Senegal: A cultural paradox

After staying in Senegal for four months I have grown accustomed to the question – What do you think of Senegal? I always ask the other person to be a little more specific because I have a mixed bag of YES and NO’s in my repository of experiences. If you ask me whether I like people, culture and life in general? Then, it’s a yes to all three questions. Do you think that the economy is in good shape and poised to grow? Then the answer is NO.

People in Senegal are extremely warm and welcoming. This is reflected in their day-to-day lives, community functions, work place and even clothes. Unlike India, which is also undergoing economic transformation, people in Senegal are patient, content and easy going. A dinner in a restaurant can easily extend beyond an hour because most people delve into conversations while the staff takes 20-minutes to bring the menu. It takes another 20-minutes to order and then another 30 minutes finishing the food. Sometimes my urgency in placing the order and eating food surprises the staff at the restaurants and cafés. Senegal is so easy-going and laid back that if you don’t ask for the check it never arrives. Similarly, confrontations in the society are resolved by arguing politely about the issues and sometime involves several volunteers that listen to the parties and help them reach a settlement. For e.g. if one cars slightly rubs off another car on the road then there is small exchange of words by pulling cars aside or some honking. If the damage is serious then settlement is immediately reached by involving the curios bystanders to assess the damage. That’s it! I have never seen people getting into heated arguments, heckling or brawls. I’m sure it happens but is not so visible in regular life.

This sense of calm and satisfaction is also observed at work. People show up early but morning discussions are important and small talk takes priority. If something goes wrong with the equipment at a convention or an event then you don’t see people running helter-skelter to fix it. Usually a person is sent out to find the person who can fix the problem. While the technician takes 5 minutes to arrive and fix the issue, the crowd breaks down in chatter as if it was expected. The speaker/ organizers stay calm as if this were a part of the show. This is how most things work here. In the beginning I had reached a pre-mature conclusion that people were lazy and productivity at work was extremely low. This is the point where I was completely wrong. For I had assumed that people didn’t do enough. In the process I missed the point the people don’t want to do more.

Understanding culture and people takes time, observation, and interaction. People in Senegal are deeply rooted in their culture. The culture of Senegal is defined by four words namely – Kersa (respect for others), Tegin (good manners), Terranga (hospitality) and Thiossane that stands for history, tradition and culture. These four tenets of Senegalese life pretty much define how they conduct and live their lives. It took me four months to understand this aspect of life and accept it. In the process I learned that people were more happy, content and in harmony with each other. This is contrary to the life of modern societies, in which materialistic wealth is seen as an important factor for achieving happiness but we are always short or looking for it. From the western perspective output at work may seem inadequate but from the Senegalese perspective it’s adequate as long as someone is working on it. Relationships and people are given priority over work and its often more important to preserve those rather than getting the work done. I have now come accept this way of life and it raises a profound question in my mind – We live to work or work to live? I’m glad that I experienced this and I hope that I would take these values back with me.

Although these ideals are a good way to lead a life, they cannot exist without a stable/economically developed society. Ignoring the fact that economic development and good quality life are not mutually exclusive is like ignoring the very peaceful existence Senegal has enjoyed till now and the factors responsible for it. Thus it becomes all the more important for Senegalese people to be economically stable, which will ensure survival of this culture and values. An economically unstable society cannot thrive on good conduct and culture. This is where most people in Senegal disagree with me and firmly believe that they are better off given the prevailing economic environment, simply blaming the government for all shortcomings. Most Senegalese are oblivious to the fact that the country is heavily dependent on foreign aid and it is this constant influx of capital that it has managed to avoid wars, coups, and economic collapse that most of it neighbors have experienced in recent history.

Majority Senegalese believe that low agricultural productivity and underdeveloped infrastructure is an outcome of bad government policies. They also think that its entirely government’s responsibility to take care of agriculture and infrastructure industries. Although it is true to some extent, it would be wrong to just blame the government. Most millennial, start-up founders and businessmen have jumped onto the bandwagon of digitization/ ICT and ignored the opportunities in these foundational industries. They see digital businesses and service industry as the key to change the economic landscape. Universities, business schools and research centers also echo similar outlook with hardly any investment in R&D of agriculture, infrastructure and primary industries. It is only the foreign countries that see the opportunity and are thus investing heavily by leasing large swaths of land, building highways and investing in medical services amongst other industries. Senegalese people have nil or very little investment in these businesses. In my opinion agriculture forms the basis of a strong economy. All modern economies were built on agrarian societies, whose first goal was to become self sufficient in terms of food. Only when there is enough food for everyone, the governments and society can think of progressing into industrialized economy. It is very hard to find a country that was entirely able to skip this crucial step in transitioning from a developing country to a developed country. China and India are prime example of this transformation. Many young people are oblivious to this fact and strongly believe that recent growth in the ICT sector is the answer to end this dependency on foreign aids.

Even if we are to assume that ICT holds the key for economic transformation in Senegal there are other factors that pose as a major challenge. Some of these challenges are:

  1. Language – Today’s businesses are global and the primary medium of communication is English. People hardly speak English in this part of the world and this limits their reach and access to information.
  2. Limited natural resources –Senegal is not so rich in natural resources. For e.g. the entire energy requirement of Senegal is fulfilled by producing energy from imported oil. There is no hydro electricity or other forms of energy production. Surprisingly no one here in investing in renewable energy production given the high incidence of wind and sun all year long.
  3. Poor banking infrastructure and weak policies – BCEAO is the sole central bank for eight West African countries and the French treasury is the only guarantor. The French treasury sets the exchange rate between countries and the CFA is pegged to the Euro at a fixed rate. The French treasury also plays a big role in defining the policies that govern the BCEAO. Need I say more?
  4. Interference of international politics – Every government decision is heavily influenced by their French or American counterparts. I guess that’s the price you pay for This interference is noted not only in politics but also in the economic sphere. Most telecommunication companies, tourism businesses, and other important industries have international organizations holding majority stake.
  5. Dysfunctional relationship with neighbors – Senegal’s relationship with its immediate and extended neighbors is dysfunctional. One day they are friends and the next day you have a trade embargo that jeopardizes all the past efforts.
  6. Lack of R&D in agricultural, indigenous industries and life sciences – I met a lot of students, professionals and government officials but none seem to focus on mentioned areas. Other indigenous industries such as fishing, which is one of the biggest employers, are rapidly deteriorating and no investment is being done to improve its performance.

So going back to the original question – what do I think of Senegal – I have to say that I have mixed feelings. Most debates that start with that question somehow end with the preceding context. Although I am able to convince some people and my counter arguments raise a doubt in their minds it does not deter their belief in the Senegalese way of life. At one business event a similar conversation had captivated about 5 people and there seemed to be no end to it when one gentleman, who after patiently listening to all the arguments, turned to me and said – “You may be right but life goes on. The dinner is served and its time to eat. Everything else can wait but food should not!” For a moment I was stumped but I knew that he meant to say that with all the respect and warmth in his heart. Although the western values and way of life slowly creep into the Senegalese culture, I am hopeful that Senegal will continue to carry on the traditions and build upon that a progressive and sustainable country that will serve as an example for other West African nations.

Till then JerraJef !

From the edge of old continent!

Bonjour à tous,

I always find it difficult to write about things that require a touch of literature, melodrama and character in it. I am good at writing reports and answering questions. The best way I could think of writing such a blog was to use a question answer format. I also believe that anyone traveling to a new destination is bound to come across these questions. I have been here for almost a month and I have had the privilege to answer questions asked by people coming from various backgrounds. Here it goes:

# The landlady

Landlady: Do you speak French?

M: No, I don’t but I am learning one sentence/ word a day.

Landlady: You know everyone here either speaks French or Wolof?

M: Yes

Landlady: How will you get the work done? How will you communicate with people? How will you give directions to the taxi driver?

 M: Bonjour –>  je m’appelle Mustafa  –>  #&*!(((####  –>  $$$  –> ^&^#@!!**((   –>   Merci   –>    Jarra Jeff. It’s basically Introductions, lots of sign language/ phrases, agreeing on the price because there are no meters in the taxi and thank you in Wolof.

Landlady: I love Bollywood movies!

M: Which Bollywood movies do you like?

Landlady: I like all the movies that star Amitabh Bachchan and Shahrukh khan. I grew up watching Amitabh Bachchan movies. Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham is my favorite.

# Colleague at work

M: Can you suggest me a place for haircut?

Colleague: I recommend you go to a professional stylist.

M: Why?

Colleague: Don’t you see! All the men here have pretty much the same hairstyle. That’s the only hairstyle most barbers know (keeping it round and short).

# Start-up 1

Start-up 1: What are you doing here? How long are you here? What will you be doing?

M: I am an MBA student from ESMT doing a fellowship at CTIC, Dakar. I am here for 5 months. Most of time is used in talking to the start-ups, figuring out their business model and working with them on specific problem areas such as company valuation and financial modeling. Other responsibilities include helping the incubator (CTIC) with hands on approach in daily operations.

Start-up 1:  Oh you got an ESMT t-shirt. You must know all about mobile technologies?

M: No, not really.

Start-up 1: What did you study at ESMT?

M: I completed my MBA degree from ESMT.

Start-up 1: When did ESMT start the MBA program?

M: It’s been 10 years now. I was in the 10th batch.

Start-up 1: Oh man, the world knows about the ESMT MBA except for the Senegalese people!

M: It’s very well known and reputed institution in Germany.

(The air was cleared after I learnt that Senegal has its own ESMT – Ecole Supérieure Multinationale des Télécommunications. A well-known institute in West Africa for mobile technologies).

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Tea session with start-up founders

Start-up 1: What are your plans for the weekend?

M: Not much. I will most probably head to one of the beaches near Dakar and then go running in the evening. I will go the famous Charly’s bar later in the evening. If you are free then we can go to the Disco (The word discotheque is seen outside every club in Dakar and is very famous amongst taxi drivers).

Start-up 1: What do you think of the crowd here? You did go out partying?

M: I am not big fan of hip-hop/ pop music that is played at most of the places. American hip-hop artist are really well known here. Well-known joints have an interesting mix of people with a lot of Mauritanians and Lebanese.

(Some 30000 Mauritanian refugees live in Senegal and equal number of Lebanese people who settled here in the 1860’s)

Start-up 1: What else do you do in free time?

M: I generally watch a football game at a friend’s place or pub/ restaurant. Sometimes I just walk around the city with my camera clicking pcitures. Its fun watching a big game “Senegalese style” (Kids and adults stand outside restaurants/ bars watching the game, cheering and hooting, as the world goes around them).

# Start-up 2

Start-up 2: What do you think of Dakar?

M: I like the weather. It’s warm and sunny. I also like Corniche (the seafront). So far the people have been nice, helpful and courteous. I had no difficulty finding an apartment and I never felt unsafe in the city.

Start-up 2: Did you choose to come to Dakar?

M: I chose to come to Dakar.

Start-up 2: Why?

M: I like going to places that are not so much on the tourist map. It’s like going into the unexplored. I also did some research and found out that Senegal is one of the politically stable countries in the region with a deep-rooted culture for music, arts and food. I’m also doing something I like and believe in.

Start-up 2: Did you visit the real Dakar/ other side?

M: Oh yes, I did visit the other side. It resembles any other developing country. It’s like a dark underbelly under the fair and beautiful Corniche (Corniche, the seafront, houses businessmen and politicians surrounded by embassies from other countries and a French military base). The other side is the grim reality that showcases a developing country with haphazard streets, unplanned infrastructure and poor living conditions.

Start-up 2: Why did you go there?

M: I attended an open lecture for the underprivileged. I was accompanied by two colleagues who gave lectures on importance of entrepreneurship and financial planning in one’s life. (CTIC is also active in promoting entrepreneurship amongst the poorest masses in West Africa).

Start-up 2: How do you see it going forward (growth and development in Senegal)?

M: I expect it to grow because of demographic advantages, political stability and industrialization. But I also see problems in availability of natural resources and other areas such as energy. Senegal is not rich in national resources like fresh water and most of the energy resources are imported. Its not known for a big industry such as mineral ore, chemicals, or other natural commodities except for fishing. So it really needs to have a sound strategy to cope with industrialization, growing population and increasing energy needs.

M: What do you think of the economy?

Start-up 2: It’s slowly changing now. We have discovered oil off the Atlantic coast but lack of equipment, experience and oil drilling techniques resulted in Senegal settling for 10% of the total value generated. Majority of economic value should go to Senegal but international politics and lack of resources has led to Senegal settling for a small share.

M: Is it just you who feels like this because people don’t seem to be talking about it so much?

Start-up 2: No it’s the millennials of Senegal who think like this. The previous generation did not care so much about the economic resources of the country but this generation understands economics and it has access to information.

Start-up 2: Where have you been till now? Did you visit Goree islands, Saly and other beaches around Dakar?

M: I have been to Saly and the white sand beaches there. We rented out a beach house for the weekend for some team building exercise. I also visited Saint Louis (the erstwhile capital of Senegal). I plan to visit Goree islands and pink lake because it looks spectacular in the pictures.

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Lessons on entrepreneurship and personal finance

# Sachiko on the Beach

Sachiko: (Playing tourist and taking pictures of kids playing on the beach).

Kids: Don’t take our picture. You are not supposed to take our picture and then show it to the world.

Sachiko: But, but …(I was trying to capture the essence of Africa). Here, I deleted it.

Kids: Let us check. We need to make sure you deleted the pictures.

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Sunset at Plage du Virage, Dakar

# The morning coffee guy

M: Please don’t put so much sugar in my tea. It is too sweet for my taste.

Original Gangster: Man you are not an OG!

M: What’s an OG?

Original Gangster: You are from India and you don’t like sugar in your tea. Everybody in Senegal likes his or her tea/ coffee sweet. You are not an original gangster.

IMG-20160222-WA0009With the Original Gangster

# Colleagues at work

Colleague: Do you have family or friends in Senegal?

M: No

Colleague: So why did you choose to come to CTIC?

M: I believe that CTIC’s efforts are sustainable in the long run and the outcome of these efforts will have a higher net impact in term of economic development when compared to other non-profit models. The idea of creating a culture that enables entrepreneurs to build businesses will have a far-reaching impact in the long run. I felt that I could actually contribute to the society by doing something here.

Colleague: Do you like the food? Can you cook?

M: Yes the food is good. I usually eat croissants for breakfast and Yassa for lunch to satisfy my Indian taste buds. Evenings I usually cook something. I am slowly learning about the African spices.

Colleague: Do you like our country?

M: Yes, it’s been interesting and amazing so far. I look forward to explore it further.

To sum it up Senegal is at an interesting junction where the current policies and factors will heavily influence the future. Like most developing countries it has its share of problem. Concurrently it has the spirit to achieve something great. The current situation and state of affairs in Senegal are well summarized by the following African proverb –

“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up, it knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the lion or a gazelle-when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.”

I hope you enjoyed my blog and experience in Dakar so far. I plan to have a follow up on this once I have more question & answers to share.

Till next time, Jarra Jeff!