First, I would like to apologize for the long inactivity on the blog. I have been too absorbed with work. My recent trip to Senegal reignited my need to write about life in the geo-cultural space between Senegal and America.
I was in Senegal for three weeks and I was overwhelmed by how much the country has its eyes and ears toward America. It was somewhat frustrating because in a way, I left the frenzy of American life hoping to go home to something totally different. Although the social life and warmth that I love and longed for still exist in Senegal, America seems to hover over everything people do and talk about. There is something very unsettling in the ways in which the Senegalese understand the American lifestyle. The preconceived notion that money is happiness is a huge problem. For example, I refrained from saying that I came from America because as soon as I uttered the words “Etats Unis,” the dynamics of the interactions often changed, turning me into someone who must have a higher buying power. In fact, the assumed higher buying power of immigrants seems to dictate prices and money transactions. This is confirmed by the multitude of money transfer systems that are now operating in Senegal. On top of classics like Western Union and Moneygram, there is Ria, Money Express, Joni Joni, Yooni ma Cash, and of course Wari, the most popular of money transfer systems targeting transactions within Senegal.
This rampant obsession with quick money is the reason for the increase in drug trafficking in Senegal. According to the chief of police, Senegal has become a serious transit country for hard drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamines, and ephedrine pills. During my stay, there were several drug busts, including one where a woman had swallowed several pounds of cocaine. In another case, the amphetamines were concealed in pails of Shea butter. However, the most troubling arrest was that of an officer from OCRTIS, the very section of the Senegalese police in charge of fighting drug trafficking. The officer was arrested for possession of a large quantity of cocaine, and later his girlfriend and the latter’s mother were also apprehended. According to authorities, the band was also involved in money laundering through the purchase of real estate property, a practice many say is the reason for the numerous buildings that have mushroomed in Dakar’s skyline, in the last decade.
Like major American cities, traffic in Dakar is a nightmare, especially on Friday afternoons. It seems like everyone owns a car. This lifestyle obviously contradicts the low buying power of the average Senegalese person, but with the many banks that recently opened in Dakar, it is easy to guess that people are relying more on credit. There is also a huge gap between the rich and the poor. The traffic lights show the encounter between these two worlds when next to the expensive cars, beggars, especially women and children, stretch their hands, hoping for a window to roll and a clean hand to drop few coins, if not a bank note.
Hunger is a serious problem in Senegal and many people still live on limited resources. Food prices are high and American junk food products such as oily chips, imitation crab meat, chicken nuggets, frozen fries, and pizza are now staples of the Senegalese food culture. People eat more processed foods due to the many European-style supermarkets that have opened in major neighborhoods. Although the traditional markets are still thriving, the products are changing and because of the expensive cost of food, many Senegalese do not care much about quality as long as they are able to buy larger quantities with little money.
Senegalese television is another place where the influences of America are strong. With several television channels competing for viewers, most shows lack originality and are modeled after American ones. Morning shows such as Yewuleen, Kinkeliba, and Petit Dej… emulate Good Morning America, the Today Show, or the CBS Morning Show. There are several hosts on a cramped set where on top of news and weather updates, guests are featured on cooking, fashion, arts, and fitness. The most interesting part of these shows is that the gossip is often about American celebrities and their extravagant lifestyles, with news about Kim Kardashian, Beyoncé, and Rihanna topping the charts.
There are also reality shows such as Lamb Academie where twenty five young aspiring professional wrestlers live in a mansion and compete for a final prize. This show could have been great if it were conscious of the cultural context lamb comes from. It would have been useful to introduce the cast to the folklore that traditionally accompanied wrestling, such as bakk, the art of self-praise that many wrestlers like Mame Gorgui Ndiaye excelled in. Bakk was the main entertainment during wrestling matches and contributed to the oral art of the Senegalese, particularly the Wolof ethnic group. Instead, Lamb Academie is modeled after CBS’s Big Brother and the wrestlers backstab each other to avoid elimination. The producers should have also emphasized the importance of education and leadership skills. The world of Senegalese wrestling glorifies lack of formal education and many of the champions are either dropouts or never attended school. This tendency is one of the root causes of the violence that plagues Senegalese traditional wrestling.
The Senegalese educational system continues to be a huge crisis. During my visit, the University Cheikh Anta of Dakar (UCAD) witnessed violent student strikes that left many injured and several arrested. The university which was originally designed for a maximum of 17,000 students, today counts over 80,000. Despite the attempt to relocate students to the new UCAD 2 campus, overcrowding remains a major issue and the government cannot continue to pay a scholarship to every student, which seemed to be the main reason for the recent strikes. Although the crisis of the Senegalese educational system is complex and not an easy fix, greater decentralization must be done with the creation of vocational schools in every region of the country. The government must also focus on creating jobs in order to recruit graduates.
Despite all these seemingly negative shifts, there are great things happening in Senegal. I have the feeling that the country is turning into an Anglophone one ―which in my opinion is not necessarily a bad thing because it opens up global avenues for economic and socio-cultural development. Many advertising signs are in English. It is usual to see “Total Wash,” “Nokia, Connecting People,” “le Must Have Phone,” etc. During regular conversations, I have heard people who do not necessarily understand English say “really?” or “exactly.” This to me means that Senegal is weaning itself from France and opening up to the rest of the world, especially America which has become a major destination for Senegalese migrants. I also believe the Chinese presence is a factor to this linguistic shift.
I was impressed by the resilience and creativity of the many Senegalese people who seize these global opportunities and start successful small businesses, such as the ladies who created makeshift eateries by the beach, selling fresh grilled fish, or the vendors of madd who have found a way to better commercialize this exotic fruit by seasoning it appropriately with salt, pepper, and a dab of sugar, and packaging it in attractive jars sold at traffic lights for the consumer on-the- go. I just wish the same was done with the succulent and seasonably abundant mangoes, for export.
Senegalese fashion is also thriving and the Dakar Fashion Week is a respected international gathering. Stylists like Selly Raby Kane who recently organized a fashion show at the abandoned railroad station, and my very own sister-in-law Maguette Faye Dieng at Tima Creations who is the talent behind singing diva Coumba Gawlo Seck’s exquisite dresses, do impressive work blending traditional Senegalese looks with global trends. And of course, Senegalese women remain the queens of fashion. Even though skin bleaching is still a chronic practice, that hairstyles emulate Caucasian looks with long weaves and wigs, and fake Michael Kors handbags are the latest fashion crave, Senegalese sartorial culture has immensely incorporated African prints and traditional looks.
In the community, Give1Project, founded by Thione Niang who was the President of the Young Democrats in the US and campaigned for President Obama when he was running for office, is doing an excellent job creating global leaders. Since its launch in 2009, Give1Project has now branches in many countries, including Morocco, the US and France. Its programs are cutting edge and utilize local resources. For example their monthly Give1Talks feature celebrities and entrepreneurs like Youssou Ndour who recently shared his life story on the rooftop of the Give1Project’s headquarters packed with young participants. Give1Project also has an arts program that allows young artists like Dieuwrine a Senegalese slam poet, to popularize their art and make a living off it.
And of course, the Saint Louis Jazz Festival is getting bigger every year. Sadly for me, it opened the day of my departure.
Finally, I salute a hardworking friend who grows a garden for her own homemade holistic remedies, hair and skin care products. She also rallied her neighborhood and turned a public space that was used as a dump in the past, into a beautiful community garden. It is actions like these that give me hope that after all, Senegal will be ok!
I look forward to your comments friends!