Wabash Blogs Tim Lake in Senegal, Gambia

Main | July 2009 »

June 29, 2009

Lake Absorbing Research Center Lectures

The story goes: “A ruler was appalled by people begging so he decided to evict beggars from the city. After awhile the ruler visited an Imam to ask for blessings and was told that he had to first give alms. But he couldn’t find anyone to give charity to, so, he went looking for the beggars. He found them and asked them to return to the city so that he could fulfill his obligation. The beggars told him “We are on strike” and refused to return to the city.” 

The academic program at the West African Research Center (WARC) has been outstanding. Typically we begin the day with lectures that can go until the early afternoon. The lecturers have all been faculty persons from the University Cheikh Anta Diop (UCAD). The University bears the name of the Senegalese anthropologist, linguist, and Pan-Africanist – Cheikh Anta Diop. I was first introduced to Diop writings as a graduate student at Howard University in Washington, D.C. His book, The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality, is a classic in contemporary Afrocentric thought.
If our lecturers are representative of the level of instruction that students receive at the UCAD, then, they are getting a top-notch education. However, for me, the pedagogy is everywhere. The lectures complement the experiential learning that occurs during our site visits. For example, Professor Abdou Aziz Kebe’s lecture on religion covered the rise of Islam in West Africa. We learned about the various Islamic Brotherhoods in Senegal and their role throughout history. However, when asked about the large number of beggars (including small children) we were told that Islam extols the giving of alms to the poor and, therefore, there is little shame in begging.
“The beggars returned to the city only after the ruler agreed to their demands,” continued Professor Kebe, “that is how the story ends.”
Later we visited the Holy City of Tuba and meet Serigne Dame Fall, the grandson of Cheikh Himbra Fall (first disciple of Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba, the founder of the Mouridisme). Disciples of the Mouridu (the largest Islamic Brotherhood) are called Baye Fall (men) or Yaye Fall (women). Following the example of their founder, the Baye Falls adhere to the twin principles of faith and work. They devote themselves completely to working to support the Mouridu (Holyman) as he spreads the message of Islam. Here, too, children participate in this discipleship through begging.
Professor Kebe teaches that begging is coupled with giving (and giving with blessings) and in Tuba (where it is a crime to smoke cigarettes) we saw child-disciples begging in the streets. But Pope Samba Sow, artists, writer, and human rights activist, sees begging children as a failure of the government to protect its young. Moreover, the word he uses for children begging to fulfill religious obligations is “exploitation.” For Sow, childhood is a period for laughter, play and education – and not supporting the lifestyle of holy men.
Three different lessons about begging, however, for me, the true teachable moment occurs when you look into the eyes of the children themselves and see the future staring back.

In photos: Upper right, Tim at the Mosque in Tuba. At left, Tim with the grandson of Cheikh Himbra Fall,

June 22, 2009

Running With the 'Young Lions'

I fancy myself a runner of sorts. That is, I try to put in about 15 miles a week. While I haven’t broken any records, I have kept in pretty decent shape. I especially enjoy running in the early morning just as the sun is rising.

I am amazed at the number of people exercising outdoors in Dakar. This is a very young country – i.e., a majority of the population is between the ages of 15-45. It seems that everywhere you look, young people are buzzing about the capital city.
They can be seen exercising on the beach in packs of 30 or more. Mind you, this is not Venus Beach of California, but on these sandy shores you’ll find Senegal’s “young lions” bench pressing used car tire rims instead of 45 pound metal plates.  And there are scores of them bending, stretching, power walking, trampolining, and jogging all over the place.
I call them “young lions” because the Lion is, like the American Bald Eagle is to the United States, one of the two symbols of Senegal. The second symbol of this country is the Baobab Tree (or Ngouye –pronounced “gee-we” – in Wolof). The tree, like the people, is long lasting, strong, and immensely resourceful. Some of Africa’s Baobab Trees were around during the time of Christ. These trees do not have their first bloom until they are 25 years old. From rope to soap, every part of the Baobab Tree is used!  And the Baobab juice – that’s right, there is even a drink made from the pulp of the tree – is simply delicious.
My sleep pattern has finally adjusted to the time zone change and I was able to take my 6 a.m. run. My running path takes me past several Baobabs, off and on the red dirt, and weaving in and out of the throng of people who seem to be perpetually on the move – even at 6:30. Heading back to the hotel, I finally get an opening to lengthen my stride and quicken my pace as the crowd thins. Best yet I am going downhill and there is a nice cross breeze to ease this savanna heat.  I am entering that illusive runner’s high when I hear “Bon Jour.” I turn to see the smiling face of, you guessed it, a young lion moving up from behind me and matching me stride for stride. I looked into his youthful face, noted his even breath, sweatless body, and simply nodded my head as he started to pass me up.
Fine! I am cool with being passed by someone half my age (ok, more than half). But when I looked at his feet and saw that he was running in flip-flops (shower shoes), loose leg pants, and a pull over shirt, well, that’s another matter. That’s when my 180 Nike running shoes, MTA running shorts, Champion Double Dry running shirt had to go to work. 
In Senegal, I have tasted Baobab juice and ran with young lions.

In Photos: Upper right, Tim with paintings of the Baobab tree. Bottom right, is a Boabab tree.

June 17, 2009

Goree Island Has An Impact

“Welcome to Goree Island,” is the phrase that meets every visitor upon arrival to Senegal’s important national treasure. It seems that all one thousand residents of the Island is excited to have you visit the place they call home. A 20 minute ferry ride from Dakar will get you a piece of land, created by two volcanoes, that once housed enslaved Africans awaiting ships to carry them to various destinations in the New World – most ended up in America. 

While the exact number of Africans forcibly removed from the continent may never be known, some scholars put the number somewhere between 10 and 20 million with about 25 percent dying in the middle passage (i.e., the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean). European slave traders found Goree Island an ideal place to ready captured Africans for exportation via the Transatlantic Slave Trade because the surrounding water ensured that there would be no escaping.

In fact, no one escaped from Goree (from the Dutch Goe-ree which means “good harbor). Once on the Island, it was the last piece of African soil that the captured person would ever set foot on. 
At its peak, Goree Island boasted 38 slave houses.  Today the Island is an international historical landmark (UNESCO classification in 1978). Most of the slave houses have been demolished or converted into homes, administrative buildings, schools, or shops. However, one slave house (La Maison des Esclaves) still remains. Built in 1786, it is a place where visitors can get a glimpse of what it was like to operate a system of global exchange in black bodies - the first global commodity exchanged in the modern world.
Walking through the former slave house that once held 250-300 women, men and children captive was an emotional experience. While this is not my first “slave castle,” I’ve been to both Elmina and Cape Coast castles in Ghana, West Africa, I was impressed by the haunting presence of an enormous and enduring violence that took place between these walls. The scale of suffering permitted, in part, by the collusion between secular and scared institutions is a source of great shame even today. It was this sense of guilt that prompted Pope John Paul II, upon his visit to Goree, to apologize for the role that the Roman Catholic Church played in the slave trade.
To be sure, there is more to Goree than slave houses. At the heart of the Island sits Mariama Ba School. A boarding school for girls, the school is named after Senegal’s great writer Mariama Ba. Ba’s novel, So Long a Letter, has been taught at Wabash College. The girls who attend the school are among the best in the country. Students live at the school during the week and go home for the weekend. The school has an exchange program with a sister school in the US. All graduates of Mariama Ba School have gone to university.

June 15, 2009

Learning Cultural Complexity of Senegal

While the Muslim religion dominates, Senegal is not an Islamic State. Professor Abdou Aziz Kebe, University Cheikh Anta Diop, lectured on the role of religion in the culture and politics of the country. “Senegal has had three major influences,” continues Professor Kebe, “Islam, French, and traditional [practices].” By the time the Portuguese (15th century), Dutch (17th century) and later French (18th century) explores reached Senegal’s coastline, Islam had been practiced here for a few thousand years. However, it wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that Islam switched from being the religion of the ruling elite into the faith practiced by 95% of the population.

A serious affect of Senegal’s, to borrow Ali Mazuri’s phrase, “triple heritage” (Islam, French and traditional Africans) has been on the educational system. As Professor Larmine Kane, University of Cheikh Anta Diop, explained in his lecture, “The Senegalese Educational System: From Kindergarten to University,” these three heritages intersect at the point of education to produce a national crisis. The competition between Koranic schools verses government sponsored public schools and African verses French curriculum and instruction is made even more complicated by an official policy that encourages but doesn’t mandate the education of children.  Even still, the official report puts the national literacy rate just above 60%.
But this literacy rate is as laudable as it is ambiguous because, according to Professor Kane, there is no agreement as to what it means to be literate in Senegal. Wolof is the most popularly spoken language here but French is the language of instruction and commerce. While most people can speak French, it is not clear how many can read and write it. The same goes for Wolof. Moreover, English is compulsory at the university level. So if literacy means mastery of written and spoken French, then, we’ll have a much lower literacy rate – though no one knows for sure what the rate might be.
If there is a bright side to the education system here it is in the fact that the cost for attending university (once you pass the qualifying examination) is extremely manageable. The yearly tuition fee is the equivalent of 10 US dollars. Additionally, each student receives a government stipend to cover room and board. The challenge here is finding enough space for everyone. For instance, visitors to the University Cheikh Anta Diop will be amazed to find 60 thousand students enrolled in a University build to educate 13 thousand students. I’ll let you do the math to find the student-to-teacher ratio.
Education and religion are two important aspects of creating a modern civil society. In Senegal these two modes of cultural production are in tension and we can only hope for a creative solution in the near future. With people like Professor Kane leading the charge for educational reform and progressive educational policies, it is likely that some progress will be made if only little-by-little.

In photos: Upper left, Professor Kane. Lower right, Professor Tim lake enjoying learning about tri-culture of Senegal.

June 12, 2009

Getting Settled in at Senegal Center

Prof. Tim Lake - All fifteen participants of our Fulbright-Hays Group Project Aboard have arrived in Senegal, West Africa. This is my first stay in this Francophone African country whose population is 95% Muslim, 3% Christian and “100% traditional religion.” Well, that’s what some people say at least. The point here, according to Waly, our orientation lecturer at the West African Research Center (WARC), is that religious synchronism is a reality for many Senegalese.

WARC is a place that assists researchers and international students with coordinating their projects in Senegal and surrounding areas. For the next few weeks, it will be my “home away from home.” But not all of my time will be spent at WARC, and that’s the point. I’ve already visited the Presidential place (their “White House”) and witnessed the changing of the guard. 
I’ve seen so much public art here that I am getting a crook in my neck from staring up. I especially like the war memorial at La Place Du Tirailleur dedicated to the friendship between two soldiers – a Frenchman and a Senegalese. The memorial is also meant to commemorate the sacrifice the Senegalese made on behalf the French against Germany during both world wars.
“Art is the people’s Griot,” asserted Mrs. Germaine Anta Gaye. Mrs. Gaye is Senegal’s renowned female artist who has meet with Leopold Sedar Senghor, the country’s first president, and our former first lady Laura Bush. We were treated to a wonderful lecture by this esteemed artist and, now hold your breath, in her home and studio. What an honor it was to have such an intimate encounter with an artist whose work hangs in the World Bank. 
I fancy myself somewhat of an art collector (more like admire) but when I asked the price of one of her mixed media pieces (glass and metal) I was told, rather gently, “Not for sale, only showings.” I am appreciative for the showing that I’ve received so far of Senegal and its people, history, and cultural productions. And there is some much more to experience and learn from.
In particular, I am looking forward to learning more about the religious life of the Senegalese. Professor Abdou Aziz Kebe, University Cheikh Anta Diop, will give a lecture on “Religions and Religious Tolerance in Senegal.” Here I hope to learn more about the role that faith plays in the life and culture of the people. Like most African people, spirituality matters in all things and it’s difficult to separate the sacred from the secular. 
From religious diversity to art as history, I am finding Senegal to be an immensely curious and wonderfully provocative pedagogical experience.