IHP Cities in the 21st Century: People, Planning, and Politics (Spring)

2012 Letter home from Senegal

Text and photos by Trustees Fellow Maggie La Rochelle and IHP Student Andrew Grant

The fast-paced tempo of the mega-city of Delhi came to an official rest on landing in Dakar, Senegal. Once outside the airport terminal, our heart rates and walking pace slowed in an attempt to match those of the people around us - how different the feeling! The relaxed atmosphere of Dakar was something we noticed quickly, and to which we gratefully responded. Still our eyes remained wide, curious, now conditioned to seek the new environment around us.

First Impressions 
After warm introductions from our coordinators Waly Faye, Mariane Yade, and their team at the West African Research Center (WARC), we promptly began our etiquette training in two crucial Senegalese practices: dance and food! Naturally, we started with a Senegalese dance party. Moving with agility to the rhythmically complex West African beats was not immediately possible for our jet-lagged bodies and untrained ears, but after a little time and help from our expert coordinators, we began to get better…a little better (or as they say in Wolof, “ndank ndank,” “little by little.”)

After our first dance lesson, it was time to learn how to eat: we enjoyed a traditional Senegalese meal of rice, beef, and vegetables with onion sauce (these onion sauces are unreal), seated around a big communal bowl on the ground, and used our hands (or utility-tool spoons) to eat. Just full of this new, naan-less meal, we were swept away by our Senegalese homestay families in a flurry of broken French and commotion of curiosity about what was to come in the weeks ahead.

Indeed, eating styles in our homestays suggested a fascinating spectrum of responses to tradition in the city: some houses stuck with the traditional communal bowl method; some used the communal bowl but with spoons instead of hands; others used the bowl only on Sundays and ate with plates, forks, and knives the rest of the week, and still others had dispensed with the bowl altogether. (More on this below! Keep reading...)

Election As Education
The next five weeks of study in Dakar were replete with overlapping issues and some very rare opportunities for experiential learning. Some of these – like waste management – echoed our studies in Delhi, and some were completely fresh. One key difference between Dakar and Delhi is scale: there are more people in the city of Delhi than in the entire country of Senegal, not to mention Dakar (Dakar’s population is around 3 million as compared with Delhi’s whopping 13). This certainly made the city feel more manageable, but belied the complexity of its political and cultural issues, which are no less confounding than those of Delhi.

We found that the smaller scale and population of Dakar is correlated to strong links between the urban and the rural – though its history as a settlement site is long, Dakar today is in many ways a nascent city, booming in population and development mostly within the last 15 years on account of technological progress that jumpstarted infrastructure in response to massive calls for change and new political pressure from Senegalese citizens. Rural life – subsistence farming and small-scale economies – still remains the dominant lifestyle for most Senegalese, but decades of political corruption and increasing unemployment and reductions in arable farmland have forced many to seek opportunities in the city. As a result of such growth without sound political or infrastructural backing, Dakar struggles to adequately respond to the demands of a relatively recent surge in urban population growth, from the development of housing, roads, and commerce, to waste management and sewage treatment, to the consistent provision of electricity (power outages are common, though we experienced few, which we were told was on account of..[foreshadowing] the upcoming election!).

A major lens for learning about these issues while in Dakar was the Senegalese presidential election, which took place between the controversial incumbent president Abdoulaye Wade and opposition candidate Macky Sall. In 2000, public outcry over the need for change and for the government to address many of the issues outlined above resulted in the election of Abdoulaye Wade, who many thought would bring political transparency to government and improvements in public services and employment opportunities. The 2000 election was marked by unprecedented participation by youth, and by the leadership of the Senegalese hip hop movement in calling for popular political engagement.

Now, 12 years later and too little progress in the meantime, the 85 year old Wade was attempting to remain in office another seven years and a third term – something he had changed the Senegalese constitution to disallow during his first term, and then claimed did not apply to him because he took office before instating the two-term limit. The initial election at the beginning of March (Senegal uses the representative system) yielded no absolute winner between Wade and the other candidates. Therefore, we had the unique opportunity to be in the city for the run-off election, which finalized a highly contentious political period in Senegal.

Opportunities for experiential learning abounded, as the election and all the cultural complexity it represented was alive in the city. Many of us remarked at the degree of engagement among Senegalese citizens – what would it mean if our own cities and towns had this degree of participation? The faces of Sall or Wade (more Wade) covered most facades around the city, and many citizens walked around sporting t-shirts from either candidate. A popular song on the air waves was “Gorgui, na dem,” or “Go away, old man” referring to Wade. Pop-up political rallies in the form of large amps playing music from the backs of pickup trucks were a regular occurrence.
According to many Senegalese, Wade represents an old political system fraught with corruption from Muslim brotherhoods. His campaign ads positioned him as Senegal’s father; his was a politics not of reason, but of affect. On Election Day, one Wade supporter expressed that he knew Wade would win because “he could feel it” and because his spiritual leader (marabout) had told him that Wade would prevail. Macky Sall’s political image, in contrast, was one of a tempered technocratic leader ready to serve the will of the people.

Perhaps it was the quieter manner in which Sall ran his campaign, or the anxiety over what an arguably unfair election result in West Africa’s proudest and most stable democracy (we heard this latter statement of pride many, many times from people on the streets) would mean, but in the weeks leading up to the election, there was no favoring prediction of who would win. Given the distrust of existing governmental officials and the contentious process that led to Wade being on the ballot in the first place, it could be that many Senegalese were unsure whether change would be possible via a fair election. We were told quietly by our coordinators that if Wade won, mass protest would be imminent. We were told that most supported Macky, but why then did the running seem so equal?

Run-off Election Day, March 25, was marked by palpable but peaceful tension, as the country held its breath to see whether Wade’s attempt at reinstatement would be granted. When the initial election numbers started coming in, district by district, around 7pm, the city erupted: Macky Sall, 30%, Abdoulaye Wade, 12%; Macky Sall 27%, Abdoulaye Wade, 17%. This was the case all over the country. Wade lost in his home district. The people had spoken! We received a jubilant text from Waly that read: “The dismantling of Wade has begun. Will notify when the process is complete!” After only several hours, Wade called his former prime minister and congratulated him on being elected as the fourth president of Senegal’s 52-year democratic history.

That night, the streets were loud with people singing, screaming, and dancing joyously. Cars circled neighborhoods with passengers banging pots and pans in celebration. And on Independence Day a week later, many of us attended a victory concert put on by well-known Senegalese musician and Macky supporter Youssou N’Dour. Over 20,000 people gathered, hanging from trees and every available vantage point, and we were consumed among the huge crowds, singing and dancing through the night in excitement for Senegal’s new leader - or as many would add, the exit of its old one.

The Communal Bowl in Context
A reflection on Dakar could not be complete without mentioning our time in Keur Aly Gueye and Keur Moussa Seny, two rural villages near the city of Toubacouta. As Waly and many others told us, it’s impossible to understand the city and people of Dakar without also seeking to understand the rural villages from which many of Dakar’s residents have come, and to which they are still deeply connected. Many of Dakar’s men are in the city without their families – they have come for employment that wasn’t available in their villages, and they earn money to send home to their wives and children (hence our observation that the populations of the two villages hosting us were overwhelmingly female).

Thus, despite almost permanent residence in Dakar as a result of high unemployment and low opportunity outside the city, the gazes of many remain practically and culturally fixed toward the village, where they were born, where their families remain, and to which they send the money they earn. We experienced that for many Senegalese, the village is still considered the dominant site of cultural “tradition” – one might say the village is “home.” This is the origin of the communal bowl – here, everyone eats this way, and everyone eats with the hands. This makes good practical sense, as most daily life exists outdoors, homes exist on compounds where everything is shared, and so eating practices are more fluid: the number of people around a bowl changes at any given meal (a table and six chairs doesn’t accomodate changing numbers so well); material possessions like utensils and furniture are very limited, and water for washing things like dishes is scarce.

We were warmly and enthusiastically welcomed into the homes of families from Keur Aly Geuye and Keur Moussa Seny and allowed to spend our two days taking part in daily activities, getting to know people, and using our case study topics (much of the content discussed in this letter comes from case study findings) to understand more about this link between city and village. So too, then, is the gaze of the village fixed on the city as a space of resources, cultural progress, political power and opportunity. With rises in technology and more and more heads of village families migrating to Dakar for employment, the once enormous physical and social gap between the urban and rural in Senegal is lessening.

Senegalese in all contexts place much importance on being clean and well-dressed, and one example of this lessening gap is that the women of the village wore beautiful, colorful fabrics they had obtained from those who lived in or went to Dakar, and most of the village girls, even babies, wore bright jewelry brought from Dakar also. Our families were highly curious about our lives in Dakar and in the United States, and many mothers expressed aspirations for their sons and daughters to go to these places someday.

Our stay in the village taught us many things, from learning how to slaughter a chicken, to communicating when absolutely no spoken language is shared, and also how to consider the reality of being from a radically different cultural context – much of this encapsulated by our general designation as toubabs (meaning “foreigners” or “white people”). More importantly, the village stay illuminated the inextricable connection between Dakar and the rural villages of Senegal, and the degree to which the states of both are mutually constructed.

In All Our Free Time
For the social side of Dakar, there was certainly no shortage of things to do. The smell of the ocean and sun gave everything a summer feel. From beach soccer to daytime island-hopping to attending music shows or clubs into the early hours of the morning, we went out in numbers and saw Dakar from many different angles. Some of us went to Lac Rose, or the Pink Lake, known for its high salt content and resulting pink tinge, while others trekked to Saint Louis or Ile de Goree, both known for their parts played in the Atlantic slave history of Western Africa. Our week-long vacation in Senegal at the end of the country program even took some of us to the desert in Lompoul, where we rode camels and played in sand dunes. Collectively, we made it up and down the coast of Senegal and even into the Gambia and Cape Verde.

No collective poem from this country. Instead, it seemed more fitting to use music. We opted for Senegalese-style raps to cap our experience in Dakar, the performances of which will live on in mythic proportion around future IHP reunion tables.

And just as we became skilled in bargaining with the taxi drivers to take us to new locations for mille cinq cent (1500 cfa, just above a local’s price for a lot of trips!), got used to our pain au chocopain in the morning, and became comfortable with the geographic layout of the city, it was time to go. We readjusted the weight of our bags, fit in the newest and last multicolored set of course readers, and took off for the last stop: Buenos Aires! Thanks, Senegal, for so much teranga (hospitality) and so much vivid experience.

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Credits: 16

Duration: Spring, 16 weeks

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Prerequisites: Previous college-level coursework and/or other preparation in urban studies, anthropology, political science, or other related fields is strongly recommended but not required. Learn More...

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