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.


My brush with Death…I guess!

Actually, I almost died just this past Sunday (well, a little dramatic but u know…). I went downtown to deliver some goods I brought for a Canadian whose boss had asked for some things for her son (to be honest, this boy played into my reason to return to Dakar – I couldn’t NOT deliver his goldfish crackers!). This lady lived right by the Place de l’Independence and being that I had previously cancelled a meeting with her earlier in the week due to another security warning (see what I mean by cancelling all your activities in vain?), I couldn’t cancel again. There were quite a bit of people around downtown (for a Sunday afternoon around 3pm), and a few street corners were blocked by burning debris, and except for the one or two pick up trucks filled with police men guarding the Place, there wasn’t anything remarkable going on. Afterwards, I went to visit another friend who lived a few minutes from the Canadian, and even closer to the presidential palace as I had something to deliver to him too.

I ended up staying rather late (just before eleven pm) as I was watching tv (since I don’t have one at home) and trying to get a sense of the events of the day. The main tv channels were showing some pretty rough looking scenes of protesters advancing on like ten policemen and throwing stones, while the policemen kept backing up (who wouldn’t?), shielding themselves, throwing tear gas and firing rubber bullets. Of course this was nowhere near downtown – often the roughest looking areas are the ‘banlieues’, the often over-crowded neighbourhoods just outside of the Dakar, or the ‘quartiers populaires’, the over-crowded neighbourhoods within the city. I did not even know which neighbourhood the clip had been filmed from – it wasn’t written below and the journalists were not speaking French.

Part of my frustration being here right now is that I don’t even know where to get daily, current, up to date information. I’m talking some live feeds or something. I don’t have tv, so that’s out. I have a radio but all the local channels are largely in the regional language, Wolof. I’ve asked local people about this and the only thing they’ve offered was, well, these local stations also have French programs at various points during the day (although no one could tell me when). The French station, RFI, is too French to have local information so they’re a bit useless for me. Thus, my best chances are reading the newspapers the next day (or trying to, at least) and checking out local Senegalese web sites. Anyway, this weekend, I should be camping out at my ex-colleague’s who lives nearby to watch some tv, or go descend to visit my neighbour (a Senegalese professor) who can translate the Wolof programming into French, lol. But it’s not as bad as I paint it – I do get the news, it’s just about a day old. I’m just trying to find some live info, here and I ain’t trying to get it myself, if yall catch my drift.

Ok, so how did I almost die? Well, leaving the second friend’s place, I went in search of a taxi. I found a reasonably priced one and just before I got in, the guy stated, “well, you know the road is possibly barred, right? There were protests earlier?” I nodded yes, but all the while thinking, why does that have to concern me? Even if you go to the Gambia first, you’ll get me home, will you not?

So we proceed onto the road, and the road we would take was the Corniche, the very scenic route I described some blogs ago. This was the same road the driver said would be barred so I imagined he intended to pay attention. I imagined wrong. Just before the major fish market of Dakar, you have to go through an underpass. Going through this underpass, I noticed a giant tree in the middle of the road, on our lane. I screamed for the driver to watch out, but too late! He had already hit it and was swerving uncontrollably to the left wall that split the underpass before he managed to get back onto our lane. He had been driving way too fast, this man! I was actually a little in shock – I was in the backseat so other than being roughly woken up, I was okay, thankfully.

Getting out of the underpass, there was a police pick up truck on the right side of the road – my police homies were just lounging and resting (afterall, they’d been battling crazy Senegalese youth all day and were pooped!). The driver slowed down to tell them that there was a giant tree in the middle of the road just behind us, but when it seemed the police homies had barely acknowledged him (I don’t even know if they heard him), he just moved on. About 20 or so metres afterwards, he slowed down to check the front of his car, lights, hood, etc. At this point, I even started to feel bad for the guy. What’s he gon do if he’s car is mangled? Taxi drivers here aint rich (remember the transport strike I wrote about before?) and I don’t know where he’s gon get a new car. Heck, I don’t know where or under what conditions he got the one he was driving me in.

Morale of the story – times are a bit tense in Dakar right now, although some areas are ‘hotter’ than others. I’d love to do the amateur journalist thing and take some pics or even videos of protest(er)s and things, but that suggests being present at the protests which I’m not overly interested in doing. Luckily for me, my little enclave of the neighbourhood in which I live is quite calm.  What’s more, it’s near a military training field so other than a group of Senegalese boys/men that jog and sing at 6am (an unwelcome wake up call, although I can’t hate at a group of brothers keeping fit AND they kinda be trying to harmonize like the soweto gospel choir…),  and the occasional argument or street fight by a group of kids (the last time I saw two kids fighting, an older Senegalese man was so entertained, he waved me out of the way so he could get a better view of the action), nothing much happens here.

Except for the time when people were burning stuff in the middle of the road to protest the power outages (my neighbourhood was probably the worst in the entire city). But that was (a little) different because it affected EVERYBODY so EVERYBODY was pissed off. Many people still like the president, fortunately for the president and unfortunately for the opposition candidates – another reason (according to some, the real reason) why they’re so against his candidacy.

In fact, most people can’t distinguish one thief from another. So I suppose better a thief that one’s familiar with than a new one whose style one can only anticipate, right?

Should I stay or Should I go….

Well, I’m back after a LONG hiatus (oops!) that saw me having to make a rather interesting decision.

Basically, I left Dakar mid January to go to Canada for two weeks so that I could use up my vacation by the end of January since that was the end of my contract. At that point also, we hadn’t been paid our salaries for the months of November, December and January too was looking unsure. Basically, the organization had no ‘liquidity’ as someone gently put it, although they had a large grant ‘coming’ for a project we were supposed to do in 2012. Now the grantor required that the money be put into a USD account to make things easier on their end, but apparently the Senegalese government, along with the central bank of west African States had recently changed the rules such that no international organization in French West Africa could have a foreign currency account – it had to be in the French West African currency, the FCFA. And no amount of ‘connections’ or backroom dealing could change this! Before I left, I had been optimistic and had thought something could be done (or at least I had been led to believe something could be done – the gravity of the issue was really not well communicated and I felt I was not being kept abreast of the ‘efforts’ that were being made to sort the things out ) but while I was in Canada, keeping in touch with colleagues who told me that still there was no update (from either bosses), it was then I started to realize this might take even longer.

So I had a decision to make. If I returned to Dakar, I would have virtually no money and would have to pay rent in 4 days. I would eventually get paid, but when? I didn’t particularly love the job, and along with some family issues, I kind of needed to return to Canada, at least for the time being so even if I returned to Dakar, I’d be back in Canada in a few months. The political situation is a little perilous in Senegal meaning if I have to leave within a few weeks of my return, I’d leave potentially without a salary and with having to pay for another flight to Canada. But if I returned, I could extend my experience (i.e. have a year under my belt), network a little more, and escape the non-existent Canadian winter.

Now if I stayed in Canada, I could start my job search right away and even do some part time work to pay immediate costs. I would be present for interviews (granted those would come, lol) or even start volunteering or doing an internship with a potential organization. But I would have left Dakar in bad taste, and given the way things were at that time, I could lose the salary because my boss could refuse to pay me saying I just left like that (even though I had all reason to ‘just leave like that’) and I would not be there to argue otherwise. And I would lose my return flight.

So while I collected as many opinions as I could (actually, it was pretty much split), I decided (despite my weakness of spirit at the idea) to return largely because I realized I wanted my salary. Even if I had to pay for another flight to return to Canada, the three months would cover it and there’d be a little left. And I could tell them in person that I was leaving meaning I would not leave in bad taste. In life, you never know when you will need people so despite what they do to you, try as you can to treat them well so their conscience will not let them treat you otherwise. I was concerned about the political situation but hopeful that nothing would happen. And even if I did have to leave after a few weeks, I could use that as a very valid reason for my departure, lol.

And I suppose I made the right decision. Since I’ve been back (a couple of weeks now), we’ve received the salary for November so I was able to pay my rent, howbeit a few days late, lol. But better late than never, right? We’ve been told the rest should come by the end of February but it is already the 17th February so I am not holding my breath.

I have continued to apply for things in Canada. The problem with Canada for me is that there are really only a few organizations whose work I am interested in and they are rather difficult to get into! So my options are limited. And it’s also a slow period in the job market (December/January, July-September are a little better because of New Year’s resolutions and summer breaks) so there are not many things to be had but I’ll keep the hope alive!

Transport Strike in Dakar

2012 started off with a bang in Dakar, and I’m not just talking about fireworks! The taxis, buses (non-state buses ones) and the funky colored barely there mini-buses called ‘car rapides’ (that I often take by the way) all went on strike on Monday, January 2nd to protest the cost of fuel which was hovering around 825FCFA (about $1.6) per litre. Apparently, the price had gone up about 30% in only 6 months. It is said that most of this is in taxes which goes into the pocket of the president. It is also said that fuel is cheaper in Mali, despite the fact that Mali has no port and uses the Senegalese port to import its oil, meaning significantly higher transportation costs for Mali.

So the transportation people went on strike to signal their discontent. Except the people that were affected were not the ones that should have been. The president and his cronies, with their motorcades and ‘lexes’ and ‘bimas’, could not have cared less. It was the working peoples who had no other way to get around that suffered. I had left town on Sunday and was in Thies, planning to return to Dakar on Monday and was almost stranded there! I was with a colleague from a partner institution and luckily, she knew some dude who had a car and would be driving to Dakar the Monday night to be at work on Tuesday evening, like us.  According to my colleague, the dude lived just outside of Thies and would come by to pick us up after midday and we waited and waited. We didn’t leave Thies until just after 11pm! The dude probably left later than he told us (of course!) and when he got to the road, he encountered an accident-induced traffic that stopped all movement in either direction for some 3hours or so. We eventually arrived in Dakar around 2am, and to say I was tired is an understatement! I was hoping to get to work the next morning but it was not to happen. I woke up Tuesday morning and could barely move (I actually had come down with a cold – the house in Thies was COLLLDDD and I guess I didn’t dress warmly enough despite wearing all my clothes and wrapping my scarf around me for the two days I was there) AND the buses were still on strike so I messaged my boss and went back to sleep. I woke up later in the afternoon and cleaned the house for practically the rest of the day! Not only is it cold season here in Dakar, the cold comes with the Sahelian winds that lift sand, dust and everything in their paths so every exposed part of one’s home is continuously filled with dust, and since I hadn’t really cleaned in a few days, I had dust, dust, everywhere! So much for being sick and resting…

The picture below is what many  people used to get around (where they were available) during the strike days, at least in Thies….


Happy New Year!!

Absolutely LATE New Year’s wishes, but better late than never as they say…

You got Pecs like…a Senegalese Brother

This is one post I’ve been meaning to write. Senegalese people (largely men) are what I would call ‘obsessed with’ working out, although I think they would call it ‘disciplined’ or ‘accustomed to’. In any case, they work out a lot (I don’t want to say ‘too much’ because seeing the results, I just can’t complain). The most obese Senegalese man I know is a comedian on tv and safe to say, he’s an anomaly. Granted, there are many men with bellies (think upper middle class, drives or is driven everywhere) but the vast majority are just FIT. To be honest, I don’t know why these people aren’t global leaders in long distance running like the Kenyas and Ethiopes – perhaps it may be because Senegal is so flat so the level of endurance can’t really compare. But it seems to me you can’t have a 10minute conversation with a Senegalese man without touching on the subject of working out, mainly ‘him’ telling you how often he does it, where he does it, how good it is for the body and how you, if you don’t already do it, should start. I’m STILL talking about working out here…

Anyhoo, to partly explain the ‘working out’ phenomenon, a lot of young (I would say, largely of the lower, less educated class) men ‘train’ for the Senegalese national sport – wrestling – in the hopes of becoming one day like their idols. Except the really successful wrestlers are all obese (in my gentle estimation), but I imagine they start out being really fit, gaining muscle and I guess they pack on the fat afterwards so they are too heavy for their opponents to lift and throw down. The higher classes, though they’re not training to be wrestlers, still have the same mentality of getting fit and being active. I don’t know – I guess it’s just a Senegalese thing. I mean, I thought Swedes were mad, but I think Senegalese people put them to shame.

Now all of this largely refers to the men. The women also work out, but in significantly smaller numbers. And the ones I do see ‘sporting’, the rare times I go for a walk, are more the middle to upperclass women, many of whom are actually trying to lose weight. One obvious reason is that many of the ‘lower class’ women (I HATE class classifications!) work at the markets or as housemaids leaving significantly less time for ‘sport’ because of their more ‘rigid’ working hours. But that doesn’t mean they are not fit (their jobs themselves are workouts) – at least until they pop out a few kids, or get to their mid-thirties, early forties, or start living the middle to upper class life, for those that ‘get there’. In their youth though, they have really good shapes. I don’t mean to stare, but sometimes I do, because I find myself being impressed – tall, skinny, thighs, asses, breasts. Part of it is also jealousy since I don’t have an ass, and they ALL do. How fair is life? Senegalese (young) women can give a girl low self-esteem, I swear. But I’m not in such a bad shape myself so I’m not overly affected. It reminds me of an article online I saw once where they carved out the shape of ‘Barbie’ on a seemingly ‘normal’ woman’s body, to demonstrate how difficult it is to attain such a shape. I cannot help but think I see my share of a few Barbies here. And I walk around thinking in my head, ‘you could be a model, so could u, and u, and u…’ Tyra Banks would have a field day here!

I guess the moral of the story is: it’s largely about lifestyle. The poorer people, with ‘less modern’ (and at times, simpler, but not necessarily simplistic) ways of doing things tend to be in better shape because they live less luxurious lives that require them to be constantly on the move or in the sun, in the case of Senegal at least. It’s hard to see a poor, obese, Senegalese child. I’ve definitely seen a few obese children around, but the neighbourhood I see them in or the manner in which I see them does not signal poverty. But this relationship falls apart in modern’ societies i.e. in the U.S. where richer people are usually skinnier…but that’s for a host of reasons and another debate altogether.

All Good things must come to an end!

Some before they ever even really began to be enjoyed. I am talking about my cool sand-painting in a bottle. It all happened when I went to pick up my phone as it rang while it was being charged. I had left the sand-painting on the floor beside the balcony doors (this, I thought, being the safest place). As I walked over to pick up the phone, ‘pop!’ Needless to say, I was depressed. So much so that I haven’t summoned up the courage to clean it up – this is also partly because I think it actually looks cool with the bottle half broken, the sand half spewed out, and the painting still intact in the non-broken part of the bottle.

I’m still depressed about the whole affair but I guess bottles are meant to be broken. Also, apparently, it was a good sign because it meant that someone somewhere was devising something evil against me, and the broken bottle broke the bad blood. I guess. Although I would rather it wasn’t my special bottle that was broken. But life goes on…

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