Communal Eating In Senegal
Communal Eating In Senegal

Last week I found myself dreading meal times. Eating left me feeling emptier than before, I ate. Though my belly was full, my soul felt emptier or the ‘hunger” had not gone away as one would naturally expect after a meal.   I found that to be  a puzzling phenomena.  How is that possible? How can I eat and still feel as hungry as if I hadn’t  eaten a single thing even though my stomach is full of food? Is it the food I choose to eat?  Or is it because I am not  making it myself? Why eat if  the  hunger does not  disappear?

I found that two things happened in this case ;   I either wanted to eat more hoping that the next thing  I eat will fill that gap or I just “forget” to eat.   But because the” full but empty” feeling is stronger right after you eat, it gives the illusion that  a little more food will quench your hunger for good so the  former is much more prevalent.  address

So this “full but empty” phenomena is happening to in the same week that the subject of food and eating in South Africa was making headlines and all for the wrong reasons.   “South African members  of parliament blame fattening food in parliament for their obesity” did not only make local headlines, the story was  covered by most of the major international news agencies. It was a peculiar story to say the least. A parliamentarian was quoted blaming the caterers for their obesity.  Parallel to that story a food services company published research which found that South Africa is the third fattest nation on earth. The study found that 61 percent of South African adults ate more and exercised less. At the same time there is a new global trend of  restaurants catering for people who want to eat alone. The first of its kind in Holland, Eenmall, offers diners a chance to eat completely alone with a single chair and everything. Founders of the  pop-up restaurant say they wanted to prove to the world that eating alone is not a taboo. In addition to that there’s the growing concern about an exponential increase in genetically modified foods in the country which makes  basics such as “maize” and “milk”  not what they used to be.   There seems to be a lot of issues involved in eating!


So through news and current affairs I realized that I was not the only one having  trouble eating;  it seemed that I and 61 percent of our nation simply didn’t  know when to stop, eating. Of course it is understandable, eating is necessary for life – food is our life-source. So often people are more likely to encourage you to eat and eat more instead of advising you to eat less.  It can be a touchy subject  this eating  business. Because the fact remains that regardless of your size – everyone has to eat. Everyday preferably.  So regardless of what the facts are whether you’re  eating too much or too little is never anyone’s fault (really) since everyone has to eat right? Who are you to judge?

So why are we the third fattest nation on earth? How did we get here? Why are we eating so much? We must be stuffed if we are the third fattest nation in the world right?How do we solve the problem of obesity? I  for one am generally a light eater preferring to eat small amounts of food throughout the day instead of huge meals at one sitting. So this new change in me was troubling. I won’t blame winter or anyone for it.  In  an  effort to get to the source of the problem I decided to  experiment a little.  I fasted for two days drinking only tea and lemon water, then I ate what ever whenever I felt hungry, but since I had no food where I stay I had to go out, to cafe’s and restaurants to get food fast. The restaurants I visited were disappointing.   At most restaurants I found there was no love at all in the food, there was no evidence of care  from the moment of preparation to the presentation. There are some exceptions though, which came with equally exceptional prices,  but generally food at most restaurants was treated as a means to an end  and not an event in and of itself.  Tired of  being disappointed, I then decided to cook my own meals at home  and see if that would make a difference to the “full but empty” feeling.  Since I am a minimalist,  I chose ingredients that will be quick to prepare: spaghetti basil, garlic, ginger and olive oil pasta which I found much more fulfilling both to my stomach and my soul.  Through this week-long experiment I found that  eating out at bad restaurants or having ‘take-out” food increases the full but empty feeling while  preparing my own meal at home left me feeling much more satisfied and full  but it did not close the “full but empty” feeling entirely. So what gives?


I found myself thinking often of Senegal when the subject of food came up. When I arrived in Senegal it took a while for me to eat local food.  Non-Senegalese people didn’t offer much confidence in Senegalese cuisine. The food is too oily and bland they said. So I ate chicken and rice which resulted in the same  “full but empty” feeling.

That feeling lingered on until I moved in with a Senegalese family where it was mandatory to eat together twice everyday  2pm lunch and 8 pm supper by clockwork.  There I learnt a new way of eating. A knock came at the door. “Jedi viennent manger” Jedi come eat.  Whether I felt hungry or not.  I arrived to find the entire family huddled around a huge platter of rice and two fish (see picture example above). Spoons positioned in around the tray or platter in a circle. The men squatted or sat on little stools, while women sat on the floor on their thighs, leaning to one side. Each person then began to eat from their section and the matriarch would distribute pieces of fish (a staple) and  vegetables to whoever needed.  It was a much more intimate way of eating which I had last experienced as a child. This brings you closer together in a way that I cannot fully describe using words.

At the “table” it was easy to tell if someone was happy or not,  just by the way they ate. It was easy to notice if someone was not home or deliberately missing meals. In Senegal there are only two excuses for not eating at home with your family: either you are at work or you are not well enough to eat with the family. No other excuse is permissible. At first I found this practice to be too claustrophobic (going against my individualistic eat when I want where ever I want preferably on my own sensibilities).  But soon I found it was the only way I found joy in eating and meal times and eating became something I looked forward to and enjoyed! No matter how hungry I was I would wait until it was meal times to eat with the family or go to town and share a meal with my many friends. I ended up eating much less than I would  eat if I had a plate all to myself. But eating was a more satisfying experience.

Sharing food is an ingrained part of Senegalese life, regardless of class or status. It doesn’t matter who you are or even where you come from, when it comes to food – Senegalese people share.  Their way of eating is not different to one the worlds fastest growing super powers – China – where meal times have been (this is changing) a treasured tradition. There meals are severd in smaller bowls  – but families also eat together as a matter of principle. Meal times or eating becomes a key feature in a persons day.  I’ve shared food with complete strangers in Senegal – eating from the same bowl as them with no fuss. Many of them did not have a lot in a way of material things, but they had food which was almost always shared. Even a tiny cup of coffee is shared in Senegal. To such an extent that those who decide to eat alone in the presence of others have to apologize first  for not sharing before they eat. But those cases are rare since everyone shares. If you had something to eat you shared. My understanding of that was, you don’t know who is hungry and to save people the indignity of asking for food you just offer it.  I have shared food with mamas selling coffee on the street, street traders, different families, domestic workers, and even sex workers.  I ate much less than I do now but I felt fuller and happier, without intending to, just by sharing.


I must admit that even I could not have imagined sharing to be the answer to all our  dietary  problems. I mean seriously? Something so simple right?  So while the amount of fat in your food, GMO content, how much you eat, how you eat it and with whom you eat can contribute towards your health,  eating alone is the biggest factor which contributes to this ‘full but empty’ phenomena which causes people to eat but feel unsatisfied and eat more than they need to.  We only have to look at the American lifestyle that prizes “individual happiness” above community. They are the fattest nation on earth.

The emptiness can not be eroded by more food because it’s not the food that is the problem but what you do with it.  When it comes to South African politicians their problem is understandable:  Their works is largely desk based,  they don’t use up as much energy as they consume and more over one person will eat the same amount of food in one sitting  which a family of ten people in Senegal would share at dinner. One would have to be a construction worker lifting boulders and boulders of rock or some physically strenuous job to eat that much food or spend most of the day doing physical labour which is not the case. Maybe the parliamentarians are depressed ( depression can cause people to eat more), or unhappy or bored with the work they do, so they overcompensate by eating – because something is missing. Eating something with lots of sugar and fat is the quickest ways to get that instant gratification feeling.

Eating is also linked to our emotions.  So it stands to reason that they would increase in size. In fact people in Senegal often joke with each other when they see a man (especially) or woman who has bulging stomach. They say “oh so we see you eat alone these days huh?” Once people get high paying jobs, they start to blow up and become disfigured from eating too much on their own and then end up  paying loads of money for gym memberships and diets they never use.  Eating to fill a gap that food can never fill.

If you eat with others you are unlikely to want more than your  fair share  of what is on the plate. It causes one to be accountable. The eating process is transparent. Everyone sees what everyone else is eating. You will be more likely to consider others around you who are eating from the same plate as you. I know what you are thinking… this will take time but wait…

Haven’t  you noticed how old or  new lovers often without thinking tend to eat from each other’s plates almost subconsciously.. when people are in what we call love, children (toddlers do this too) they want to share more of themselves and more of what they have with others  and food is one of the first places where the sharing happens. So while we all do eat alone at some point by choice or circumstance – we are happier and “fuller” when eat together in the company of  others, and we are more likely to  be filled by much less food if we eat from the same plate.


Now there are always exceptions to every opinion and rule but I think psychologically we are more satisfied with our lives when we can share ourselves with others,  the  little we have becomes more when we break bread with others. If we do this from an understanding that each person needs food as much as you do and the subtle truth we are not made “full” by bread alone,  that we are  happier together than  apart, even if the only time we are together is when we eat unless we recognize the value in sharing:  the food we eat in the privacy of our own homes or restaurants eventually becomes poison.

The  Senegalese (West African way of eating) is not a new Phenomena in Africa or globally for that matter, we just stopped sharing and because of that we have become increasingly bloated, full but empty. There are many things one can do to cure this, but the most simplest of them all is to just share – the most happiest diet on the market and it’s for free. Share. Partage. It’s natural, it’s in our nature to share.  If  I were president  this would be my state of the nation address today. Sharing heals.





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