Greetings from Senegal and, more precisely, Dakar- the nation’s capital and largest city. I am very fortunate to be interning and exploring here for the next 2 months. I arrived in La Teranga (the Wolof description for a very welcoming place and how the Senegalese refer to their country) exactly three weeks ago. I fell in love with the country, its people, the culture and the work I do on a daily basis. Though unfortunately quite lacking in many other parts of the world, the hospitality here is immense. Through this blog, I hope to share my experiences with you guys. More importantly and despite how challenging it may be to accurately present them, I hope to convey my feelings and reactions as I bounce throughout the city.
— View of Ouakam, a neighborhood in Dakar
Senegal is a West African country and the westernmost point of the continent. Thus when facing the ocean, one can remember that the north is to his/her right and the south to his/her left. It is considered the key West African economic hub, especially due to its peaceful political operations since it gained independence from France in 1960. It is a diverse and naturally endowed country, where Islam is the most widely practiced religion. Although the official language is French, Wolof is the common tongue around town. Regardless of one’s ethnic group, which varies depending on the area from which one hails, Wolof is a staple language in day to day life. For many natives of sub-Saharan Africa such as myself, Dakar is considered an important city because it was the capital city of Francophone Western Africa during colonial times. This experience is therefore a cultural immersion for me. Through it, I am able to use newfound insight about Senegalese history under French rule to improve my understanding of post-colonial implications for my native country of Côte D’Ivoire.
The UNESCO Dakar office represents UNESCO in 7 countries of the West African region (specifically the Sahel) including Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger and Senegal. It used to be known as BREDA (Bureau Régional de l’éducation en Afrique), however the organization was decentralized to accommodate for the creation of Multisectoral Regional Offices. Thus, Dakar covers the West African Sahelian countries, and the regional office in Abuja, Nigeria covers other West African countries. The office in Nairobi, Kenya covers the East African countries and the office in Harare, Zimbabwe covers the Southern African countries. The Cameroonian regional office in Yaoundé covers the Central African region. UNESCO Dakar’s organizational structure is very hierarchical and changes “frequently”. During a recent staff meeting, we were informed that HQ is trying to shrink the presence of UNESCO in Africa to delegate more power to the National Committees, which play the role of liaison between UNESCO and local Ministries of Education. Although this has yet to be confirmed, it shows the vision of the office and the desire to “ameliorate our actions by reducing our presence without affecting our efficacy”, in the words of the director of the office.
Since my arrival, I have been assigned many documents to translate but my main project is to compile a Gender Equity Capacity Statement for Niger. In bulk, my research will summarize the current state of Niger’s Educational system, identify the causes of gender disparities, especially in STEM classes, and provide a link to how this has informed the UNESCO CapED Niger project. CapEd is a capacity building initiative that the bureau is trying to implement in other countries, so this document will be essential for understanding the impact of the activities before implementing them in other parts of the continent. I enjoy doing research- especially regarding the impact of data analysis- so it has been challenging, yet enjoyable to produce drafts for my supervisor.
Finally, I would like to highlight two things I have recently learned and find to be the greatest strengths of the Dakar office and, in fact, UNESCO’s overall presence in Africa.
- The African Union has launched the Continental Strategy for Education in Africa 2016-2025 (CESA 16-25). By attending the recent Pan African Conference on Education organized by the AU, UNESCO has implicitly demonstrated its interest in creating a more relevant educational agenda for the continent by aligning its policy-making efforts with CESA. This synergy magnifies the impact generated and takes into consideration individual countries’ interests.
- There is a strong movement to preserve historical sites. UNESCO Dakar is working on integrating cultural preservation into curricula to transition the educational system into local contexts. For example, Timbuktu, Mali used to have one of the greatest empires on the continent. Documents that have been passed down across generations were recently collected and will be transcribed. The bureau hopes to use such texts in history classes, for example. This is critical, especially for countries whose history was oral and has, therefore “disappeared”.
Contrary to my initial expectation, there is a lot to see in Senegal. I have visited many typical tourist attractions, on which I will further elaborate in my future posts. One such attraction is the African Renaissance Monument, which is the tallest statute in Africa and is supposed to “bring to life our common destiny”. According to former Senegalese President, Abdoulaye Wade, this monument “bring to life our common destiny. Africa has arrived in the 21st century standing tall and more ready than ever to take its destiny into its own hands”. (Abdoulaye Wade, former President of Senegal). Since its construction, the statue has ignited much controversy because some groups thought too much money was allocated for a project of little value. It was also believed that because the construction company was North Korean, it was unable to produce a monument that adequately represented African physical features (even though the monument was designed by a Senegalese artist). I understand these concerns, but I think the monument contributes to the essential development of the nation’s economic tourism sector.
I could literally write an entire blog post on this because Senegal’s culture is strong and beautiful. I arrived in town during Ramadan, which was very exciting because I love to compare the way different countries take Iftar (the evening meal to break the fast in Arabic) or Ndogou in Wolof. Here, if you find yourself around town at exactly 7:45pm you will be offered a date, a piece of bread garnished with butter or some kind of “émincé de viande” (minced meat) with a cup of café touba (local, highly sweetened coffee). It really doesn’t matter whether you fast or not- it is important for them that they share the food as they thank Allah for one more day of fasting as one taxi driver explained to me. The Senegalese will also not allow you to refuse the food. My friends and I have found ourselves literally getting food shoved down our throats! Just take the food, thank them and try it- it’s delicious!!!
On the subject of food, Senegal is known throughout Africa for three specific dishes: Mafé, Yassa and Thieboudienne. I have already tried them all and they are equally appetizing! I will expand more on my next blog post because my plan is to eat homemade versions before I share my final verdict! Finally, it is currently mango season here, so we get them for desert every day in the cafeteria. This also means that there are a LOT of flies! However, I cannot complain because the availability of very ripe and cheap mangoes compensates for these pests’ disturbance!
Featured Above: Riz a la viande accompagné de légumes (nothing too cultural, but just sharing an avant goût)
Did You Say Culture Shock?
Yes, an Ivorian can be pleasantly surprised while visiting a fellow African nation. This works both ways, though! Again, many “interesting” things have happened to me, but the very first of these was driving from the airport and realizing that there were “calèches” (horse carriages) on the street (pictured below). They are very common throughout the whole country and utilized to carry things as random as bricks, fallen tree leaves and sometimes even people. They are sometimes stuck in traffic next to cars. It is unusual and amazing at the same time!
The photo above was taken in St Louis, a city 4 hours outside of Dakar, proving how widespread “calèches” are throughout the country.
My first month in Senegal has positively exceeded my expectations! I am eager to see what the coming months hold- especially now that Ramadan is over and the World Cup Season is upon us. This year, of course I am rooting for Senegal. Allez les Lions !!!
Nelsy is pursuing her Master of Arts in International Trade and Investment Policy through the Elliott School of International Affairs at GWU, with a concentration in Economic Development and a regional focus on sub-Saharan Africa. To follow her through Senegal this summer and beyond, follow her on Instagram or find her on LinkedIn.