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Notes from Senegal

Published: October 12, 2007
Section: Opinions


I know that it is a little presumptuous for someone to assume that their time abroad is somehow worth an entire article in the school newspaper, but as an opinion writer, being presumptuous (if not a tad pompous) is almost essential. A bit of background before I begin, I am in Dakar, the capital city of the West African nation of Senegal for the semester. This is my second time in Africa, as I spent about five weeks in Ghana when I was 16 doing an exchange program for the summer. If you know me personally, you probably already know that fact as I have had a tendency to use it as a defining moment of my life and explaining my basic personality and other idiosyncrasies. This trip started sometime around my sophomore year at Brandeis, when I decided that if I had to learn a language, the best way to go about it would be to force myself to experience it first hand through a study abroad program. Seeing that I am also an African and African-American Studies major, going to the Francophone nation of Senegal (which is also the only other stable country in the region) simply made sense.

There are certain things that anyone can easily forget after five years about a region they once visited. When I first arrived in Dakar, I found myself constantly comparing Ghana to Senegal. These two nations share the same horrible history of Slavery, Colonization, and the economic collapses that came with Neo-Colonialism and other post-independence Cold War policies, but in earnest these two countries are starkly different. To say that the Asante and the Wolof are similar in mannerisms and culture requires using the same type of horrible sociology and history that guided the skewed version of Africa that the West has accepted for years. This is not to say, though, that there are certain shared experiences that someone can have when traveling in the developing world, and specifically Africa.

Unemployment is a massive problem here, to the point where the state-run television station has as many commercials attempting to dissuade the Senegalese from attempting the dangerous journeys of emigration to the Canary Islands or Spain as they do for malaria prevention. Jobs are so scarce here that in the past decade the so-called informal sector (that is the term that the cold-hearted Economists at Brandeis give to people who are forced to sell cheap, Chinese made goods on the street so they can maybe eat) has exploded to the point where the already cramped market spaces are now filled to capacity and it is almost impossible for someone to enter them with out being assaulted by a large group of people trying desperately to sell anything they might have.

Begging is also a huge problem (predictably) but here in Senegal the circumstances behind begging are completely different from what you might first expect. Many of the beggars are people who are jobless, disabled, orphaned, and the myriad of the usual reasons behind destitution, but Senegal has a unique issue of the Talibes that add another group to the already long list of people who ask for change on the street. The Talibes are young children whose parents are either dead or (more often then not) simply gave them to a local holy man, or Marabou, for Quranic teaching. As a part of their education, the Marabous require these children to ask other Muslims (who comprise around 90% of Senegal) for money as part of their tithes. Many Senegalese people give to these children for a variety of reasons besides their own religious requirement, as they also know that these children face beatings or not being fed if they do not bring back 500 CFA (around a US dollar). The issue becomes a paradox however;

as most of these Marabous who employ children rarely use the money their Talibes collect for the food, shelter, health, or even education of the children that they are supposedly taking care of. Rather, while these children sleep on construction sites, their Marabous are sitting in well furnished and air conditioned apartments in the nice side of town. Yet the Senegalese continue this practice, as it is an assumed part of their culture.

This is not the only part of Senegalese culture that seems odd however. Female Genital Mutilation is also practiced by many people in this country (particularly in the rural areas), as are teen marriages that border on pedophilia, and even incest amongst cousins. The head of the Presidents cabinet is a former teacher and a known Pederast, yet he still has his job as it is almost impossible to successfully prosecute a sex-criminal here, much less against a member of the ruling regime.

The segue into a discussion of Senegalese politics is appropriate;

particularly as his Excellency
Abduylayh Wade the President of the Republic (his full name when his 20 minute segment on the State TV commences) is visiting the United States right now, and had the experience of being congratulated and welcomed by the Congressional Black Caucus and being booed and protested by a few Senegalese people who snuck into the same event. Senegal has become completely synonymous with Democracy and Peace by the West in the past few decades since independence in 1960 as each of their three Presidents have ascended into power and have ruled in relative peace and stability. I say relative as Senegal has had no where near of the problems of the nearby countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia, or the Ivory Coast, all of which have descended into civil war and genocide at different points in their histories. Senegal does have its political problems, however, as journalists face being accosted by the police, suspected voter fraud following the surprising definitive win of Wades party in the last election, and accusations of massive graft for the ruling party from the massive construction projects in and around Dakar. Add that to the creepy feeling of seeing the Presidents Lex Luther-like photo on billboards and posters everywhere you go, and you start to realize the difference in the exact definition of democracy between our two countries. The inclusion of religion into politics even puts Bush to shame, as Wade frequently makes speeches in Touba, the religious capital of Senegal, alongside friendly Imams and the Marabous who lead the major Sufi Brotherhoods in the country (and can assemble large portions of the population to do their bidding for their President). Wade of course returns the favor by supplying his specific brotherhood with political appointments, including the new Senate, whose sole job is to provide supporters of the President with paying jobs and titles.

In short, life is different here. As a visitor, you are confronted everyday by challenges ranging from the differences in food and bathroom facilities, to the fact that your white skin can mean a meal or rent from a successful con artist. The laws are vastly different here as well, as not having your ID on you at all times or not wearing a shirt while jogging might mean a night in jail for you (that is if you dont have a few dollars to bribe the police). The fantastic beauty of this costal nation can be completely forgotten after turning your head and seeing barely clothed children passed out from hunger in a doorway. As a study abroad student whose French is in the developing stage, even more challenges are created for you on a daily basis as culture, religion, and life and general are all so different from the realities of an American college student. But the ability to remain optimistic in the face of seemingly impossible circumstances is something that can be learned from the people who live here on a daily basis. Life maybe hard here, but if millions of people do it everyday here with various degrees of success, maybe I can handle it for another two in a half months.