Senegal Works

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Michael Leventhal, Chief Nerdy Development Officer

July 12, 2015

I have spent my first 24 hours in Dakar, surviving my “baptême par feu”, as Momo described our trip to market and excursion to a distant town, Tivaouane, north-east of Dakar.

The one surprise arriving at the airport was that the first thing I saw as the door to the Arrivals Hall opened was a detachment of Senegalese military. They were there to check our temperatures with a laser thermometer, a continuing precaution against Ebola. Passing through customs was simple, except that I didn’t know my address in Dakar. It seems that my heavily accented French dissuaded the customs officer from further inquiry, as I began to explain in some detail the mission of iNERDE. I didn’t even get to how that related to my not knowing where I was staying in Senegal before he stamped my passport and waved me on.

The two Mohameds were there to meet me, Mohamed Kanté (aka Pusso), Chief Nerd and Mohamed Sankaré (Momo), Vice-President of iNERDE Mali. They had been waiting for three hours. Momo, who studied in Senegal and speaks Wolof, haggled over price for a bit with a taxi driver and in a minute we were driving into Dakar.

The first things I noticed were: good roads with smooth pavement, attractive buildings of white or cream color masonry, construction sites, and lots of people along the roads, there being often no sidewalks. We passed the Monument of the African Renaissance, a 160 feet bronze statue overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, depicting a man, woman and child surging forward. It is dramatically posed on top of a hill with a broad staircase of some hundreds of steps leading the base of the monument. While the statue has been criticized on various fronts, as such highly visible public art always is, I found it impressive and at least something of the bold statement it was intended to be of Africa’s determination and ambition for the future.

It seems it has become a iNERDE tradition to think about food before anything else, inspired, probably, by Pusso’s insatiable appetite. I finally got to eat the famous West African yassa, I first heard of and wrote about this dish a year ago when I translated the lunch menu from our first Colonie de Vacances. Poisson Yassa, fish with Yassa, consists of bed of Senegalese rice, with some chopped vegetables, and a grilled whole fish with a bowl of yassa sauce on the side. Yassa’s primary component is fried onions and oil. The preparation was spicy, though not intensely so. I wasn’t disappointed, it was very tasty, worthy of its culinary fame.

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In the morning we strolled to the Senegalese American Bilingual School where I will begin teaching on Monday. It is located in a middle class neighborhood, calm, with lots of trees and gardens. Afterward, we took a taxi to go to the market in Sandaga, passing through working class neighborhoods, with chaotic traffic zigzagging in every direction, and the streets lined with open air stalls where merchants offered every kind of product and service. We also passed, along broad avenues, modern office buildings, government offices, the splendid Great Mosque compound, and many, many construction sites with hordes of workers laboring in the hot sun. The taxi, a dilapidated rattle-trap held together with bailing wire, with a door that wouldn’t latch shut, broke down. We pushed the car several times so the driver could try jump starting it, but to no avail.

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Momo and Pusso shopped with intensity, it seems that the prices in Senegal are better and there are many products here not found in Mali. One could imagine the market like a beehive, with an immense number of people swarming around the stalls where each merchant offers their products, every imaginable product. One is also offered jewelry, watches, wallets and such by ambulant hawkers and importuned by touts that want to take you to particular shops. I expected to be particularly targeted as a foreigner but actually no more than Momo and Pusso and the hawkers and touts were reasonably polite and accepted a, “Non, merci” after only two or three repetitions. There was one, though, a little more persistent, his French was very artful and his descriptions of the products in the shop he touted for particularly florid. I perhaps encouraged his persistence since I enjoyed listening to him. We ended up going to his shop, with Pusso protesting along the way. The shopkeeper was, of course, very charming, having the attention to complement me exorbitantly on the excellence of my horribly accented French, and I ended up buying African clothes at 3 times the price Pusso believed to be reasonable.

We then took a taxi to Tivaouane, a drive of about two hours, partially on the excellent expressway out of Dakar but mostly on local highways running through many small towns, “l’Afrique profonde”. Just outside of Dakar one saw cranes everywhere, with offices and apartment buildings sprouting like mushrooms. Once on local roads one saw merchant stands lining the road in every town, heavy trucks alongside horse-drawn carts, a desert landscape sparsely populated with bushes and small trees, and the occasional baobab tree. Each town seemed to have its speciality, one the town of mangoes, another butchers, another pottery. And the modern offices of mobile phone companies, banks, a steel factory (“high-quality steel for building the future”) and many other types of factories, a town, just before Tivaouane, about to spring into existence, with the shell of an elaborate, new mosque under construction in the center, surrounded by thousands of home building sites already equipped with water and electricity hook-ups. The one thing one sees everywhere are smartphones, one sees a woman selling mangoes by the side of road swiping her finger across the touchscreen of her phone. I had better cell phone reception everywhere in our journey than I have in my home near San Jose.

In Tivaouane we met Pusso’s cousin, Cheickh. Cheickh had a stroke in the last year, leaving his left arm paralyzed. He looks at least 10 years younger than his 64 years, and is working with great determination to regain movement in arm through physical rehabilitation. We watched French-language videos on physical therapy on the internet; he wanted to show us the kinds of exercises he was doing. He is working with a physical therapist but cannot afford of the cost of regular treatments so he uses the internet to inform and motivate his own program of re-education.

It was late in the evening when we returned to Dakar. Everyone was still working, everywhere, along the roads back to Dakar, and in the city where merchants still manned their stalls. If I were to chose one single impression from my first day in Senegal, it would be that everyone is working here and working hard. Life is obviously difficult for some, working hard is a necessity to survive. It is a nation of entrepreneurs, many are self-employed and are adept at figuring out something to do to earn a living. I can understand better how it is that so many immigrants come to United States and are very successful as entrepreneurs, entrepreneurship is deeply embedded in the culture of a country like Senegal. The Senegalese are also obviously very keen users of technology and well-informed about the world around them. I had thought that I might be something of an object of interest in Tivaouane, but, actually, no more than to the touts in Sangara. People in Tivaouane know much more about the world I come from than I know about theirs.

In the town of butchers, there was one stall with the name “Boucherie Moderne”, Modern Butcher Shop. The emblem of butchers there seems to be the carcass of the hind quarters of a sheep hanging from a crossbeam over the stall. I had the thought of taking of a photo of the Boucherie Moderne, with its dusty stall by the side of the road, and with its carcass hanging in the open air, for amusement. I didn’t. What do I know, the owner of the Boucherie Moderne may well be more forward-thinking and modern than I am. One doesn’t mock the work and the sincere efforts of another. The Senegalese work, I don’t think I could work as hard and in as challenging conditions as many people do here. One sees here a people, like the African Renaissance Monument depicts, whether in good or not so good aesthetic taste, surging forward toward the future. In ten years this will be a completely different country. I look forward to seeing it.