Ten Days in Senegal: Learning How to Make a Difference
By Mary-Kay Miller, department of foreign languages
I’m just beginning to shake off that fuzzy-around-the-edges feeling I associate with jet lag. On Monday, April 9, I returned from ten days in Senegal. It was my second visit to the country, the first occurring more than twenty years ago, when I spent a summer in Dakar interviewing novelists and poets as part of the research for my PhD dissertation. It was a critical intellectual experience, as it helped me to understand the cultural and social underpinnings of the literature in a way I would not have otherwise. On a personal level, I simply fell in love with the country and have always wanted to go back. That opportunity presented itself this fall, when my friend, Susan, a semi-retired MGH trauma surgeon and disaster team coordinator, announced that she was planning a visit to Senegal to learn more about an organization named CREATE!, founded and staffed by friends she had met while working in the refugee camps in Rwanda. Susan and I had talked about our mutual interest in Africa many times, and she asked if I would like to go with her.
We did not get there in a straight line. Our original travel dates coincided with the first-round of presidential elections on February 26 and political unrest was making travel around the country difficult, so we had to reschedule. This kind of turbulence was very unusual as Senegal has a long history as a peaceful, stable democracy. The country was colonized by the French in the 19th century and gained its independence in 1960. Its first president was Léopold Sédar Senghor, a highly educated writer, philosopher and statesman. He turned power over to Abdou Diouf in 1980, who in turn, gracefully accepted defeat in free elections in 1999, and in 2000, Abdoulaye Wade became the third president.
President Wade stirred up a lot of controversy this past summer when he declared that he would run for a third term and attempted changes to the constitution that would facilitate both his reelection and a transfer of power to his son. The Senegalese people, frustrated by rising unemployment and political corruption, took to the streets to protest what they saw as an abuse of power. These protests, which were sometimes violent, in a country known for its stability, caught the attention of the international community and the election process was closely monitored. On March 26, the runoff election was held and Macky Sall defeated Wade by a large margin, becoming Senegal’s fourth president. The Senegalese were rightfully proud of their successful democratic process. As neighboring Mali descended into chaos after a military coup, Senegal planned an inauguration and a peaceful transfer of power. We landed in Dakar several days before the inauguration and saw the magnificent Presidential Palace, which faces the sea. Later, as we traveled around the country we asked people if they were excited about their new president. Most said they were looking forward to the new administration and hoping that it would bring improvements to their daily lives.
Politics, however, were not foremost in the minds of most people we met. We traveled southeast to Kaolack, where temperatures hovered around 102. The CREATE (Center for Renewable Energy and Appropriate Technology for the Environment) offices in Kaolack were our base for the next several days and we enjoyed meeting the talented and dedicated members of the CREATE team and the villagers with whom they worked. These people were occupied with the more pressing matters of securing water sources and using them to grow vegetables that could supplement their food supply and be sold at the market. They were also engaged in building cookstoves that were made entirely from accessible materials (clay, sand, water, straw), used much less wood and were safer than the traditional cookstoves. The CREATE technicians would present a classroom-style lesson on stove building or seed planting, then ask their “students” (mostly women, although there were some men also) from the village to immediately put it into practice. In Fass Koffe and Fass Kane, we watched seeds being planted and stoves being built.
We travelled north to Ouadiour, Diender and Thieneba to look at solar-powered well pumps, water networks and community garden sites. Continuing north to Dara, we stayed in a hotel with a mosque next door whose call to prayer punctuated our day and a sports arena across the road where teenagers played basketball while listening to Shakira at full volume. The road that divided the mosque and sports arena was busy with cars as well as donkey and horse carts carrying people and possessions from one place to another. As I sat on a bench and watched this fascinating métissage, a group of goats walked past me and through the hotel gates to nibble at the shrubbery in the courtyard. Of course, I pulled out my iPhone and called my daughter in Milton to share the scene with her! After one more wonderful day in the village of Ouarhokh, where we learned about the various pests that can besiege the community gardens (giant crickets, for example!) and were yet again warmly welcomed and well fed, we headed back to Dakar for the last few days of our trip.
We spent two days wandering around Dakar, enjoying the bustling markets and the delicious fresh fish in the local restaurants. On our last day, we took a ferry to the île de Gorée, a lovely island with a somber history as a place where many West African captives were held before being loaded onto slave ships headed to the West Indies and the United States. As we sat on the beach in Gorée looking out at the Atlantic and contemplating various kinds of crossings, we talked in French, English, and a little Wolof, with a Senegalese man who had visited more states in the US than I have. To travel is to continually be reminded of and surprised by all the things that link us together as a global community.