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Making a gift to a local family

August 1, 2008

Question from Irene:

I will be coming to Senegal for two weeks on vacation, and will be staying with the family of a friend from University (in the US), but my friend won’t be there. They will be hosting me for a week (I’ll be traveling the other one), and I want to make them a nice gift. From what I understand, they are sort of local middle class (the father is a retired high school teacher, I don’t think the mother works – there are a lot of brothers and sisters). What can I bring that would please them and not be offensive?

Answer by Alex (Dakar expat):

Hi there Irene – Although there is probably a large difference between you and them in terms of buying power, you don’t want them to think that you primarily see them as being poor. You should therefore stay away from basic necessities, such as toothpaste. On the other hand, going for a gift that would be totally out of touch with the reality of their life, e.g. a box of Nespresso refills, would obviously not be ideal either. Also, as Senegal is 95% Muslim, the odds are that they do not drink alcohol, so it’s always safer to stay clear from that.

From my experience, the best thing to bring is fragrance. People take great care of their appearance, and fragrance is an essential part of it. There is a lot of cheap fragrance available, and when it’s the good stuff, they can tell the difference. Moreover, fragrance is extremely expensive in Senegal, about 30% more than what you would pay in a shop, and about 50% than what you can get at the airport. Therefore, I would buy a bottle of good designer fragrance for the mother and, if you can afford it, one for the father too.

Regarding the brothers and sisters, an easy way out could be to find something kind of nice, cheap and that suits everyone, such as H&M accessories that cost about $5 each.

In addition to that, a nice thing to do can be to bring some clothes you and your friends no longer use, but that are still in a decent state (and clean), to give to the kids and other people you meet there. Do make sure however to do this at the end of your trip, so that it looks more like something you leave behind, rather than that you are just handing down stuff you were about to throw away (which could be slightly offensive). If you want to avoid getting involved in distribution, you can leave the clothes with the parents, for them to do it. I suggest you be casual about the whole thing, and humble: it is better to ask if by any chance they could use those clothes which you will not be taking back, rather than proudly say: “Look! I brought you some real clothes (although they’re no longer good enough for me)…”

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