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

2013 Letter home from Senegal

by Samantha Osaki and Lucy Reser with contributions by Trustees Fellow Katie Smith; photographs by Samantha Osaki

In Wolof (a major Senegalese ethnic group but also the name for one of the most commonly spoken languages in the country), there is no exact equivalent for the phrase "you're welcome." Instead, you say "Noko bok," which literally means "we share it." The idea denotes a breaking down of the individual in favor of the non-exclusive whole – and our second country visit to Senegal gave us a strong taste of what it truly means to put the community before the self.

Our journey toward building a sentiment of belonging and a sense of place in Dakar began the second we walked out of the airport and were greeted with the hospitality (teranga) of our vibrant country coordinators, Waly and Mariane. During lunch on our first day of orientation, we were introduced to a traditional means of sharing one’s meal – sitting around a single large bowl and eating with only your right hand!  From there, the surprises kept coming. Our first site visit brought us to Ile de Goree, an island remarkable for its eerily beautiful, peaceful facade which was, beyond its proud colonial-built walls, once a stopping point for some of the slave trade of West Africa.

About half way through our time in Dakar, we left our home stay families for three days to live with families in two rural villages, Samba Kalla and Keur Moussa Seny. While there, we split into case study groups and studied different aspects of village life in order to draw a rural-urban connection. One group, which studied traditions, spoke to the marabou, or Muslim leader, as well as to the chief, the griot (story-teller) and the midwives of the village. Another group, which studied music, saw firsthand how modern hip hop and rap in Senegal has been heavily influenced by traditional village roots, and still another group compared the building materials used in each place. 

From left to right: Students enjoy a dance ceremony to welcome their arrival at the Keur Samba Kala village.

For many students, the time spent in the village was one of the main highlights of the Senegal program.  As one student, Lucy Reser, put it, “The overall feeling in the village was an overwhelming feeling of welcoming. Senegal is known as the country of teranga for very obvious reasons. Everyone is so kind and giving and welcoming. It’s so inspiring to be in the presence of so much generosity, and we will never forget the kindness we received.” As an afterthought, she added, “And it was so awesome being able to watch the traditional wrestling match that Waly set up for us!”

Reflecting on other cultural experiences and the ways in which they experienced their time in Senegal, students Alison Koziol and Rebecca Merrifield shared their thoughts on food and language barriers, respectively.  According to Alison, “When it comes to food, it’s not just about the taste; it’s about the preparation and the experience. I loved meals with my host families in both Dakar and the village because we cooked under the stars in both cases. Not to mention the fact that I loved having an excuse to eat food with my hands, and that sharing the same bowl of delicious food with a group of people had a wonderful familial feel to it.”
Having learned to make friends in the absence of any sort of familiarity with a unifying lingua franca, Rebecca explained that “as a non-French speaker, I had a very unique experience living with my exclusively French- and Wolof- speaking family. Although it seemed difficult at first, I loved the non-linguistic forms of communication that allowed me to connect with members of my host family on a different level. It really made me realize that there are multiple and effective ways to relate to people in a meaningful way without sharing a common language.”

Our courses reached full throttle in Senegal. In our Contemporary Urban Issues class, our continued work on our Comparative Analysis projects proved difficult in many cases due to a question of sheer scale. One student, Samantha Osaki, had to re-evaluate the focus of her entire project to accommodate for the shift between the megacity of Delhi (population size of approx. 16.3 million) and the much smaller one of Dakar (population size of approx. 2 million) – “In India, I worked a lot with city residents displaced by large-scale, government-headed development projects, but I simply wasn’t finding this kind of urban displacement in Dakar. This was in large part because the number of stakeholders that the government must accommodate for is significantly smaller in Dakar. With the help of a couple guest lecturers, I realized I needed to study a different type of displacement – one induced by natural disasters – and I was able to gather lots of valuable information because of IHP’s framework, which allowed me to see these processes right before my eyes.”
In Kelly’s Urban Politics and Development class, we began asking some very difficult questions about the relationship between urban governance, global political forces, and resistance. Given a brief theoretical background, we looked at how recent economic trends, city governance and development projects have each impacted the lives of urban citizens. We also looked at the forms in which urban resistance take place, making ties between what we learned through our readings with what we saw outside the classroom.

Carrie’s Culture and Society class gave us an intellectual space in which we could discuss postcolonial identities, the constant struggle towards the formation of which we observed all around us. We increasingly realized that Dakar is a city which holds strong to its traditional roots while being pulled by forces of modernization. Our next class was held on the topic of sexualities, and we were fortunate enough to be able to hear firsthand from panels of men and women on their experiences living in polygamous relationships.  Perhaps one of our most thought-provoking sessions was on change, tourism, and consumerism – a lecture which forced us to rethink the reasons we go abroad to study and the implications of it.
Finally, Seth’s Urban Planning and Sustainable Environments class had us looking at community planning, ecological design, and a more theoretical look at the kind of a thing the city is. We conducted a stakeholder assessment assignment in order to understand more deeply the steps that must go into building consensus and negotiations between varying interests, and we talked a lot about the functions cities must serve in order to create livable spaces for the people who build them.

As one student, Corina Varlan, stated, “IHP emphasizes that learning does not stop outside the classroom, and I think we all really took that to heart during our last week in Senegal.” Thus, though we were given a week of spring break to relax, we jumped on the opportunity to explore and learn more about other parts of the country. The best part, as Corina was quick to make note of, was that “I got to share each and every single one of my profound learning moments with people who have grown to become some of my best friends.”

Students left Senegal rejuvenated from a week of relaxation and excited to study and live in the final country of the semester.

From left to right: Will Makepiece, Jill Giornelli, Samantha Osaki, Corina Varlan, Jesse McGleughlin, Rebecca Merrifield and Faith Nicholas on vacation in La Somone.

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