Tag Archives: senegal

The Changing Face of Senegal

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!

Senamericanly yours.

 

When “God” Visited Senegal

I am late to write about President Obama’s recent visit to Senegal. I wanted to hear how the Senegalese lived the event since I was heading there few days after the American President’s visit. Seeing the visit unfold on news websites and social media, I was happy that Senegal was put on the world map. For the first time, I saw a picture of an American President and an African President standing next to each other, without thinking about aid or charity. I saw two black men hug each other and it gave me goose bumps. I was glad that Obama reinforced my feeling of relief by speaking about partnership between Senegal and America, and urging the media to depict a more positive image of Africa.

U.S. President Barack Obama participates in a joint news conference with Senegal's President Macky Sall at the Presidential Palace in Dakar

I am certain the increased presence of China in Africa has a lot to do with this change in US rhetoric but I am glad it has come to that. I was also glad that Obama was sensible enough to meet with the leaders of civil society organizations who contributed so much to making Senegal into an admired democratic nation.

I was mostly fascinated by the general population’s euphoric embrace of President Obama and his family. People were beyond thrilled that the American President chose Senegal as his first stop during his three-nation tour in Africa. Although I arrived in Dakar almost two weeks after Obama left, his presence was in the air. The walls and bridges were still clad with large banners of him and President Sall.

   Obamabanner

 At the weekly flea market that takes place on the canal from Liberté 6 to Castors, rows of duffle bags with Obama’s name majestically dangled from stalls. Taxi drivers, who had a hint of my “Americanness” because of some “foreigner-detecting radars” that taxi drivers and street vendors magically possess, commented on the power of “Your President” and how his visit made their job so difficult because all major roads were blocked. One of them remarked that “It was as if God was visiting Senegal!” Although the Senegalese are known for their ability to make guests feel at home as the country prides itself in being the Land of Teranga (the art of welcoming guests), Obama enjoyed a special treatment.

 I was not surprised by the level of importance the Senegalese accorded Obama’s visit. Though I have my own issues with American foreign policy, I too was thrilled that he chose to go to Senegal. I however wanted to believe that Senegalese officials had learned their lesson about inconveniencing citizens in order to accommodate an American President, as many would remember how the inhabitants of Gorée Island were forcibly sequestrated in their homes during President George W. Bush’s visit in 2003. Although this did not happen during Obama’s visit, the islanders quietly sat on the sidelines when the presidential family visited the famous slave house.

Goree awaits

On the other hand, there seem to have been some unnecessary security measures in Dakar. On a children’s radio show, a participant was asked to create a sentence about Obama’s visit. He spontaneously replied: “During the American President’s visit, we who live in Yoff could not come out of our homes.” The host was annoyed that the only thing the boy remembered about the event was his inability to leave his home.  But the boy’s answer backs up rumors that in Yoff, the neighborhood adjacent to the airport, there were weird-looking giant men in dark suits whispering in walky-talkies. My brother-in-law who works at the airport did not go to work for the duration of the visit since his office was taken over by American secret service members who apparently left no stone unturned in the building. When he returned to work few days later, he found new air conditioners and concluded that the Americans must have ditched the old ones in their overzealous security protocol. This “Yankee Paranoia” as written in Le Populaire conveys how overbearing the American guests must have been.

But this attitude seems to not have bothered the Senegalese. It was as if these were tiny inconveniences that they were willing to suffer for Obama’s sake. When Bush’s visit left many angry, people told these “#Obamatakh (a hashtag that meant “because of Obama”)” stories with a proud smile.  They commented on Obama’s swagger and how cool he looked with his rolled-up sleeves and charming smile. It is true that many people around the world are infatuated with everything American but the warm welcome Obama experienced in Senegal has a lot to do with his background. As the son of a Kenyan father, Obama is viewed as more than the first African-American President. To many Africans, he is an African who is the President of the world’s most powerful country. In Senegal, he was the prodigal son whose power and presence should uplift the whole continent. They see in him a piece of themselves and the fact that he chose to visit Senegal instead of Kenya, or any other West African nation, was monumental in the eyes of the Senegalese.

welcome-home-senegalWelcome home

This visit was also very important to newly elected (2012) Senegalese President Macky Sall whose popularity is not that great. The presidential Facebook page was updated hourly and the rhetoric was overly giving credit to Sall for Obama’s choice of Senegal.

On First Lady Marieme Faye Sall’s Fashion

There was something refreshing in the picture of the two First Ladies standing next to each other. I was happy that Marieme Faye Sall chose to wear a traditional Senegalese boubou. I personally found the outfit elegant and sophisticated.  

Marieme Sall boubou

But some Senegalese, including talk show hosts, criticized Mrs. Sall’s fashion choices, especially after the news site Guardianlv.com published an article calling for Michelle Obama to give the Senegalese First Lady lessons in travel fashion. I was outraged by such article and was truly bothered by the Senegalese media’s lack of reply on behalf of the First Lady. It is inappropriate and wrong to compare the fashion choices of Michelle Obama and Marieme Sall, let alone decide who should teach who. The cultures as well as the body types are not the same. Most Americans would not get the style choices of Marieme Faye Sall for the simple reason many Senegalese would not understand why Michelle Obama, a woman over fifty, wears over-the-knee dresses and body-hugging pants! The Guardianlv article was simply ignorant of the fact that fashion is cultural. The Huffington Post’ piece was more sensitive to the cultural implications of fashion. I find that because many Senegalese are so in love with the West they tend to see themselves and everything through those lenses. Instead of defending the First Lady and telling the world that the Senegalese would not take fashion lessons from America or any other nation, they chose to publically disrespect Marieme Faye Sall. Inviting stylists who themselves do not have any respect for African identity as expressed in fashion and body image, to evaluate the First Lady’s wardrobe choices, was also out of line. The criticism of Marieme Sall’s clothes showed the complex of inferiority the Senegalese feel vis-à-vis Americans. They probably would have preferred a first lady with an outrageously bleached skin, who wears complex outfits (mostly European-inspired) complimented with kilograms of shiny gold jewelry.

Overall, I think the Senegalese will always remember Obama’s visit as an important part of the country’s history. I am praying it will have a stronger economic impact for Senegal. Afterall, when “God” visits your house, it must mean that your prayers were heard at least.

Senegal Needs to Stop Using French as the Primary Language of Instruction

 

I was inspired to write about this thanks to a friend’s Facebook status about how Senegalese wrestlers were interviewed in French ― “when many of them cannot communicate well in Wolof, let alone in French.” Although the wrestling match took place in Bercy, France, the journalists who interviewed the wrestlers should have addressed them in Wolof and use interpreters to translate for the French. As my friend noted, when Americans go to France, they are provided interpreters and not forced to speak the host language, even if they could manage a basic conversation in it. As a matter of fact, Juan Carlos, the wrestler from Spain who adopted the Senegalese sport and was among the participants at Bercy, was interviewed in Spanish.  Language is one of the major carriers of culture. Imagine if the wrestlers were asked to perform their bakk, these intricate panegyric chants that often highlight a wrestler’s trajectory while taunting possible opponents, in French! The meaning of such performance would have become senseless, if not comical.

The second reason for this post is Bousso Dramé’s letter to the French Consulate in Dakar, which went viral on social media in the past couple of days. Ms. Dramé won the National Grand  Prix d’Orthographe, a prestigious prize that proved her command of the French language. As the winner, she was supposed to travel to France for an all-expense-paid training in film studies. But when Miss Dramé went to the French Consulate in Dakar to apply for a visa, she was repeatedly disrespected by the staff, as it is often the case for Senegalese visa seekers. To show her outrage Miss Dramé wrote a letter to the French Consulate renouncing the visa as well as the prize. As she states in her letter, “It is time for Africans to respect themselves and demand to be respected by others.” I could not agree more but I feel that respect for oneself starts from being proud of one’s culture and Senegal is too dependent on the French language. The Senegalese educational system is a copycat of the French model and French continues to be the language of instruction. This practice only devalues Senegal’s indigenous languages and shows a severe complex of inferiority. I am happy that the Senegalese have great command of French and are able to win prestigious prizes for it. I however look forward to the day when similar competitions are held for Wolof, Pulaar, Diola, Sereer, and the many other ethnic languages that comprise Senegal’s rich linguistic heritage. Respect for oneself should start with ditching French as the primary language of instruction in schools and adopting Wolof, Senegal’s lingua franca― which over 70% of Senegalese speak or understand.  I am not against teaching French in Senegalese schools. I just think it should be a second language like English, German, and other European languages.

French has been imposed on the Senegalese for too long and learning it is a traumatic experience for many.I believe my attitude toward French is because I feel the language was imposed on me as well. Although I initially came to the US as a French instructor, my usage of French has been limited to reading and the occasional conversation. One might think that I ditched my “French roots” in favor of American ones, but that is not the case. I simply do not care much about French. I don’t remember loving French or feeling the need to speak it. Those of you who are old enough to remember le symbole know how traumatic learning French was in Senegal.  To those who did not go through it, le symbole was literally a “necklace of shame” made with some disgusting materials.  In my elementary school, it was a huge cow bone attached to some rags.  Any pupil in 4th grade and beyond who was heard speaking Wolof or any other indigenous language, would have to wear the necklace of shame as a symbol of their faux pas and unwillingness to speak the language of De Gaulle. I never wore that horrible necklace. Not because I was fluent in French as a 4th grader, but because I was good at cheating my peers. I was one of the best students and my classmates probably believed that since I was a good student, my French must have been good too. On occasions I was caught speaking Wolof, I would defiantly deny it and invent a French word. But despite the fact that I never wore the necklace, I was terrified of it. I knew that if word got to my parents that I was caught not speaking French, I would get in trouble. Yes, parents also participated in this “Frenchization” of their children. Ironically, many parents, especially those who did not understand French, found it disrespectful if their child spoke to them in French. So in a sense children were told to switch back and forth from their native language to French depending on the place, as if language and culture are accessories one can wear and take off whenever needed. I know it is possible to navigate languages and cultures but when the switch is forced on the person, it becomes problematic.

Fifty three years after independence, I still cannot comprehend why major effort is not being made to use Wolof. I understand that the Senegalese have appropriated French and made it their own. Actually, I believe that the French language is alive and richer because of the many former colonies that continue to use it as “official” language. This does not change the fact that French is a foreign language for most Senegalese because they do not speak it at home. I believe this is the major reason why the Senegalese educational system continues to be in crisis. Children have to spend a long time trying to master the language before engaging is learning other subjects. This approach makes it difficult for them to learn through critical thinking. Imagine how much better and faster children would learn if they were taught in the language they think in. Primary learning engages both the conscious and the unconscious, and therefore can be best accomplished if done in the language one thinks in. It is counter-productive to force children to learn and think in a language different than their native tongue, and expect them to achieve proficiency early on in order to learn math, sciences, and other subjects.

Although Senegal has come a long way in reclaiming some of its linguistic heritage thanks to the proliferation of private radios, which made it possible for the news and talk shows to be delivered in indigenous languages, the bulk of the effort should be directed at making Wolof the major language of instruction. Some would argue that Wolof is not the only indigenous language, and that adopting it as the primary language in schools might undermine other ethnic languages. I would say that if people have not objected to French being the language of instruction, they should be fine with using Wolof.

I look forward to your comments.