Some of you have probably been following Senegal through newspapers; there was an article about the mballaax music scene here in the New York Times a few months back, and you may have also heard that Senegal is working closely in Haitian rebuilding efforts. Recently there was also an article in the Wall Street Journal regarding a statue being built here.
The statue, featuring a very strong man and a (contraversially) scantly clad woman, rests atop one of Dakar’s two hills which can be viewed from the entire city. Built by the North Koreans, it is brown, shiny, and expensive. President Wade commissioned the statue as a icon of pride for 50 years of Senegalese independence, the anniversary of which happens this year and innundates television channels with the slogan “Un peuple, un but, un fois” (“One people, One Goal, One Faith.) When I questioned my host family regarding their feelings on the statue, they had no strong sentiments. They noted that it will encourage tourism in that neighborhood for restaurants and shops, but that it in now way affects or benefits their lives personally. I asked my family what the “goal” of Senegal is; they replied that they didn’t know, something about African pride…
The new statue serves as a microcosm for all Senegalese political life. Characterized by intense apathy, the political climate here is void of discourse or challenges. Wade, the octegenarian President, was elected for a second-term by a majority who saw no viable alternative after seven years of qualitative decline under his leadership. When questioning the Senegalese regarding their opinions of Wade, most shrug their shoulders and reply, “Il est le President.” (He is the President.) Only the intellectual communtiy seems to mock his use of funds for statue building and parades while the residents of the banliues (suburbs) of Dakar attempt to illegally reach Europe via pirogue (tiny fishing boats) and the rural villages remain devoid of potable water, public schools, medical care, and local representation in governance.
Perhaps most challenging to me as a Western government scholar is the cycle of decline Senegal is currently experiencing. I expected to come to Dakar at a moment of upward transition; it is a megacity in the developing world with enormous tourist potential due to the climate and coastal location. Instead, since the 1990s, locals tell me the quality of life has declined substantially. While most United States citizens consider the 1990s a time of worldwide prosperity and growth, the decrease in salaries and increases in both unemployment and cost of living paint a different picture here in Dakar. Just as I could not imagine the multitude of feelings held by the inhabitants of Goree, I wonder about the sentiments towards United States-led instutitions such as the IMF or World Bank.
Last week, I started an internship within the Microfinance bureau of the Senegalese government. My project specifically focuses on building infrastructure in rural areas of Senegal and is funded by the World Bank, Canadian, American, and Belgian governments respectively. In my first two sessions as an intern, I have translated documents from English to French and met a large number of influential Senegalese civil servants. After learning about much of the contraversy of instituting Western-style policies on the developing world in my Georgetown International Relations class, I asked my boss what he thought about the loans acquired through the World Bank. I expected him to be hesitant towards the matter of re-payment, albeit with decidedly low interest. Instead, he considered the question as a matter of fact, simply the rules of the game in playing with the developed world.
It surprises me that there has not been more opposition to the leadership here. In the 50 years since independence, Senegal has never had a coup d’etat and there are few issues of internal instability outside the southern Casamence region. Like all things in Senegal, colonial legacy, Islamic faith, traditional tribal culture all interact within the political scene. In my next entries, I hope to explore my findings on the religious climate and its impact on politics, as well as my experiences with the nightlife as promised.
Ba baneen yoon!