Senegal is a religious country. Most people are Muslim. Daily life is imbued with religious symbols and practices. When you greet, you say ‘assalamu alaikum,’ which means ‘peace be upon you,’ and, very often, before starting some activity, you say ‘bismillah,’ which invokes Allah.
Khady is a woman who works for us, i.e. ‘the maid’ for lack of a better term. She is both fiery and pious. She's a second wife and lives in the city to earn money for her family back home in the village, including her husband, where work options are pretty limited in the dry season when people aren't farming. She wears a headscarf and I think I've only seen her hair twice in the four months we've been here, and I've never seen her knees.
Khady utters ‘bismillah’ before she takes the first bite of whatever she’s eating. Grace has taken to saying it, too. We’ve never been a praying family, and not religious, either, but I like the idea of saying something before eating just to recognize that we are about take sustenance into our bodies. I think it orients one to being mindful and to ground oneself in the mundane, but necessary and wonderful, act of eating.
This morning, I happened to be in the kitchen when Khady started to sweep. I heard her whisper, ‘Bismillah.’ She said it so quietly that had I been a few steps further away from her I would not have heard it. I expressed surprise and asked her why, and she said that she must be thankful that God has given her health to work.
Being a maid is not what Khady wants to do. Before I met her, she was just taking in laundry and, from what I gather, just scraping along. The thought that she’ll have to go back to that is discouraging for me, and even more discouraging for Khady, and we’re talking about what options she has when we leave. But, that she approaches the day, even the toil, with gratitude is a beautiful lesson for me.