Meet Burkina

learning & sharing Burkina Faso


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First day of my internship – finally!

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In picture: Jibi, right before we both got drenched by a huge wave. We had gone to watch the sunset. It was my first Senegalese sunset. Thankfully Jibi is a gentleman so he let me wear his sweater while he froze in his tank.

C’est la vie, Yama often reminds me. That’s life. I’ve been remembering this as I face all sorts of interesting issues.

I finished with my first day on the job at my internship! It’s honestly such a long story, but I’m no longer working at the internship with the prisons that I had originally planned on and was accepted to. To put it simply, and really I don’t know all the information anyway, my boss is very busy and he decided that there isn’t that much I would be able to do besides a lot of reading. I’m thankful for him being honest about that up front so that my internship doesn’t consist of doing just the things I could do from an American library.

After I received the information that I wouldn’t be at that internship, Waly and I talked a lot and he found me another one. But, in my head and heart I had a small little struggle. You see, originally I was to move to a village for my internship. I would absolutely love to experience life in a Senegalese village and greatly improve my Wolof. I know I’m cut out to live that kind of life – I could handle it. However, when the prison internship was on the table I thought that it would be a really interesting experience for me, and perhaps relevant for my future. But that would require me to stay in Dakar. Anyway, I knew that it would be unlikely that I got the prison internship, so I decided that if God wanted me to stay in Dakar and do the prison internship, he would make it happen. If he wanted me to go live in the village and do something there, he could easily make it so that the prison internship wasn’t an option. I asked him to guide me.

But then the prison internship was made an option just long enough so that it was impossible to move to the village, but short enough that it wasn’t going to work out. Perhaps I’m not listening to God close enough and instead am choosing based on my own desires, and not his. Or, contrarily, maybe it was his idea that I don’t do the prison internship, but that I really should stay in Dakar.

Mostly I’m content with how things are now. I’ve always been the kind of person to build my network of relationships deep not wide, (if friends are coins, I prefer 4 quarters to 100 pennies). In that way, I’m excited to strengthen and deepen the relationships I already have in Dakar. So far my internship is great. My boss is phenomenal and the two co-workers I’ve gotten to know are also very patient and nice. Which everyone in Senegal is patient and nice, but they are beyond average. As far as improving my Wolof goes, I have decided that I will do some studying on my own. I love Wolof enough to actually do this, and my main motivation is so that at the dinner table I have new things to tell my mom. She gets a total kick out of any new Wolof phrase I can tell her.  And another thing I’ll miss out on by staying in Dakar, experiencing a new environment, is also tempered by the fact that I work in the part of Dakar called Yoff. Although Yoff is in no way comparable to village life, it is very different from the part of Dakar I live in – Mermoz. In that way, I am experiencing something very new while I pass each day there.

The organization I work with is the Association pour la Promotion Economique, Culturelle et Sociale de Yoff, or APECSY. It’s basically an NGO that strives to promote development while guarding the vibrant Senegalese culture. I’m excited to formulate a stronger opinion about how development and culture interact because it has been one of the most interesting things for me here. I’ve written about it in my journal countless times. For example, I often struggle with eliminating the idea that a lot of culture needs to be lost in order for “development” to arrive. Sometimes I notice things that are cultural and beautiful, but these things aren’t good for promoting development. A few weeks ago Waly told me something that I’ll always remember. Put simply, he said we westerners need to be careful to not “preserve culture for the outsider”. For example, I shouldn’t aim at preserving Senegalese culture because I think it’s a beautiful juxtaposition from American culture. Yes, I wish every westerner could come here and experience Senegal because in so many ways it contains exactly the good things American culture lacks. But it’s not fair for me to want to preserve a culture that isn’t benefitting the people who live in it. If they seek development, moving from a hut to a brick and metal house for example, who am I to say “no, but your hut is so pretty and interesting and I want to stay in it!”

The first day on the job was nice and totally relaxed, lacking the stress that the first day on the job might have for someone in the U.S. I had one task today, and I started and finished it. The NGO does a whole bunch of different things, and I already know that “a typical day at work” won’t exist (yay!). Today I organized a giant stack of papers. The stack contained forms and a photograph of hundreds of children who live in Yoff, between the ages of fresh and about 8 years old, but usually around 4 or 5. I was to create a file folder for each child. Basically this is the situation: each child has a sponsor in the U.S., Canada, France, or China. You’ve seen it – pay X amount of dollars daily or monthly to feed a child or send them to school. My family in the U.S. have done it, but now I’m on the other side. I am meeting those children! The NGO I work with facilitates the program. A few of the sponsored kids were in the office today doing what they need to in order to stay sponsored. They really earn the money that they receive. In their file they have a notebook. They are required to write letters to their sponsor on a regular basis, updating them on their life. If the sponsor writes letters too, that correspondence is kept in their file. Sadly, the Senegalese children would write several letters a year and usually there were no letters back, although notably Brian and Tim were good at writing back to their child. I also cleaned out file folders from kids who had become too old to receive money. One girl specifically had all the letters she had written from 2006 to 2012. She also had several pictures of herself in there, as to keep her sponsor updated on what she looked like. I’m really nervous that my boss is going to throw all those old stacks away. Honestly they aren’t something I should be allowed to browse through, but oh my goodness would it be so interesting.

Another thing in the file folder is a form with information about the children. It entertained me so much! The question that was in the specific position on the page that I could glance and read without appearing like I was reading the forms as I put them in their folders was a question about what they like to do during playtime. The child who was most enthused and adorable in his photo said that his favorite thing was to play with his mom. His family described him as curious. Another boy said that his favorite thing was to play with the sheep. Didn’t contain my grin when I read that one.

The best part of the day was lunch time! My boss told me that each day I am to walk to his house and eat with his family there. (Honestly, what? That is incredibly nice. I will be saving money, eating outstanding food, and have the company of wonderful older women and his three beautiful daughters.) We ate ceebujen, the national dish of Senegal and the most common lunch. It was hands down the best ceebujen I’ve ever eaten here, and I’ve eaten a lot of it. Yama asked me some questions and then explained that it’s because an older woman made it. At my house in Mermoz, our maid cooks it. She can’t be more than twenty or so years old so she hasn’t had years of practice like my boss’s wife. Before lunch, admittedly, I took a long nap on their couch. So did the youngest daughter who is about three. With a two hour lunch break what’s better than a nap and phenomenal ceebujen? I also loved talking to middle aged and older women. Usually it’s only men who want to talk to me.

After work I rode the TATA bus home. It was my first time ever riding one and I did it alone. It was so easy actually, but I had to keep my brain powered up for a while. Yoff is about a 45 minute bus ride from Mermoz. (One thing I still can’t fathom is the huge-ness of Dakar. Guys it’s seriously unbelievably expansive.) I am only familiar with perhaps 4% of Dakar, so traversing a large part of it and having to tell the bus driver when to stop was a little nerve racking. I didn’t know if it would be fifteen minutes or three hours, but I just waited until I saw something I recognized so I could walk the rest of the way home. Then, not progressively but randomly and suddenly, I saw something I recognized – Caesars, a restaurant about five minutes from my house. I stood up and made eye contact with the driver. He stopped and I walked just a couple minutes home where my neighbors and the men that often hang out at my house greeted me with smiles and handshakes. “Peace be you with”, I said, in Arabic, as is necessary. “And also with you.”

Anyway, all is well in my life. The past week I sat around doing a whole lot of nothing as classes were finished but there was trouble getting my internship on the ground running. I’m flexible and didn’t stress out about it. That’s the necessary attitude to have when you’re in “Africa”, but specifically here in Senegal. I think I’ve always harbored the qualities necessary to live a peaceful, stress-free life, but I’m really realizing and cultivating them now. Maybe all of the stressed Americans out there harbor the seeds necessary to live a life of “jamm rekk” but those qualities aren’t withdrawn in western culture. I’m excited to bring my new “do life slowly, be a peaceful presence for all” style back to the U.S. I think I can hold on to it for at least a little while.

Learning Wolof: Lekk naa ba fii, I ate until here. (You must also make a hand motion to show how far you ate until. I make it just under my chin. I’ve been saying this after dinner frequently for the past couple weeks and my mom laughs every time. Still she insists that I eat more but honestly mama I couldn’t if I tried.)

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Spring Break in Saly, Senegal

I spent Spring Break with 3 other American girls – Katherine from Virginia, Tori from Chicago, and Haley from Wisconsin. It was the perfect group to spend a week with…

Saturday, March 14

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Pool at the house we stayed in

Left Dakar and arrived in Saly, Senegal. I was in awe about how gorgeous of a house we were staying at for not too expensive. We had two large bedrooms and bathrooms. (Most importantly, running hot water! Easily one of the best parts of the trip.) We also had a beautiful pool, access to a kitchen for cooking, and an open roof which could have facilitated stargazing but the night we hung out up there wasn’t clear. We met our parents de Saly, a middle aged couple from France who were just old enough to be retired if they wanted to but they were seeking employment. They owned the house and while we were there they mostly left us alone, engaging with us only when they were serving us breakfast, offering us wine, or trying to drive us somewhere they thought we should see. They were amazing. We ate lunch with parents de Saly at a small local joint. For dinner Haley and I split a pizza, my first pizza in Senegal. It did not disappoint. At night, in my journal, I wrote a letter to my Mom (my U.S. mother – yes, complicated now that I have at least three) about how I knew she would love Saly. I gave some compelling reasons why her and Dad should live here.

Sunday, March 15

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Free boat ride on the Rasta Rocket after drinks at Chez Rasta

Our first full day started off with the breakfast of a king, prepared by Mom Saly. It included baguettes of course (but homemade and delicious), jellies, fruit salad with pineapple, apple and grapefruit, some millet yogurt stuff that only I loved, tea, coffee, and juice. Each day she added something new to the breakfast, things like sweet apple bake, milk, whole fruits, Nutella, pancakes. Then we headed to the beach. Mostly we sat just north of Obama Beach, so that we had a more private experience. When we came home parents wanted to take us to the lagoon so we went. Mom used, and taught us, a wonderful line: “Gratuit ou rien”, free or nothing. It was a good line to use with pesky sellers, and it finally got us a free boat ride to Chez Rasta. Chez Rasta was a big but not busy restaurant on the beach decorated (intensely) with all things Rastafarian. Everything was red, green, or yellow, except the blue part of the Brazilian flag painted on our table. Parents ended up paying for our beer (and Tori’s soda), and the bartender gave us free rum. I bought bracelets, parents provided great entertainment, and we made friends with the staff. For dinner after we were home us 4 girls got Asian takeout – a few dollars and very worth it.

Monday, March 16

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A male chief giraffe and several females

Today we went to the Bandia Reserve! I experienced my first ever African safari, and it was as good as or better than you’re imagining. The only thing that could have made it better is if I could have seen lions, but if I were to see lions I might not have seen some of the other animals, which would have been in the pit of Lion’s tummy. We saw all sorts of animals, most of them I can’t even name because there were so many and the tour was in French. Gazelles, hyenas, rhinos, monkeys, birds, crocodiles, zebras, giraffes. There were several different kinds of mammals sort of like gazelles but much bigger and with horns and different patterns on them. The bird life really fascinated me! They were gorgeous. After, we went grocery shopping, ate spaghetti, and had wine and cheese with parents (my first wine and cheese experience with French people). Haley and I shared chickpeas for dinner, surprisingly delicious, and then we all played cards – Rummy – before going to bed. Tori won by a lot.

Tuesday, March 17

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Enjoying a Senegalese beer, Flag, at Chez Rasta

Today the 4 of us took a clando (refer to previous post) to the lagoon and spent more time at Chez Rasta. We got a boat tour of the lagoon and the guide let us off and let us explore by foot. I saw a lot of small aquatic wildlife which was cool. We also spent time on the beach and gathered shells. For dinner we had macaroni and cheese, except Haley who has to be careful with dairy. She had more Asian food. Katherine and Haley and I spent time on the roof. I still can’t get over that house. Beautiful without being excessive.

Wednesday, March 18

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Just a small selection of the hundreds of fish we watched get caught on the beach

Beach day! On the beach we spent awhile talking to four women vendors. At first they were trying to sell us stuff, but their selling mentality broke down just about when I told one of them “Begg naa sa dome”, I want your baby. She untied her son from her back and willingly handed him over, joking about how he was definitely for sale. The women gave us several bracelets as gifts, put some cute braids in our hair, and shared a little bit about their lives. In Senegal I meet and talk with men all the time, but rarely women. It was refreshing. We also got to witness a bunch of men pulling in a huge net with hundreds of fish. For lunch I split an amazing salad with fresh fruit, shrimp, and calamari. Once home, in the evening, Haley and I gathered the courage to go talk to the pool boy at his room. We called him Pool Boy but he also cleans and does landscaping. The garage is divided in half with a wall – on the left is the car, on the right is Pool Boy’s bedroom. He sleeps there every night, and cooks for himself in his room on a little gas cooker. His name is Etienne. All week I had been curious to talk to him but because he was working, it wasn’t necessarily okay for him to engage with us guests. All week I would make eye contact with him and he would smile. He was very easy to talk to, a gentle speaker and patient with our bad French/Wolof. Best part: he is a Christian! I haven’t met very many Christians here, and only just older women. After that, we girls ended up staying up until 5am talking about very controversial subjects. We were already physically drained, but then we had drained ourselves mentally too.

Thursday, March 19

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Disclaimer: photo taken the day before; a large fish market in Mbour, Senegal. We paid a guy to give us a tour/be our body guards as the area can be a little crazy at times.

As always we started with Mom’s breakfast. Then we spent the day at the pool at home. I read more of my book I had been reading all week, Flowers for Algernon. We packed our bags and straightened up our rooms. We said goodbye to them, and then parents, and then Etienne. We took a clando, and then a super cheap taxi (read below), back to Dakar. By the time I was back in Dakar I was ready to be. Spring Break had lasted long enough to be long enough, and short enough to have only fond memories and intact friendships.

Learning Wolof: Liggey you nday, English translation does not exist. This is one of the many main Senegalese cultural values. It basically means that the success of a man is thanks to the work of his mother. I can’t disagree! Thanks Mom, (and Dad), for all you’ve done for me.


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I believe He’s watching out as I travel around Senegal

I’m truly overwhelmed.

I keep saying “best meal so far in Senegal”, “nicest person so far in Senegal”, “coolest thing so far in Senegal”, “best day so far in Senegal”, “best week so far in Senegal”. I’m not sure if things truly keep getting better or if it’s just the case that everything is so awesome all the time that everything feels like “the best”, “ever”.

This past week was Spring Break for me, and the week between the two halves of my time abroad, the first half being the classroom phase and the second half being my internship/research phase. It’ll be hard to write a blog post summarizing the week, but I’ll do my best. Sometimes when I have a lot to write about, my tactic is starting at the present and writing about the events in reverse chronological order. This post will be something like that, as I am writing about the trip home from Spring Break, and a rundown of my six days of vacation will come later.

clando: an informal taxi, an unmarked car with a random driver; part of the Senegalese informal sector; not exactly illegal; less expensive, just as safe. My theory is that “clando” comes from the word “clandestine”. (For readers who aren’t great with vocabulary, clandestine is an English word meaning secretive.) However, my other English speaking friends here did not make that assumption and perhaps that’s not the case. (I strongly believe it is).

A week ago my friends and I left Dakar to head to Saly for Spring Break. Saly is a small city south of Dakar on the coast known for its beauty and tourist opportunities. Our plan to get there was this: take a taxi from the mosque in Mermoz to the lot with the sept-places, pronounced “set-PLAAS”, which translates as “seven seats”; take a sept-places from Dakar to Mbour; take a clando from Mbour to the house we were renting in Saly.

It was, as always, easy to hail a taxi in Mermoz where we live. “Hailing a taxi” is an overstatement anyway because when you’re a Toubab (white) walking along the street here, the taxis all hail you (honk, slow down, honk again, stop, honk) and you acknowledge them if there’s mutual desire. We bargained with the driver for the price to the lot with the sept-places, a ten to thirty minute drive. While in the taxi, the driver tried to convince us to let him drive us all the way to Saly, a roughly two hour drive. We insisted that we weren’t interested because the sept-places were so much cheaper. So the bargaining began.

Because locals had told us to expect a price just around 25,000 FCFA, we were happy when we successfully bargained with the taxi driver for a price of 15,000 CFCA ($25). This split between four people wasn’t going to be that much more expensive than paying for the taxi, the sept-places, and the clando. Futhermore, staying in the taxi and not getting out until we were at our vacation home was going to be so much less stressful, albeit not as exciting. So we did it. Although we had some difficulties in Saly finding the exact house, where street names and addresses exist only in theory, all went very well.

Now fast forward a week to this afternoon. Our amazing vacation has ended and our bags are packed. We say good bye to the two people who had become our Salian parents, and the pool boy. We walk towards the busy road where a clando will hail us and we will accept. (Taxis don’t exist in small cities and villages.) We plan to take a clando, then a sept-places, and then a taxi – the reverse of our first plan out of Dakar. However, it was as if God was telling us that we weren’t meant to ride in a sept-places, that we weren’t ready; our plan failed again.

After getting in the clando, it turns out that our driver was on his way to meet a friend. He called him to let him know he was going to be late because he had “clients” he had to take to Mbour, a little bit of a drive. When he has the opportunity to make a couple thousand francs he will. Again, we never made it to the sept-places lot. After only a couple kilometers he flashed his lights and pulled his car off the road. It’s not abnormal for a driver to pull off and buy water or fruit or sandals or anything really. But this time there wasn’t anything to buy. It turns out that he signaled for a taxi to stop. Generally taxis don’t exist in small cities like Saly, but this taxi had just come from Dakar and was dropping a man off.

Our clando driver said “Get out” and we said no, take us to the lot with the sept-places because that’s what we’re paying you to do and who is this random taxi driver eyeing us and we don’t want to take a taxi because they’re expensive and even though we are white we are ready for the adventure of the sept-places. The taxi driver came over to our window and said “Dakar? 20,000.” We told him that we were planning to take the sept-places which was much cheaper. Then he said, “Okay, 1,500.” Time stood still. I looked back at Katherine and Tori and Haley in the back seat with the most confused expression. Katherine told him that we didn’t understand what he said, and he repeated himself. “1,500.” I told the girls, no way. Even if he actually means he wants to do it for 1,500, that’s just too good to be true. We aren’t looking to get trafficked.

Then I understood. The taxi was a Dakar taxi, and the driver lived in Dakar. He had taken a man to Saly. Now he was headed back to Dakar. Taxis don’t belong in Saly and he probably wouldn’t be able to get good business because clandos can drive people around Saly for cheap. Not to mention he probably wanted to get back to Dakar to pray and eat. Our clando driver saw an easy way out of driving us all the way to Mbour (because he wanted to go hang out with his friends), and he thought he could help a Dakar taxi driver make 20,000, or at least something, off Toubabs headed home. The taxi driver knew he probably wouldn’t be able to find Senegalese people to drive to Dakar, because they would most certainly take a sept-places, or even a Tata or another big, cheap bus. But today we Toubabs were Senegalese too, and after insisting that a sept-places was just fine for us, the taxi driver decided to give us a sept-places rate if we would just get in his car and go. It wasn’t too good to be true – the taxi driver was happy with the situation too. Because there were four of us, his car would be at max capacity for his trip back to Dakar, and he would charge a rate slightly higher than he would normally be able to charge – 1,500 per head.

It worked out perfectly for all parties involved. He was charging us each 1,500 FCFA ($2.50) to drive us right to the door of our homes in Mermoz. Considering the length of the drive this was an insanely good deal. He even convinced us to pay to take the toll road which got us, and him too, home in record time. We trusted him more than the average man because he was quite old and wearing a traditional Muslim gown, (regardless if this increased trust is merited or not). He stopped just once to buy raw meat but he put it in the trunk. He was mostly silent, and spoke to me only when he wanted to tell me something interesting about what we were driving past. We tipped him well (in a country where tipping doesn’t really exist), and he gave us his phone number if we wanted to call him in the future. “What’s your name?”, Haley asked. “Saliou”, he said. “How do you spell that?”, Haley replied, fingers ready to type it into her phone. “T-A-X-I”, he said with a smile.

Where travel was likely going to be the most stressful part of my day I actually loved it. Also, I officially love clandos, even though the idea was mysterious and questionable before. In a country where unemployment, idleness, and money insecurity abounds, things like clandos put men to work and money in pockets. I’ve decided that although things seem unorganized and crazy in Senegal, systems exist here just as much as systems exist in the United States. Where formal systems are lacking, informal systems take root. Sometimes the systems in Senegal are less efficient than the ones in the U.S. Other times the systems in Senegal are notably more efficient, and more exciting too.

Learning Wolof, but Arabic first: InchAllah, God willing. (It’s appropriate to use this phrase after any sort of plan, and people use it several times a day. For example, “See you tomorrow, inchallah.” “I’m taking a sept-places, inchallah, (and it turns out God wasn’t willing).” “I’ll post tomorrow about my Spring Break, inchallah.”)


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Internship placement!

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In picture: Me and Yama’s hut on the beach! Perfectly peaceful day. 

It’s been awhile since I’ve updated my blog, mostly because this week was our last week of classes and really busy! I have my final exam in Wolof yesterday, a 15 minute oral exam with Sidy. It wasn’t easy but I think I did okay. Wolof will be the one class I miss dearly. Yama just registered to start English classes and I’ve agreed to help him – maybe we can do some lesson trading, Wolof for English.

I have an essay due tomorrow on consumption patterns in Senegal. After that I’m officially done with the first half of the program, the classroom stage. Then I will have a week of Spring Break and then my internship begins.

I have been officially placed for my internship! I will be working for L’Observateur National des Lieux de Privation de Liberté, which translated is The National Observer of Places of Deprivation of Liberty. My boss is a judge and seems really cool. I’ve met him only once during my interview, but he seems like someone I will be able to easily talk to and learn a lot from. This was the internship I was fortunate enough to get after Waly sought out something for me in the Criminal Justice field. Specifically I told him I was interested in prisons. Of course it’s not easy to get an internship in a prison, nor would it necessarily be a safe and comfortable place to work (although I think I would feel fine), but through this internship I believe I will be at least visiting prisons. I can’t wait.

I don’t have a super clear idea of what the organization does, (or if the word organization is even appropriate), but I’ll tell you what I understand about it so far.

The mission statement, roughly translated, says that the National Observer aims to monitor the conditions and care of people who are deprived of freedom in order to ensure respect for human rights and the prevention of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Sites that the National Observer may guide include prisons, health institutions where treatment is given without patient consent, local police custody, customs retention, court cellars, juvenile delinquency centers and disciplinary centers for military personnel. All of these sites sound interesting to me and I would be excited to visit and/or analyze any of them. After observation, the organization, among other things, makes recommendations to the government for change. The organization has a website, although it is in French, if you want to check it out. The website is onlpl.sn and even if you don’t speak French, the graphics on the first page are interesting.

Because the office building I will work at is in Dakar I will not be moving to a village. I will also be staying with my same host family. Although I was really excited to experience village life it’s also exciting to stay in Dakar. The internship experience may turn out to be important for my future career or career ideas.

Other than my internship, not much else is new. Yesterday we visited a hard candy factory. It was really interesting! It’s the number one hard candy brand in Senegal and everyone is familiar with it. We were able to talk to the manager and also the owner, both of whom were very willing to answer our many questions about having a business in Senegal, and the Senegalese economy and market at large. We also all brought home two or three big bags of candy. I got a bag of mint flavored and a bag of anise flavored, neither of which I love but I’ve been having fun giving handfuls out to my family and friends and random children on the street (kids accepting candy from strangers, oops?).

One of my favorite days so far in Senegal was this past Sunday. I spent the day with Yama at the beach, his favorite one. I already forgot the name of it but will ask him. We took a taxi there around noon. The beach wasn’t busy at all because it’s not beach season here for Senegalese – still too cold, (mid to high 70s and sunny sounds like perfect beach weather to me). We got our own private hut and paid a guy to watch it for us so we could walk around without our stuff. We had an amazing meal with a whole half of a chicken, French fries, and grilled seasoned vegetables. Yama had fruit salad for desert, and I drank a caprihna which was so yummy. Yama also brought his gas cooker and ataaya ingredients so we slowly drank tea on the beach – there’s nothing better. I bought some bracelets from a beach vendor woman, the most peaceful shopping experience I’ve had here. The whole day was just perfect honestly.

I’m leaving for Spring Break on Saturday! We are visiting one of Waly’s favorite vacation destinations, Saly Portudal. I’m sure you will hear all about it soon.

Learning Wolof: Am na jafe jafe, I have problems. (Interestingly, in Wolof, if you double a verb it becomes a noun. For example, jafe means “to be difficult”. Therefore, jafe jafe means “difficulty”.)


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Empty Wallets, Full Hearts

Once a week I write and turn in an essay about my experiences here. Sometimes the essay topics are chosen for us, sometimes they just must relate to Senegal geography/history/culture, and sometimes they must be a personal reflection. I turn them in in French, but first I write in English in order to organize my thoughts and lay out a map. When I go to translate it into French, some of the sentences’ meanings change a little because of my limited French vocabulary or the non-existence of certain words. Also, when I write the first draft in English, I often choose my words based on what I know I can easily translate into French. Here is the most recent essay I wrote. It needed to be a personal reflection essay, but it’s always good when the essay relates to development which is the focus of the MSID program. The essay is the expansion of a journal entry I wrote near the beginning of my life in Dakar, but since that day I’ve been thinking about the topic a lot and forming an opinion. Here it is.


Empty wallets, full hearts

Since being in Senegal, my ideas and perceptions of many things have changed. My ideas about religion are being challenged, my ideas about myself are being challenged, and my ideas about poverty are being challenged greatly. “Poverty” is one of the first words the typical westerner thinks of when they think about Africa, and “development” is the most commonly proposed solution. Indeed, almost all development scholars include “reduction of poverty” in their definition of development. Since being here I find myself asking questions like, “What is poverty? Why is it an important topic?”

Some friends in the United States, upon hearing that I have a maid at my house here in Senegal, assume my family is rich. I’m not here to talk about my family’s income because truly I don’t know, but consider this scenario: if family A lives on $10 a day and woman B’s family lives on $1 a day, woman B might be willing to work for a wage well within the budget of a $10 a day family. Having a maid doesn’t mean you’re rich, but it means you’re wealthy when compared to someone else in your city. Maybe a family can’t afford a computer but they can afford a maid. Perhaps culturally maids are a higher priority when a family considers what they want to spend their money on.

Now yes, I know that I am in fact living in a relatively wealthy neighborhood in Dakar. But that’s just the thing: this neighborhood is relatively wealthy. Mermoz is wealthy when compared to other neighborhoods in Dakar, and Dakar is wealthy relative to other cities in Senegal. I would argue that relative wealth, and relative poverty, are the only values that are even relevant in a society. Absolute poverty, often expressed in American dollars as people living on less than $1.25 a day, seems almost entirely irrelevant to me. Although it might shed light on how Senegal as a nation compares to other nations in the world economically, it does nothing to talk about an individual’s daily life.

But even if relative poverty values are more relevant than absolute poverty values, I still find myself asking “What is poverty?” I think the more important questions to ask other than “Are these people poor?” are questions like: can they see a doctor if they want to? Can they go to school if they want to? Are they happy? If the answers to questions like these are “yes”, what does it matter how much money is in their bank account?

I’m not suggesting that the discussion of reducing poverty be taken off the table altogether. Surely reducing poverty will probably lend itself to giving people more access to medical treatment, schools, and happiness. However, what if putting more money in someone’s pocket doesn’t lend itself to better access or health? Maybe the infrastructure or the trained doctors aren’t there. What if more money in someone’s pocket doesn’t mean more access to education, if there isn’t a school within walking distance or the teachers are always on strike because of government corruption? What if money is in fact the root of all evil, and that simply more money won’t lead to more happiness? Have we ever seen that casual line between money and happiness proved?

I’m suggesting instead that we stop worrying so much about economic development, particularly on the individual level. Instead, we should ask questions about how many doctors there are, and how accessible clinics are. Are there adequate schools and supplies and are teachers treated well? Are people happy, do they feel empowered, are they free?

I think we are living in an interesting time in history, a time where there are the greatest wealth disparities in the world but the greatest awareness of what exists for the other half. With today’s media, Americans are aware, or at least think they are aware, of the poverty in Africa. Africans are aware of the wealth in the United States, even if the view gets skewed as it travels through the technology waves. But I think that it’s important to critically think about what poverty is so that when we as a world try to fight it, we build up healthier, smarter, and happier people, not bank accounts. Yes, I am living here comfortably. I think anyone could. But my family’s income and whether or not we have a maid does not define poverty. My family in Dakar is wealthy because we can see a doctor when we need to, go to school when we want to, and smile because we’re happy.


Learning French: passer la nuit à la belle étoile, to spend the night under the stars. (I wish.)