5 lessons I learned in Senegal
|Senegal joyful kids
It's already been 2 weeks since I came back from Senegal, and I consider it has probably been one of the most intense travels in my life. I had been looking forward to visit Africa for a long time, and Senegal was probably my first inside perspective into it .The two other countries I had visited: South Africa or Morocco, the country where I live right now, are just the gates offering you a slight taste of a continent full of contrasts and diversity.
Since I first arrived to Dakar, travelling from Casablanca I quickly noticed the big difference since I went outside and saw a bunch of taxi drivers craving in an aggressive way so I took a taxi with them. Thanks god, I had already arranged to meet a taxi driver that was supposed to pick me up. I had already been told that in Senegal, just like in Morocco, you were supposed to bargain in every single moment, "don't take anything for granted" they told me, "Bear in mind you always have to pay half of the amount you are asked for at the beginning". With that though I took my wallet with the Francs CFA I just took from the cashier. The only challenge was actually to figure out how much money did 7000 Francs represent when converting them into Euros. As I was very tired, I didn't really have the time to do mental calculation and just trusted on the first taxi driver I met who told me " Yes, I 'm Ibrahim, I was waiting for you". My host in Dakar just told me that there was actually a taxi driver called Ibrahim waiting for me, that certainly reassured me. The only thing I found weird was the fact he didn't have a panel with my name so when I was on the verge of getting into the taxi, an old guy dressed in a white "djellaba" started yelling at the other guy" It's me Ibrahim”, with a panel with my name written down" "get out from the car". It was then when I realized I was actually being cheated and nobody knows what could have happened if I had taken the wrong car. That taught me my first lesson:
|Trying to get the car out of the sand
1) Mind yourself and don't expect anybody to get you out from troubles:
That can happen everywhere but specially in Africa where you can hardly ever expect from someone, even less a public authority (unless you have enough for a good bribe) to resolve any sort of problem that might come up. I really experienced this on a first hand, when our car got stuck on our way back from Sine Saloum to Dakar (See the picture above). Actually, it can look very funny to get stuck in the sand in the middle of the desert as it's just part of the adventure. At first, it definitely was and we spent some time taking funny pics and thinking how many "likes" we would get afterwards. After 15 minutes, the party was over, it was very hot outside and there was neither a road nor any village nearby. We started to worry a bit until we had the incredible luck to see a group of young Senegalese riding a horse crossing by. We asked for their help and thanks to a wood board they had on their carriage we managed to get out from the sand, after spending more than half an hour digging into the sand and removing all the luggage that made the car heavier. That was really a team-building experience!
|Chamber of Commerce of Senegal
2) French language and its influence are still alive and in West Africa even more:
One of the first things you realize when you get into West Africa is how the French influence is still alive. Indeed, you can also notice that in Northern Africa to a certain extent but it's just nothing compared to what you see in West Africa. As opposed to East Africa where Swahili is largely extended or even southern Africa where English do coexist with many other tribal languages (just like in South Africa), in West Africa the prevalence of French remains unchallenged. It's true the main language is still Wolof along with many others but French language is just everywhere and just like in other countries like Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso or Cameroun, there is no risk it will be removed as the official language at least on a short term. This cultural influence does have an impact as many of the institutions are just a "copy paste" version of French ones. That happens with education, finance (they still work on Franc CFA with is still dependant on Paris), politics and so on. The type of multinationals you can see there are mostly French, along with Lebanese, and so are their trading partners. Therefore don't hesitate to learn French if you are planning to go to that part of the World and demographic tendencies show French language will keep growing on the following decades.
|Quotes from Senghor, first president and father of "Négritude"
3) Democracy does actually exist in Africa
Yes, that's not a science fiction novel; the reality shows the African regimes, despite some problems, are increasingly adopting democracy not only on the paper as it used to be but on a daily basis. The burgeoning middle class is reaching the necessary awareness to claim for his rights as it is has been visible in many movements all through the continent such as the "Arab Spring" in countries like Tunisia or Egypt or in the recent riots in D.R.Congo. Senegal has always been a positive exception on the authoritarian trend since the first presidency of the legendary poet, Senghor back in the 60s, there have been peaceful transitions. When I was there, they had actually enacted a new law reducing the presidential mandate from 7 years to just 5, after being voted on referendum. That can just serve as an example of fair democracy.
4) Eco-tourism and protection of the patrimony as new trends:
One of the things I liked the most on my short trip to Senegal in the respect they have towards their nature and the sustainable model they are trying to set up. Unlike the model you see in fast developing countries like China or countries in the Middle East, their development is aimed to be respectful and integrative. Senegal it's poor, there is no doubt about that, they lack from fundamental infrastructure (drinking water, power, roads, public schools) in many areas, especially in the rural ones. But that didn't deter them from promoting ecotourism. Tourism, as one their best sources of income is of the most important assets, as they don't have the chance to have oil on their soil. As a result, they have managed to protect many areas that remain away from mass tourism. Both in Dakar with "Gorée Island" and the Sine Saloum, region I visited in the South of Senegal, near the Gambian border, are under the protection of Unesco World Heritage, and that make them incredibly peaceful places where tourists and locals can meet each other.
|Church on the Gorée Island
5) Christianity and Islam can coexist
That last stand can seem disturbing or even annoying to many narrow minds that keep thinking Islam and Extremism are just close synonyms. The truth is that every country is different and when it comes to religious tolerance, Senegal is clearly on the top. With more than 80% of its population considering themselves as Muslims, Senegal is one of the rare cases where you can see a church and a big mosque in the same town just separated by a couple of roads. The moderate version of Islam, deeply influenced by African traditions, has made Senegalese people fairly opened and when I visited a church during Easter, I didn't have any feeling of fear or anxiety. Hopefully this religious tolerance won't be affected by the terrible consequences of religious radicalism and terrorism affecting the entire region.
To conclude, those are just 5 lessons, I got that I wanted to share with you, but above all, there is the people. It can be a stereotype to consider Africans as joyful and always welcoming the strangers, but in the Senegal, also called the "Bassari country, you can really feel that. I haven’t found in any other place so warm and kind people. Of course they want us, "toubabs"(as they call us, white people) to offer them small presents specially the young kids, but is just nothing compared to the hospitality you get from them. I am already counting down for my next visit to Senegal. As Senghor once said: “I have always taken care to put an idea or emotion behind my words. I have made it a habit to be suspicious of the mere music of words.”