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 !

Fresh Perspectives

Do my experiences make me think about myself and those around me in a new perspective?

Most of us like to experience something new from time to time. Not just for the fun of it, but because new events and observations enrich your thinking, and make you a better person. Thanks to the diversity I encountered, I’ve discovered myself new from time to time. The important part of this whole new-and-diverse-experiences aspect for me, is the learning that lasts. What I experience, does it add a new perspective to my outlook?

I put this question to my decision to join ESMT’s Full-Time MBA program.

As I was putting together the different pieces of information I gathered in my research leading to the MBA application, one factor became more and more prominent: the prospect of enriching experiences. And when I integrated my MBA-selection-criteria with my priorities in life, it came out as a non-negotiable factor. After my fitment analysis, I was convinced that ESMT is the BEST choice for me. With all the research, talking to trusted advisors, figuring out financials, working on essays, profile preparation etc. I had gained substantial momentum, and I was in a very positive frame of mind. I was upbeat on MBA prospects at ESMT.

If only life were such a smooth ride! Gaining from prior experiences, I had factored in contingency, but what transpired next, blew me over. Over the last four months I’ve experienced tumultuous times. My sister-in-law (SiL) died a day before I had my admissions interview at ESMT. And this happened within a few months after my sister lost her unborn baby to pregnancy complications. These events devastated my aging parents, and they both developed serious health issues. The family was shattered. My SiL was more a friend to me than a family member. It was hard to cope with her sudden demise. It still is.

In a short span of time, my priorities changed. I wanted to spend as much quality time as possible with my family. This meant I had to compromise on an essential part of my finances. The momentum I had gained in the run-up to MBA application was waning. Doubts cropped up in my mind if the timing was right for MBA. I couldn’t decide, nevertheless I went ahead with the admission procedure. When ESMT offered me admission, I paid the deposit and left for India, with “Deferral” as Plan B.

The time I spent with my family, though short, proved crucial. My parents totally recovered, my brother came out of depression, and my nephew and niece had a lovely time. I gained momentum, but doubts still lingered. In the initial days after joining the program, I was still asking myself if I made the right choice. After three weeks at ESMT, I can answer affirmatively.

The class has a rich professional and cultural diversity. The first module of MBA@ESMT has provided me a good context of general management, decision making, and economics. And I am sure the modules-to-come will further strengthen my understanding of business and will provide the necessary tools to approach business problems. This however was expected.

What impressed me positively is that this MBA has helped me develop a fresh and more embracing outlook towards uncertainty in life, recognise shortcomings in my approach to decision making, appreciate more than before the importance of Plan B in life, and experience group dynamics in light of changing ground realities.

If I have to choose one word to convey my experience so far, it would be REFLECTION. The program has led me to reflect more – Who am I, as a person, as a group member? How do I perceive others around me? How do I respond to a life situation? And it made me look at my past in a new perspective. I can’t fully verbalise the value of these experiences.

Will I be able to put to use all of what I learnt to my life right from this moment? May be not. But they will surely influence my response to all new situations. Right now, I am trying to internalise what I have undergone so I can make a positive and lasting difference to my approach to life. So, yes, MBA@ESMT does make me think in a new perspective. And it has filled me with hope that this will be a life-changing experience.

Till next time, your’s lovingly

santom!