Friday, February 23, 2007

Election 2007

***Note: As of 9:00pm, Sunday February 25, Wade had won the election. This blog was written before the declaration.***
So this weekend is a very important event here in Senegal: the 2007 Presidential Elections. The current President, Abdoulaye Wade, was elected in 2000 and he is 84 (maybe 87) years old. A lot of people are not happy with him; they accuse him of corruption, not doing enough for the people of Senegal, especially when it comes to development, creating jobs, and improving infrastructure. My host sister, on the other hand, loves him and has been working on his campaign for the past few weeks. She rides around on a truck, wearing his colors (yellow and light blue) and a picture of his face on her t-shirt. He has a campaign song, Blockage, so when you hear that song blaring you know that his campaign parade is coming. The rest of my family does not like him, but they can't tell me who would do a better job. An interesting aspect in the elections is the role popular rap artists play. In 2000, they supported Wade because they wanted a regime change, and this was reflected in their music. Now, they want to get rid of him because he isn't doing what they had expected him to do. check out this link: for more information.
Wade is supposedly trying to maintain power by purchasing voter id cards, by not widely distributing the cards (900,000+ people did not receive their cards before the elections, meaning those people were not allowed to vote), and perhaps rigging the military elections last weekend. It was the first time that the military was allowed to vote in the entire history of the country, but many think that Wade only wrote this into law to “guarantee” his victory. Friday night there was an enormous rally near my house on the VDN highway. The whole road was blocked, the adjacent neighborhood shut down, and the music blaring from the speakers could be heard miles away. My youngest siblings ran down to the extravaganza, donning Wade t-shirts, flags in his colors, and posters. My older siblings, all of whom dislike Wade except one, grabbed the little ones, because of the fears of violence. These fears, unfortunately, were not unfounded. Last Wednesday night there was a clash between the followers of a particular Marabout who is supporting Wade and a group of anti-Wade protesters. The clash was violent, a few people seriously injured, and took place in an upper class part of town (our neighborhood). Cars were burned, and a popular ex-pat restaurant, La Regal, suffered serious fire damage as well. The vendeur across the street and I had a lively discussion about the politics: he supported Wade in 2000, but said that nothing has changed in the past seven years. He said essentially everyone running was just a croonie who wouldn’t do anything for the general public. My sister’s boyfriend, a fervent political follower and quite good with English, gave a speech for another candidate on Saturday: one of the few candidates that wasn’t part of the Wade government or a politician at all - he is a history teacher at UCAD and is supported by the students there as well. As this is written, the believed fore runners are: Wade, Niasse (Alternative 2007), Tanor (Socialist Party), and Idrissa Seck (the former prime minister under Wade). Of course, these are only perceived front runners, because the government doesn’t allow polls to be published. Everyone agrees that this election is truly up in the air, which puts both a hint of fear and distrust in the general populace. The worry about fraud and fixed elections is why everything is shut down on election day, there is absolutely no travel between cities, and probably a curfew. My family went to vote early this morning, and have pink fingers to prove it. The majority of my family voted for Tanor, except Diodio. Baba, my littlest brother, is parading around the house shouting “Abdoulaye Wade!”
What I think is most interesting about this situation is three fold. First, I find it amazing how much praise this country receives for being “democratic” when there has only been one democratic election in its entire 40+ year existence. Not to mention, it is well known the rampant corruption of the current regime and there is rumor that if Wade wins, he will pass power down to his son, extremely un-democratic last time I checked. Not that I am bashing Senegal…but I think that the West is quick (maybe too quick) to reward developments in African “democracy.” Second, it is interesting, though a bit depressing, how much contempt the populace has for all politicians. My family can tell me all the reasons why Wade sucks, but cannot tell me who would do a better job. Every time we watched campaigns, my family would laugh at what the candidates were saying, telling me that all they did was “parle, parle, parle;” They have ideas, but no suggestions of how they will be implemented: empty promises that many Senegalese recognize. Third, despite this discontent, the candidates did do a great job getting people riled up in support. Each candidate had a song that they blared as they cruised the streets in caravans led by car rapides with people inside and on the roofs, followed by trucks/cars full of clapping, singing, identically dressed supporters (most of whom were probably paid to campaign). My youngest siblings ran outside during campaigns and helped put up posters in town. Fervent supporters marked out the faces of candidates on campaign posters – one of which displayed Niasse as a devil – while others just covered up rival candidates faces with their candidate’s picture. Boys on rollerblades with bright orange t-shirts handed out pro-Idrissa Seck pamphlets; my sister brought home tons of Wade paraphernalia to distribute to the family.
Being here as part of a historical moment in Senegal is a great experience. Granted, most of us didn’t leave our houses this weekend; I didn’t really think there was the chance of violence. I enjoyed staying in; my family and I made delicious crepes and some other fried doughy, sugary mass called bañey.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Trashy Stories, Mirror dancing, et autres choses

note to Anna: Lan ngay wax Wolof? means Do you speak Wolof?, in Wolof.

On Saturday we went to the trash dump (the only one for the entire Dakar area) for environment and development class. Land fills are all over the world, used by countries as a way to store material waste. However, this particular area, Mbeubeus, is both interesting and disturbing. More than 300 trucks dump trash (all kinds of trash that hasn’t been sorted) a day at the dump where 800+ people call home. That’s right, there are people living in the dump. Their houses are actually in the midst of the trash. Most of the people that live there sort the trash in order to make a profit on what they can find (i.e. re-sell glass bottles back to companies, plastics to be recycled, weaves to be re-made into useable hair). It may sound like a good system of recycling, until you realize that toxic and industrial trash is dumped here as well, putting the people at extreme health risks. The doctor in the village said that many people come in with respiratory diseases and infections from cuts that they received sorting through the muck. We were wearing masks, but we could still smell the stench and possibly the toxic air that these people breathed in every day. There was absolutely no state management of the dump; there were places where the trash was stacked three to four times our heights. Right beside the mountain of trash were cultivated fields. The trash itself pollutes the water table which in turn affects the vegetation around, let alone the drinking water of the population. I won’t forget when we walked past a stream of multicolored liquid in the middle of the dump that was on fire. That wasn’t water, folks. There was a boy who was 13 years old and who had been sent by his parents to Mbeubeus to work, alone, five days a week. He was supposed to send money back to his family. There were little girls, barely 8, sifting through stacks of old clothes and carrying bags of garbage to be sorted. It was dusty; it was smelly; we had no idea what we were stepping in (or on). What was most remarkable to me (besides the people working in the trash dump) was the amount of trash a city can make. When you throw something in the trash, you forget about it. It gets picked up by a truck, and you never think about it again. But it has to go somewhere. It really makes you realize how wasteful society is. And here they recycle everything from clothes to plastic bottles before they throw it away, so to see that much trash…it makes you think what a landfill in the US is like (though we have decent recycling plants and there aren’t people living in dumps, but still).
After that we headed to a depression where people are living. A depression is where the land has fallen and is very close to the water table. This is a very unsafe place to live because depressions are very susceptible to floods. But, because of this, it is very cheap land. We saw a house which had been flooded recently and been overrun by vegetation. The water is a murky green because of a high concentration of nitrates, which are harmful to humans. Just outside of the village were about two dozen tents: for the refugees that had lived in the village but had been flooded out. Because of higher amounts of water in the village, malaria and cholera are huge problems. People have to keep re-building their houses because the water destroys them or they sink into the depression. To say the least, this is not a good situation.
Saturday night, we went to a discotheque s’appelle Nianey. It was a lot of fun, minus the slow techno music, but it was also an interesting experience. First, there were these mirrors, and I could not understand why people were dancing, by themselves, in front of the mirrors. It was like, can you be a little more conceited? Haha. Second, let’s discuss Senegalese music. It’s different from dance music in a couple of ways. There is the singer, who is usually singing slowly. Then there is the music played by the guitar and keyboard, which is the same rhythm as your typical dance hit. But then there are the drums. They are out of control majority of the time, making their own beat that doesn’t really match up with the rest of the song. You’re real confused: do I dance to the singer, which would mean extra slow, or do I try to keep up with the drumming or what? And Senegalese dancing is the entire body, involves a lot of movement, and many times jumping, which is definitely a workout. And for some reason, always when Senegalese are dancing in music videos, they have this huge grin on their face and make it look so easy to make your legs and hips do impossible things. We try to mimic, but I don’t think we have it down quite yet.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Pink lakes and turtles, “the gathering of white people,” parlez-vous français? Lan ngay wax Wolof?, L’école primaire de Point E

So, I realized that I haven’t written on the blog in a long time and much has happened. First, some more interesting cultural elements of Senegal. Walking down the street in Dakar, you will surely be approached by a small boy, often in ratty clothing, carrying an empty can or bucket and reaching to you with an out-stretched hand. At first glance, you think it is just your run-of the mill beggar, ignore, and walk on. However, you would immediately notice that the boy doesn’t pursue you, which is not normal of regular beggar behavior. That is because this boy is not an ordinary beggar. Called Talibes, these boys are innumerable on the streets of Dakar. They beg because their Islamic teacher, a marabout, forces them to. This system used to be one that was meant to encourage humility while these boys learned the Qur’an. They would beg, understand life as a beggar, take the money back to the Marabout, who was entrusted to feed, clothe and take care of these children by their parents. But today’s world is a different story. Parents give Marabouts their sons because they can’t afford to take care of them. The Marabout in turn uses the boys to make some spare change for himself, often leaving the children without regular meals or clothing. He often will beat the child if they don’t make a certain amount per day. So what do you do? Do you give them the money, that only goes to the Marabout and continues this horrible trend, or do you give the child some food, hoping that he can make the 1,000 CFA ($2) so that he doesn’t get beaten when he goes to the Marabout? I often give them food, which they are very grateful for, but this is a serious problem that the government of Senegal should be attempting to eradicate.
Eventually I will post an entire blog on Islam in this country, which I think if very interesting. In the meantime, you can enjoy reading about various travel experiences I have had. Last weekend, I traveled with three other CIEE students to le village de tortues, turtle village. It is a park that is for turtles (and tortoises) who are injured or endangered in the wild. Only an hour from Dakar, you can definitely get a feel for the drier, savannah like landscape of Senegal. There are tons of Baobab trees (giant trees who, as one CIEE student put it, look like they are turned upside down: huge roots, thick grey trunks, and a fruit whose juice tastes like coconut) and lots of tall grasses. We then headed to Lac Rose, via a pick-up truck on a dirt road. Lac Rose is this huge, extremely salty lake. It also is the final destination of the Paris-Dakar rally. It is pink because of the interaction between bacteria and oxygen. You could reach into the water and grab a handful of salt. We watched some of the locals extract the salt from the lake and make huge piles on the sides for drying.
Superbowl Sunday I went to a wedding party, which reminded me of the typical American wedding party (bride in white, bridesmaids in matching dresses, too many pictures being taken, small snacks). After the party, I went to the Marines’ house to watch the Superbowl, good times. This past weekend we took a group excursion to Toubab Dialow, an artist’s village on the petit cote, about 1 hour south. The village’s name means “the gathering of white people” because the Portuguese used to come there often to trade. It was therefore ironic that there were 35 of us “toubabs” showing up. I took a batik class (painting with wax on fabric to make cool designs and wall hangings) and lazed around on the beach. We then ate a three course meal, followed by a performance by the drumming and dance groups. The subject of the interpretative dance was immigration – the story of a Senegalese man trying to get to Spain via a small fishing boat. This is particularly pertinent, especially if you have been following the news (1000s of Senegalese have attempted to get to the Canary Islands in order to work in Spain, often in tiny canoes and if they make it to shore, they often get turned back). We then sat around and had deep, intellectual conversation on the problems with international trade, capitalism in Africa, top down versus bottom up development policies, education policy in the US, and the lyrics to “smack that.” (note: Akon is a rapper quite popular in the US; his songs include: I am so lonely, locked up, and Smack that. He was born in Senegal and his father was a popular Senegalese singer, which everyone here is quite proud of.)
Things on the political front are getting pretty heated. My sister has a yellow shirt and hat with a picture of the current president and she often attends his rallies. On the other hand, everyone else in my house doesn’t like President Wade, but they can’t tell me who is a better candidate for president (they say often “all they do is talk, talk, talk. Politicians say a lot, but do nothing.”). The former Prime Minister, Idrissa Seck, (who Wade ousted and put in prison without trial for embezzlement) is running under a new party, and he is supposed to be pretty popular. There are a ton of candidates (26), all bashing the past seven years under Wade, but not offering any solutions to Senegal’s biggest problems such as unemployment. Last night I had a lengthy conversation with my brother about politics in the U.S., auto insurance, and issues in the African-American community (he said that he heard there was a lot of black on black violence in the US). I was pretty proud of myself as the entire conversation was conducted in French, haha. I am finding it easier and easier to express myself, even if I don’t know the words (for example, I didn’t know the word for greedy, so I said “when a person has a lot of money but they want it only for themselves.” He totally got what I was saying). The Wolof is coming…I’ve got basic greetings down, and working on my vocabulary and verbs. People keep trying to have full blown conversations with me, but I only know simple stuff. My mom would love for me to speak it fluently so we can have a decent conversation (her French is not as good.)
I am volunteering/doing research at a local elementary school for my Education and Culture class. It is a public school, and working there makes me see how many things we take for granted in our education systems in the US. For example, the teacher hand writes all the exercises in students’ (30) notebooks because they don’t have printed sheets. Chalk and chalkboards are used by all of the students. They share writing utensils, desks, and seats. Students in the first grade are anything between 5 and 7, but sometimes even the occasional 13 year old. Their levels vary from some able to understand the numbers of syllables in a word to others who can barely write, or speak, in French. They are taught only in French, not their first languages, and are smacked or slapped for messy handwriting (my class, first years, were supposed to have mastered cursive). The teacher is allowed, I think, to smack students with chalkboards, slap the desks with yardsticks, and spank children for misbehaving. The students are all very respectful (they stand and say “Bonjour, Madame!” when I walk in the class, “Au Revoir, Madame” when I leave). They go to class from 8am to 1pm with a thirty minute break. They learn songs to practice their French and conjugations. The classroom is bare except for the chalkboard, the desks and a few posters on the walls. No book shelves nor a fan nor lights, students keep their bags on their back for the entire period, a bucket of water and a sponge serves as their erasers. But to think, this is one of the better schools, as most classes only have 30 students (versus the possibility of 80+ in other public institutions), and the teachers and headmaster seem to be genuinely committed to their students (the headmaster was able to obtain a few computers for the “library” that students can use). Hopefully, my volunteering will benefit some of the students, maybe the ones that have fallen behind.