Throughout the year in Senegal, but especially during Ramadan, the traditional toothpick, the sothiou, can be seen in almost every mouth. In addition to cleaning your teeth and freshening your breath, it is also seen as a sign of piety, distracting you from the evils of smoking, keeping your mouth pure for prayer time, and fooling your stomach by chewing something during the fast period.
Just as with the baffling range of toothbrush technologies in the north, so in West Africa there are different twigs for different folks. There’s the Saudi “siwak”, highly prized for its pain-killing effect; the myrobalan, tamarinier, cola, or my favourite, the “mate xewel” (meaning “bite your luck” in Wolof), which will supposedly attract money to its masticator. During Ramadan, however, the “nep nep” is king. One young salesman explained,
It’s the dryest one. It doesn’t make you salivate too much. It prevents bad breath, treats toothache, calms irritated gums and heals infections with its antibiotic power.”
With these claims and a price tag of only a few cents, the big toothbrush manufacturers should take note.
But take note: they don’t come in day-glo green, orange or pink.
You can see a sothiou in action in a picture I took previously.