are not very cynical the first time they meet somebody. It seems to be easier for them to place their trust in someone new. However for me, it takes a long time time to trust someone. I cannot trust them when I first meet them.

One time, when I went to London for an exchange program, I was living with a host family. They were all so nice to my roommate and I -- almost too nice! They would tell us about their background and even some family ‘secrets’...which to me, was shocking! I know we, Senegalese, would never talk about these types of things to a stranger. It was so easy to connect with them, and I could tell they trusted us the minute we met. To be honest, this threw me off a bit ...I felt a bit skeptical and scared of their openness. It was all new to me, living with people I didn’t know… from my perspective, anything could’ve happened! That is not always how things work back home, and I realized it is because in Senegal we are ‘Niaw Niort’ meaning ‘suspicious of other people’ in Wolof. In fact, in West Africa, we think that in order for someone to believe you are a reliable and good person, you must first earn their trust.

In Senegal, people are usually very welcoming which makes it easier for foreigners to adapt and feel at home. Though Senegal is ‘le pays de la Téranga’, we can be very surface-level or even superficial to make a good impression for guests. But, when it comes to deeper relationships, in our culture we are very careful with people. It is because some people can abuse your trust to extort money, take advantage of you, etc. We think that it is important to build a strong relationship first, which takes time and proving oneself through their actions. Even when we open up and talk about ourselves and our background, we are careful to only tell the person things that we wouldn’t mind everyone knowing, if ever that person told other people. Yeah… we really are like that!

To give a new person the opportunity to start getting to know them (and proving trustworthiness) your Senegalese friends or colleague usually will invite you to their house for lunch, to break the ice and introduce you to their family. In Senegal, you are always welcome to come to someone's home for lunch. Growing up, I had met a lot of my father’s business partners. They would have lunch at home, get to know all of us and vice versa. I even learned that Japanese people also do the same, as this is how they build cognitive and affective trust.

So if you are moving or just moved to Senegal:

  • Read blogs like this one in order to learn more about our culture;

  • Work on building your relationships over time; which requires language and communication skills;

  • Don’t entrust people that you don't know very well with anything that is personal in nature;

  • Find people who could help you navigate cultural, and financial challenges.

  • Always compare prices because sometimes Senegalese people do not tell you the real price.

This way, you will be able enjoy your stay without having to worry if your Senegalese acquaintances are worthy of your trust. You can still stay friendly, and protect yourself - and over time, develop lifetime relationships!

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