I’ve never really given much thought to what makes a city a city. When I was little, The City was Chicago and meant skyscrapers, traffic, and sidewalks filled with quite a few more people than those of my hometown. Of course, moving from that mid-sized town to Washington, DC, for college made me more aware of the fact that I had not grown up in a city, so I suppose I thought about cities a bit freshman year. But DC is not really a typical American city. And a typical American city is definitely not an African city. Here in Senegal, many of my experiences here lead back to the concepts of cities and urbanization – many more than I ever would have guessed. In fact, I think about cities so much here that the subject is worth a blog post.
I was thinking about cities as I stood on the Saint-Louis bridge this past weekend, looking out at the choppy water that surrounded the former French colonial capital, an island city right near the Mauritanian border of Senegal. Is this New Orleans? we kept asking ourselves. The differences between Dakar and Saint-Louis (at least, the small section of Saint-Louis we got to explore in our far-too-short twenty hours there) were striking: the colonial architecture, the jazz scene, the general cleanliness and lack of trash everywhere. Everything about the infrastructure reminded me of the fact that this city was built by Europeans, three and a half centuries ago. And this fact just underlined not only the relative newness of Dakar, the city where I’ve been living for the past three months, but also its definite African-ness.
I think about cities a lot in my Urban Landscapes class, in which we frame issues of “la ville Africaine” and analyze both the problems that African cities face and the problems that come with oversimplifying and overgeneralizing “the African city,” as it may appear that I have already done in this post. What do I (or anyone) mean when I say “African city”? My Urban Landscapes professor, Monsieur Diallo, talks often about decolonization and religion and ethnicity and language and traditional forms of economy as factors in the shaping and reshaping of cities in developing countries in Africa. We also discuss the motivations people have for moving to cities, what makes cities develop, and the complex relationship between the city and the not-city. In the Senegalese context, the dichotomy runs between “ville” and “village,” but the idea of a village doesn’t translate exactly to “town” or “countryside.” Rural-ness is different here than in the United States, where small towns may be scattered in the midst of crop fields or mountains. About 70% of Senegal’s population is rural – and in many cases, that means almost no easy connection to a city whatsoever and subsistence farming/fishing. When I was staying in a village a few weeks ago, I witnessed how much cities are idealized and romanticized, oftentimes unrealistically. My village host mother’s sister lives in Pikine, the impoverished banlieue just outside Dakar, and the rest of the family spoke of her life there as sophisticated and urban.
I thought about cities when I visited Pikine for a development practicum class field trip, though, and what I thought was that if I left a village like Keur Demba with hopes of a new better life “in the city” and ended up trapped in Pikine, I would be utterly discouraged. Because, although the best English translation for the French “banlieue” might be “suburb,” places like Pikine are a far cry from the manicured lawns and two-car garages that stereotypically characterize American suburbia. I’ve learned that the suburbs of most African cities (like those of most European cities, actually) are in fact home to the worst urban poverty, as opposed to America’s inner-city ghettos. As our class went door-to-door to interview and survey the residents of Pikine about education, the environment, health, and economic demographics, we hopped on sandbags across streets that were literal rivers of sewage, we were invited into homes that were still several feet underwater from the most recent flooding (which comes with every large rain in a country where an entire season consists of rain), and we were forced to tell people who were desperate for outside help that we were merely students. I noticed that many of the homes in Pikine were actually more like compounds, with rooms entering into a central courtyard, a structure that I recalled several weeks later when I stayed in a spacious family compound in Keur Demba. Pikine is a good example of what has been called “rurbanization” – the moving of the rural to the city – and demonstrates how decontextualizing elements of village life, like polygamous households living in compounds, does not always translate well in an urban application. People are moving from the villages to the outskirts of Dakar, bringing with them traditional ideas about space and structure, but limited space and horrible infrastructure and plumbing (I mean HORRIBLE) means that Pikine households are often cramped and unsanitary and livestock-filled.
Social structures, like extended family, start to shift in this new context. I’m writing a big report for my internship about how this societal “crisis of identity” is affecting the ways traditional practices of child socialization are regarded. As it turns out, children’s rights are very connected with the idea of cities, when you take into account the education disparities between rural and urban areas and the abundance of child beggars (“talibe”) that rattle their cans asking for money that all ends up going to their marabout, or teacher. There’s a lot more to say about the talibe and maraboutage and the intersection of religion and education here in Senegal, but I’ll save that for a future post.
Another important area where the rural and the urban collide is in the economic sectors of cities, suburbs, and villages. Part of what makes Dakar seem so “African” (and what distinguishes it from Saint-Louis) is its thriving informal economy, or “la informelle,” as Professor Diallo refers to the thousands of unofficial transactions that happen on the streets of Dakar every day. From the women roasting peanuts under the highway bridge near my house to the young men selling used shoes and T-shirts (mostly leftovers from American second-hand stores or donations or who-knows-what other American means) along the sidewalks on the way to my internship, it’s impossible to escape la informelle. (If you have ever wondered where your 7th Grade B Team Basketball shirt ended up, it’s probably in Africa – it’s a funny game to look at the random shirts worn by people who obviously don’t speak English, including some bizarre, some very inappropriate, and some from an alternate universe, like “Super Bowl XLII Champions: New England Patriots.”) With an employment rate hovering around 50%, Senegal’s youth especially are drawn to the informal sectors despite the lack of security. But this is exactly the opposite of what needs to happen, according to Professor Diallo: “What does reselling some t-shirts do to augment the richesse of the country? Nothing.” His tentative solution to some of the complex problems facing Senegal’s economy is for young people to leave the cities to work in agriculture; this country’s strength lies in the land. I was totally surprised by this assertion, since I have been trained to think that cities equal education, which equals economic power. I’m not sure that frame, which I’ve used when speaking about “brain-drain” in places like Appalachia, works in the context of Senegal.
I think about cities sometimes when I’m on the No. 29 Tata bus line, pressed inconceivably uncomfortably to strangers and rattling bits of bus on the way to school from my internship. This past Monday, I had a particularly awful bus ride and couldn’t help thinking, How is this supposed to work? Like, does anyone actually think that packing scores of human beings into a space only designed for a third that number is going to work out well for anyone involved? Dakar’s public transportation failures are a reminder of how many people live here! I mean, millions of people go about their lives here in the Dakar metropolitan area every day. The city itself is alive with activity – c’est une ville vivante. I’m struck sometimes by the fact that this is the largest city I’ve ever lived in, at least twice the size of DC. Thinking about the city while I’m doing my least favorite thing in the city – riding the No. 29 Tata bus – makes Professor Diallo’s ideas about de-urbanization make sense. I feel like I’ve grown up thinking that urbanization is good, that standards of living improve in cities and that cities are important centers of political, economic, and cultural value. But without infrastructures like reliable running water, garbage collection, and public transportation (just to name a few), I don’t think that’s at all necessarily true.
It might seem like all this thinking about cities has made me critical of Dakar. Yes, I do look at this metropolis through a critical lens, but I still love this city, despite its honking taxis, trash piles, and overcrowded buses. I just bought a map of Dakar today and felt a wave of contentment wash over me when I looked at all the place names and realized that I have actual associations for the parts of the city – Sacré Coeur 3, Mermoz, Fann, Sicap Baobab, Ouakam, Grand Yoff, Liberté 6, Medina. I can’t wait to hang this map in my house in my DC and remember all the things I love about my Dakar.
And speaking of things I can’t wait for, I am rather excited to think about cities when I am far from them this weekend in the desert at the Festival of the Sahel. We’re going to camp in tents near Lompoul and listen to tons of traditional music for three days – like the Coachella of Africa! I certainly thought about how lovely it was to be away from the city for a bit when we were in Lompoul this past weekend before Saint-Louis, frolicking around in the desert sands, dune-jumping and camel-riding and dancing around a fire and playing games in the moonlight. That’s right, I’m going to the same tented paradise for two weekends in a row, and I’m nothing but happy about it. Leaping off the hills of sand reminded me of the dunes near my home in Indiana, on the shores of Lake Michigan. I can’t believe at all that I’ll be back in that lovely state in less than four weeks. I am so excited for this homecoming – yet I am suddenly aware of all that I want to do before I leave. I know the rest of the program will fly by and I want so much to savor it. There are still more memories to be packed into my city map of Dakar.