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

2011 Dakar, Senegal Letter Home

By Trustees Fellow Melanie Brubaker, with input from Marshall Daly, Beatriz DeJesus, Melanie Freidrichs, Wadzanai Motsi, Eliza Scheffler, John Snyder, Julia Waterhous, and Henry Webster.

Students eating in Dakar, Senegal

Shaking off our transport haze we stepped out of the airport and into a vibrantly blue sky and sunny day in Dakar.  Our welcome from the Senegal Coordinators Ousmane Sene and Waly Faye, and the many other staff of our home base at the West African Research Center (WARC) was as warm as the salty breeze coming off the ocean.  We plunged into a country orientation, a laundry lesson (apparently there is a very specific squish/slosh sound when clothing is being properly washed by hand), a walk by the ocean and lots of dancing.  We refreshed ourselves with local juices made from Bissap (Hibiscus) and the fruit of a Baobab tree and then it was time to meet our host families.

Many times in the first week in Dakar we were told that we would experience “Taranga” – an essence of warmth, welcoming, sharing and caring – throughout Senegal.  Our host families greeted us with great excitement and huge hugs, and, once we got home, they introduced us to communal eating.  In Senegal families eat around a shared bowl, each person taking a little food out of the center and placing it in the section of the bowl in front of themselves.  It’s a sign of affection and respect to place food from the central part of the bowl in front of someone else.

The sharing element of communal eating is only one aspect of Taranga; we also felt expressions of this as we explored Dakar and the surrounding area. Marshall Daly of Vassar College shares his story of encountering Taranga one weekend: “A few other students and I took a weekend trip to visit Toubab Dialow, a small town just south of Dakar. Our sept-place (“seven places,” a station wagon used for inter-city transit) driver dropped us off outside of town. A man came running towards us, frantically waving his hands and shouting with what little English he had, he explained that we were, clearly, lost and that he would be helping us. He brought us over to his gas station, where he offered us chairs to sit in and made us ataya (tea). All the young men working at the station came over, and an animated non-verbal conversation ensued. Over the next 30 minutes and a few cups of ataya, they helped us figure out where our hotel was and we made five new friends. This willingness not only to help complete strangers, but also to go above and beyond to share tea and company in the mean time is part of the true meaning of Taranga.” Taranga is at the core of many students’ experiences in Dakar; as Waly expressed on the first day: “In Dakar, we meet person to person. Here, the person standing in front of you is what matters most in that moment”.

For many of the students this was not only their first time in Africa but also their first time in a predominantly Muslim country.  Over and over again we were told that Senegal is “95% Muslim, 5% Christian and 100% Animist”.  Professor Abdou Aziz Kebe gave us a very detailed explanation of the influence Islam has had on the history and politics of Senegal.

Islam entered Senegal (at that time Senegambia) from the North in the 11th century.  However, it “did not hold deep significance” in peoples lives until the raise of the slave trade in the 16th century.  In Senegal it was the aristocrats – local and French – who controlled the slave trade.  In reaction to the rise of slavery and the strife it caused, Islamic discourse became a significant social and political force. Through religious teachings in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Marabout (religious teachers and leaders) organized people against the aristocracy and for the end of the slave trade. Under French colonization, Islam was separated from political power until the 1850s when the Muslim Brotherhoods emerged as religious and political entities that operate outside of formal government but have a strong influence on the nation’s governance. 

Melanie Fredrichs from Brown University explains, “In the early 1900s the Mouride marabouts of Touba (the religious leaders of a specific brotherhood), located in the heart of Senegal's "peanut" basin, became the groundnut plantation owners, the primary liaisons to the European exporters.  Additionally, leaders of three other brotherhoods also established ties with the French. After independence from France, the French-speaking Senegalese elite took over where the colonizers left off, and the marabouts continued to receive special treatment and favors in return for political support.”   Professor Kebe told us that all of the Brotherhoods, while not formally associated with the Government, receive public funding for holy celebrations and to maintain operations.  Additionally, he said that many people in Dakar vote for political candidates along religiously affiliated lines (according to who belongs to which brotherhood) rather then along strict political party lines.

Another predominant element of our stay in Dakar was the omnipresence of music and dance.  Julia Waterhous of Boston University shares, “Senegal has an internationally renowned music and dance scene.  It is rated seventh best in the world because of its unique style of Mbalax music.  Youssou N’dour is the widely heralded king of Mbalax in Senegal and the country also takes pride in its well-known Senegalese-American hip-hop star, Akon.  Music and dance were present on every corner through out our stay in Senegal whether it was boom-boxes blaring on the beach or drumming on overturned buckets”.  Any night of the week there are live music performances ranging from Afro-acoustic, to reggae, jazz or hip-hop, all performed with a distinctly Senegalese flair. The prevalence of music proved to be a country wide phenomenon as we briefly left the city for a rural village homestay.

Our two vans pulled off the sandy path into the center of the village and we were greeted with an abundance of music, dance, song and celebration.  As each host family/student pair was announced, that student and their new family danced together to the music of women clapping, singing, and beating rhythms on steel bowls before heading off in the direction of home.

Children playing soccer in Dakar

One of the primary concerns going into the village was the lack of a shared language.  While we had received enthusiastic and dynamic survival Wolof lessons (the predominate language in Senegal along with French) from our lively teacher Sidey, there was still a wide language chasm. Beatriz De Jesus of Lafayette College describes, “When I learned that I would be around people for days without speaking the language, I was very nervous to go through the experience. After arriving and spending time with the family I realized how amazing and strong a human connection can be without the need to speak. The village experience was full of the hospitality and care associated with the Taranga culture.”

The village we visited is comprised of about 300 people across 30–40 extended family units. It is a small and close knit community that maintains its own community garden, mosque, and communal food storage. It has three wells that provide potable water and solar panels that provide small amounts of electricity. The people of the village, like many rural communities in the country, are agro-pastoral, raising cows and farming for both subsistence and livelihood.  Millet is grown for eating, corn for eating and selling, and peanuts are predominantly used for trading or selling.

Wait, isn’t this a program about cities?  What were we doing in a rural village?  We were gaining a deeper understanding of Senegal, and the greater context in which the city of Dakar exists.  The female-dominated population of the village is a direct result of urbanization; during the dry season most men leave their rural villages in search of work in bigger towns and cities. “Seeing the stark contrast between the gender makeup of the village and city was astounding.  As Dakar strives to become a global city, its growth and development impact the local rural communities in profound ways.  Dakar draws young men away from their home villages and towards the opportunities that a flourishing city offers.”  As Henry Webster from the University of Vermont shares, this pattern of migration among young men flows not only rural to urban within Senegal, but also from Dakar to other urban centers in Europe and the United States. “My Dakar homestay brothers were both ambitious individuals involved in the processes connecting Dakar to the world; one was working with an airline and the other in telecommunications.  My brothers are in many ways the representation of Dakar’s future as a pivotal and influential global city.  As I write this, one of my host brothers is headed to my hometown of Philadelphia while the other is headed to Brussels with the airline he works for.” Much of the motivation for this migration is financial. We have been told that remittances from Senegalese living abroad constitute 10% of Senegal’s GDP.

These remittances are often directed toward the building of homes and mosques.  John Snyder from Wesleyan University describes “While we were there, our host family was adding a third floor to our house with money was coming from family working abroad”.  The phenomenon of “remittance building” was prevalent though out the city.  “Walking though the residential areas it seemed like every other house was under construction, in a state of being half built”. Eliza Scheffler of Yale University was also living in a house that was being added on to. She explains the remittance process further saying “We learned that because of the nature of remittances – money has to be saved up and then sent – money arrives in stages and thus the construction has a stilted, step-by-step pattern.  Houses are built over time and in stages that may reveal the flow of money. If a house is built quickly, people think someone is cheating or earning money improperly abroad; if it’s built too slowly it means someone is lazy or not sharing their income with the family”.

Transport in Dakar

As part of their mission to explore and learn about Dakar the students were met with several unfamiliar modes of transit (Marshall’s story about the sept-place involved one of them). Wadzanai Motsi, a student at Grinnell College, describes Dakar’s two main forms of public transportation – car rapides and ndiaga ndiayes – both small versions of buses.  “The car rapides were always an adventure.  The system was lost on us, as we were shepherded by our facilitators.  The colorful bodies of the cars made them a distinctive site on the roads, and their weaving in an out of traffic was impressive.  The ndiaga ndiayes were similar, but less colorfully decorated.  What’s more, in each car, there were images of religious leaders side by side with pictures of famous wrestlers.  All in all, transport in Dakar, although not the easiest system to navigate, was also really exciting and a wonderful way to meet new people and talk about what we were doing or learning on the program.  It truly is one of the most memorable parts of Dakar.”

The car rapides are each independently owned and operated thus, there was no central system or map that could trace the routes for us.  This flexibility and independence ensured complete coverage of the city – as drivers could select their routes themselves – and adaptability, as soon as a new road was paved (which is frequent) there were car rapides traversing that route.

Our four weeks of academic programming in Dakar were filled with site visits, guest lectures, neighborhood and market days and adventures in transit and music.  After eleven weeks of hard work, we were two-thirds of the way through the semester and ready for Spring break.  Students took advantage of the week off from classes to explore Senegal, with some going south to the rivers and coastlines of south-central Senegal and other students heading up north to explore the French-established city of St. Louis.

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Credits: 16

Duration: Spring, 16 weeks

Program Sites:
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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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