Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Development in Africa

Some interesting observations that I've made (obviously from a western perspective) about Senegal:

The entire place shuts down from 1pm to 3pm. Without exception, people take a 2 hour long lunch break. It's really hard to do anything when there's no air conditioning and the humidity is like 70-80%.

There is little formal economy - i.e. the concept of "a hard days work" is foreign to most people because depending on how you look at it, they're always working or they're never working. You could say that everyone is always working because most boutique owners live in their boutique and if you want something at 3am they'll wake up and sell it to you. At the same time you could say that nobody is ever working because they're kind of lounging around their store all the time just talking with friends. The point is that almost nobody in Mboro except for factory workers has a job in the way we think about it in the United States. They all just sell mangos on the side of the street or own a boutique that's been in their family for ages. The reason the town does well is because the factory workers at the phosphorus mine/sulfuric acid plant get paid relatively well and spend their money in town. If not for that industry, the town would just be like every other town in Senegal - completely agrarian and dependent on weather/seasonal change for prosperity.

Sleep is not sacred. We were coming back late one night to the place where we are staying (it's an NGO run by this guy Mohamed Mbengue), and it was about 3am. He had locked the front door, so we were locked out, and we woke him up. In America, it would have been irresponsible of us to come back so late without telling him, and then to wake him up, because he had told us when he was locking the door. So when I called his phone to wake him up so we could get into our room to go to sleep, I was pretty apologetic - but he didn't really have a problem with it. I was talking to Devon and he was saying that we could basically show up at some persons house completely randomly and just hang out, watch tv, and ask for tea. In most situations in America, that would be unacceptable. Here, people would be fairly okay with it. (Disclaimer: I haven't actually tried this, but Devon says it's happened to him once or twice. Eli seemed intrigued by this possibility and wanted to try sometime.)

Speaking of Mohamed, since he was the head of this local NGO called Projet D'Appui, I figured that he would be really "with it." He invited us to his room for tea a couple of times, and through our broken french/english/wolof conversations, I have determined that though he has been the head of the NGO for a year and 4 months, has a place that he uses for programs and rents out to random people (i.e. us and some other teacher), and has some money, he has no project plan. As an American (and the son of a project manager), this kind of blows my mind. He has this operation, a facility, money, and no written plan. I went to Africa for 2 months and I wrote down a detailed list of things I had to do, things I wanted to do, some goals, the dependencies, etc. The point is, this is an educated man and he's winging a major project. When asked about it, he said he had it mostly in his head and that he was solving problems as he identified them, but it didn't seem completely kosher. The idea of even creating a general outline just didn't occur to him because nobody else does it either. The attitude of "Inshallah" - god willing, it will happen, is pervasive.

Another thing is Senegalese generosity. An example of this was when we went to the factory club - it's probably the nicest place in town, and sandwiches cost 1000 CFA (about 2 bucks). Anyways, we were there with two of Devon's friends, and at the end they wanted to pay for everything that we had eaten and drank (this was not an insignificant amount of money). The point is we had met them literally the second before we went to dinner, and they already wanted to give us money, pay for stuff, etc. Senegalese society pressures them to do this if they have the money to do so. In my experience, and from what Devon has told me, if a Senegalese person gets money, s/he spends it quickly not because s/he is irresponsible, but because there is a sick cousin, or a baby shower, or a friend in need, etc. People expect other people to do this - it's kind of like a self-regulating form of socialism.

So back to the title of this blog - development in Africa. The point is that all of these things make development in the way that westerners think about it hard. The workday is shorter, there are no jobs other than what natural resources provide, planning is a foreign concept, and money is given out freely to friends and family.

Fortunately, the people at the school that we're working with are extremely competent and most of these things that I've mentioned before have not been a problem. Maybe it's because we are coming with supplies and not just money, or maybe it's because we're teaching them how to be self-sufficient with the computers, or maybe it's because they just "get it." Whatever it is, Devon helped us pick a great school, because everyone is excited and motivated to make this happen - from the headmaster to the teachers to the janitor to the donkey cart driver (who I need to get a picture of because he's such a character) everyone is great. And that's what keeps me going though there have been many snags and changes in our plan - the enthusiasm of everyone that's going to benefit from this project.


  1. It's fantastic to hear how motivated everyone in the community is. Keep up the great work!