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 !

ESMT’s first time at the MBAT. What a Marathon!

When I arrived at Charles du Gaulle airport, I realized that the MBAT would be a greater challenge than what I expected. So far, pre-organization went smoothly, thanks largely to the support of Hongmin Kim, my co-captain and the help of the ESMT Marketing Team, represented by Rick Doyle.

But now, things seemed to be harder than I thought. It was 9am. I should arrive at HEC at around 12am, but the campus was three hours away with public transport. I needed to be on time to register our participants and play our first beach volleyball match in a couple of hours later. Plus, I was the captain. What kind of message would I be sending as a leader if I were not to arrive on time? Anyway, sport is about challenges, so I just tried to get into that spirit. Plus, the weather was awesome.

After a three-hours odyssey, I finally reached HEC campus together with 300 students from Cambridge and Oxford. During registration, I found out that many other schools were late too, which made me relieved. Some of my colleagues were already at HEC, while others were soon to come. HEC understood the struggle of schools to arrive on time and was flexible in the first matches, letting us play with mixed teams. Some colleagues would arrive only in the end of the afternoon, enough soon to attend the first evening party.

In the opening ceremony, crowds from LBS and IE shouted when their mascot and captain came up on stage to bring the school flag. We were the third to present. Even coming with only 19 participants (15 MBAs and 4 Masters in Management students), ESMT was one of the loudest crowds. Carolina Rincón was our mascot: the “beer bear”. Our presentation video showing Berlin sports heroes (from the 1936 Olympics to the 2016 MBAT) entertained the crowd. Carolina gave me the mascot uniform and I dressed it up for a pie-eating contest among mascots. Picture a bunch of dudes dressing as animals trying to eat a whole pie as fast as possible. We argued that the man underneath the lion from Cass was not really eating the cake, but simply throwing the pie inside of the mouth in the uniform and he was declassified. Finally, the giraffe of ESADE won the competition with merits. Party continued strong until drinks stop being sold and we had to go back to out hotels at around 2am. It was a good idea. Next day would be a long one.

The second day was the busiest day in the competition, with tournaments happening in almost all the sports. Since we were a smaller team, we only participated in basketball, beach volleyball, chess, kicker (table football) and cross-country. The day was very sunny and we were chilling at the gym area – stage of most of the sports – waiting for our time to play.

That was our winning day. One of our two beach volleyball teams won all the group matches and a tough quarterfinal match to qualify into the semifinals. The ESMT crowd was so united that our excitement infected our opponents, who jumped in and celebrated with us, even after their defeat. The basketball team won its last group match to get its ticket into the playoffs. The highlight was Patrick El Murr, who used to play at Lebanon’s national team and ended up being selected for the All-Star Team of the Tournament. Last, but not least, one of our kicker teams won the first-ever ESMT medal: silver. Roberto Zincone and Enrique Thayer beat teams from Rotterdam, HEC, Frankfurt and Oxford to face LBS in the final. Roberto and Enrique were practicing a lot at ESMT’s Kicker table and that proved to be helpful against all the teams. In the final, though, the opponent was way too strong, with a young German prodigy from LBS Masters in Management showing powerful skills to overpower our favorites.

After such a long day, we needed to go back home and take a shower and dress up for the party. But where was the shower? Not working! We called the reception and they blamed on us: everybody wanted to take the shower at the same time. We could not wait until the shower would be repaired, so we needed to improvise. Some people asked for water bottles from receptions. Others realized that the shower worked with very hot water, which meant lots of painful shouts coming from the bathroom. The party in the evening proved to be the best with bands from all the schools showing their skills. After the official celebration was over, some of us moved to the after-party at HEC’s MBA Building, with extra drinks and music until 5am.

On the final day, survivors of the tough group matches (and last night’s wild parties) would face the playoffs. We were playing in basketball and beach volleyball, but our opponents were way to strong for us. In basketball, we lost in the quarterfinals against IE and in beach volleyball we stopped in the semifinals against Oxford, who would soon become champions. In the bronze medal match, we had a tough match against HEC, loosing for only two points-difference. Nevertheless, the whole team was united and celebrating and we hugged each other, as well as the opponents. Finally, we went to the lake to see our girls running a confusing cross-country competition. Competitors could not find the right path and got lost on their way. One of our runners, Carolina Rincon, found her way after some time and finished the little marathon with merits.

Later in the evening, our small group gathered to celebrate the final evening with our first-ever medals being given to Roberto and Enrique. We were hugging each other and exchanging love messages even without drinking that much alcohol. It was a tough challenge to be the captain of ESMT at the MBAT. But that team made it easy and, moreover, worth the effort.

Before coming, I thought that the MBAT would be the perfect occasion to connect with students from other schools. But what actually happened was different: I created even stronger bonds with my colleagues and – contrary to the captains of those monster-crowds from the bigger schools – I knew all my team members by name: Alex, Amir, Aniket, Carolina, Cristina, Christoph, Dylan, Enrique, Florian, Hongmin, Matthias, Nai-Wen, Patrick, Phyllis, René, Roberto, Viara and Vladimir. Our partnership evolved to friendship and we will never forget this wonderful time spent together.

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About the MBAT

What is the MBAT?

The MBA Tournament (MBAT) is a student-run 3-day sporting event that takes place on the HEC Paris Campus every year in May, with around 1500 MBA participants from 17 leading European business schools.

ESMT participated in the tournament for the first time, representing Germany along with Frankfurt. From the UK, came LBS, Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester, Cranfield, Lancaster and Cass. ESADE, IE and IESE represented Spain. Rotterdam and TIAS were the Dutch schools. St. Gallen and IMD came from Switzerland. The host, HEC, was the only school from France.

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Sports:

Competitions included Badminton, Basketball, Beach Volleyball, Billiard, Chess, Cross Country, Dodgeball, Football, Table Football, Golf, Petanque, Poker, Rock Climbing, Rowing, Rugby, Salsa, Swimming, Table Tennis, Tennis and Ultimate Frisbee.

Participation in one sport with one team gives the school one point. A bronze medal gives the participant an extra point; a silver medal, two extra points and a gold medal, three extra points. Under that system, the number of participants is the main decider. Therefore, not surprisingly, the host HEC was the overall winner followed by LBS (sending around 200 students) and Oxford (sending 140).

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Networking and Fun:

Besides the sports competition, there is a lot of opportunity to network and have fun. When not in competition, the majority of students gathered around the lake, a beautiful green area in the campus, to drink, chill and chat. Dinner was served in the cantina, offering another chance to get to know people from other schools.

In each of the three evenings, everybody joins a huge thematic party fueled by alcohol and dance music. The first evening was the opening ceremony. In this gala party, young men and women dressed up with suit and business shoes would dance with giraffes, zebras and bears (school mascots), as well as athletes, who did not have time to dress up. The second evening was the battle of the bands. This extra music competition among the participant schools proved to be the best party. In the third evening, there was the closing ceremony, where winners could dance showing off their medals and trophies.

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Organisation:

Located far from Paris, without easy access using public transport, HEC’s main challenge was to host and bring back all the 1500 participants into the school and back to their accommodation every day.

Each participant student paid a fee of around 350 euros, which would include accommodation in a hotel close to HEC, transportation to the campus and three daily meals. A shuttle bus provided by HEC would pass at the hotels each 30 minutes (sometimes less than that, often more than that) to pick up students, reaching HEC in around 30 minutes. Once at HEC, you could pick up your breakfast and/or lunch (usually a banana, a sweet and a sandwich). In the evening, dinner was served in the cantina.

The highlight of the organisation was the payment system: a wristband in which you could charge some money. To buy alcoholic drinks or more food, you could simply show your band to the seller, who would swipe it over his or her phone. That decreased the queues dramatically and allowed us to pick up our drinks in a convenient way, without dealing with cash.

The downside was the transportation between hotels and campus, which took sometimes more than one hour to arrive. Many athletes could not reach campus on time of competition due to the lack of shuttle buses. Hotels were not an unanimity either. ESMT’s hotel shower was not working on the second and third days, forcing us to take showers somewhere else. Finally, the arrival was chaotic. It was on a Friday, during public holiday, when public transportation was not running frequently. We needed more than three hours to reach HEC from downtown Paris or from the airports.

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!

Let there be food.

I love food. I enjoy growing it, preparing it, eating it, sharing it…I take it for granted that I have always had access to the food I need and hopefully always will. It breaks my heart to know that millions of people globally cannot access food that they need.

The nutrition centre at Baraka Health centre provides a nutritious meal daily to at least 150 enrollees. Some are enrolled on the feeding program due to being clinically malnourished, while others are referred here by the community team due to extreme poverty. School meals are also provided for pupils in two primary schools within the slum. For many of these people, this is the only meal they’re sure of.
Enrollees are monitored regularly for improvement. When there’s a steady clinical improvement or they are able to sustain themselves financially, they are weaned off the program. However, the painful truth is that re-enrolment rates are high. As Caroline the nurse in charge of the centre told me, and I quote: “my main challenge is that the poverty is not going away, as soon as I wean someone off, the open slot is quickly filled by a new person or someone previously on the program who has relapsed”.

With the kitchen team--Josephine and Wilfrida
With the kitchen team–Josephine and Wilfrida
Vegetable sauce
Vegetable sauce
Cooking the beans
Cooking the beans
Queueing up
Enrollees queueing up
Serving the food
Lunch is served!
Cleaning up
Cleaning up
I made a new friend
I made a new friend!

 

I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with the Nutrition centre on this fellowship, to support German Doctors in helping people access this basic right I’ve always taken for granted.

-Deola