A little On Senegalese Youth

At last count (from what I read yesterday afternoon), there have been 12 dead as a result of the protests in Senegal so far. I would say all were unintentional, and some were purely accidental. Among the dead are a grandmother, a toddler, a policeman, and a teenager who was buying bread at a bakery. The majority of the dead, if not the rest, have been students.

This should come as no surprise – at a recent conversation with a Senegalese Youth Leader/Worker, he pegged the number of unemployed youth at 3 million. To put things in perspective, Senegal’s population is about 12million. So I think they youth reserve the right to be pissed off to the point of going out there to demand change. And it is not just university students that are pissed off, it is all the youth working on buses, hanging out at their mama’s homes all day/night, selling things/hustling on the streets from dusk to dawn.

When I first arrived here in Senegal, I wondered why so many youths seemed to not (want to) attend school or university, but I reasoned with myself that university was probably too expensive and therefore preventative. You have to pay for school, you have to buy books, uniforms, etc., and you have to have clean clothes. If you’re at university, you have to work little or not at all so you can do well and progress. How many of them can really afford to do that? I spoke to a friend around my age – a young Senegalese Nigerian (who has spent at least 14 years in Senegal) about it and she mentioned that save for a few programs, the government pays for you to go to university. And schooling up to that point is free. There are even various Masters’ programs that are free.

What? I thought this was Senegal, not Sweden!

Her ultimate conclusion: Senegalese people, a large part of them, are lazy. They just do not want to go to school. Um, she might have a point there, I thought.

BUT thinking further about this, I realized homegirl might perhaps not have been right after all. In Dakar, there is the state university Cheikh Anta Diop (UCAD), where, if you do go, you study for free (for most, not all, programs), and even get some sort of spending money/bursary very month. But it is the only state university in Dakar. There are two other public universities in the entire country. There are numerous other small, private universities in Dakar, but they are not free. And tuition can cost in the thousands – of dollars. These are inundated with middle to upper class Senegalese and French African students from Ivory Coast, Tchad, Niger, Congo, Gabon, etc. I have a friend who’s doing a program at UCAD, but one of those for which one has to pay, and his tuition is about $2000 (I believe for the academic year – about eight months). If tuition at the state school can cost that much, then we can imagine tuition at the private schools is at least that and even if it were lower, it would not be much more so.

Estimates suggest that there are about 60 000 students at UCAD and the World Bank has suggested more than a few times that it should stop admitting students, citing inadequate infrastructure to support the 60 000, let alone a few thousands more. Let’s imagine that the other two universities in the country can admit about 40 000 students each (they are much smaller so I doubt it but let’s assume) so that makes about 140 000 students in all the state universities at any given time. The population of Dakar and its surrounding areas is at least 2 million and Africa’s demographic is such that youth (18 to 35) are the most numerous of any population, sometimes comprising of up to 70%. But let’s tread on the low side with Metropolitan Dakar, and say it has about 40% university age young people. That makes about 800 000 university eligible students. Let’s say half of those don’t even want to go or are just not interested. That leaves 400 000. Let’s say some 100 000 of those have parents that can pay for tuition at a private university (and that is incredibly high, but let’s just assume, once again). That now leaves 300 000. But UCAD only has the capacity for 60 000 at any one time, meaning it could probably only admit an additional 5 000 per year, if all those that are supposed to graduate actually do so on time. If not, it must admit less. Given that I’ve been overly nice with the numbers, I would peg the actual number of eligible students who want to go to UCAD but can’t at around half a million, if not more. That is mind-boggling!

So that means competition is fierce to get into UCAD, if you are from a lower ‘class’ family (as are many people here) and you’d like to study tuition-free. You will most likely get in if you’re one of the smartest students in your class or if your parents are high up the ladder and can swing some connections. There can be only a handful of ‘smartest students’ in any class. Most students hover around average or a little higher, which is, in my opinion, good enough if you want to get a higher education. Performance/competence at work requires only basic/average intelligence – the rest is hard work and perseverance! Anyway, if you’re from a lower class family and no one from your family has ever gone to or graduated from university, and you think you could probably go to university, but you’re not sure if you’re smart enough and no one has ever encouraged you or told you that you are indeed smart enough, especially since the family business is in trading and your family wants you to continue the family tradition…

And then there is the ridiculously high unemployment rate among young people, educated or uneducated alike which doesn’t endear one to go ‘waste’ four years of one’s life only to go to square one. Might as well go master a trade/craft! Getting a job in Canada/US/Europe is hard enough for young people, much less here. And then there is the quality of the education, which leaves much to be desired. UCAD is a fairly decent university which explains why so many students from the region go there, but even that doesn’t compare to anything in the so-called ‘West’ and yes, it is an unfair comparison but it is definitely worth mentioning because it is not a lack of money but a lack of political will to prioritize state education (because the same politicians can afford to send their kids to universities in Europe or North America). Professors are often not paid by the State (y’all think my three month unpaid stint was bad?) so they strike leaving students bored and idle at home. Even when they are paid, their earnings are paltry, to say the least.

Education is elitist- all over the world. Unless you have a privileged upbringing (lower class and up in developed countries, middle class and up in developing countries) and have been pounded about the value of education, you just don’t get it (even some of those who have been pounded still don’t get it!). Going to school is a scary thought for many young people. It’s a competitive place in various senses of the word. A sense of belonging is paramount and if you don’t feel you belong (if you don’t feel you’re smart enough, if you don’t feel you have enough material things to compete at break time, or if you don’t feel you look a certain way), you won’t want to be at school. No one wants to feel stupid, left out or out of place. Unless you’re encouraged and supported, you’re not going anywhere…

So really, at the end of the day, laziness is too simplistic a reason. While it might apply to some people, it does not apply to all, and certainly not to most. And I argue that it definitely does not apply to most Senegalese or other African youth who have to battle against issues that many of us wouldn’t even imagine still exist.

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