Crosspost: Some Politics with your Rice and Fish?

My first post on the Kiva Kellows blog, Some Politics with your Rice and Fish, went live over the weekend. Check it out. I’ll try to post here again sometime soon. Perhaps before the end of the week.

In the mean time, check out this article from Al Jazeera on Thiès, the “sleepy town” that I call home. Shout-out to my fellow Kiva Fellow Micaela Browning for sending me the link.

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Because You’ve been Asking . . .

This isn't Senegal, but the photo spices up the post, doen't it?

This isn't Senegal, but the photo spices up the post, doen't it?

Friends,

You’ve been asking for it, and finally I’ve given in. Welcome to my personal blog. For the next four or so months, I’ll be living in Senegal, as a Kiva Fellow. This is where I’ll post periodic updates about my life in West Africa. I don’t intend to polish my posts here too carefully, or to publicize them widely. Rather, this is blog is intended primarily for my family and friends — for the people that want to keep tabs on me, and what I’ve been up to.

I’ll also occasionally be blogging on the Kiva Fellows Stories from the Field Blog. That’s where you should look for more thoughtful posts about microfinance, and Kiva’s work in Senegal and around the world.

Best wishes,

David

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Sitting with the Mourids, for a Time

Across the street from my hotel, there is a load speaker attached to a telephone poll. It looks like part of the communist-era public address system that was in place in the small Czech town where a lived as an exchange student, back in high school. Except that whereas the system in the Czech republic used to spurt out propaganda, and by the time I arrived, merely announced events at the local community centre, the one across the street from my hotel here in Senegal is used for more sacred purposes.

On Thursday at about 8PM, it began screaming a lilting chant, reminiscent of the call to prayer that wakes me briefly each morning, but more melodic. I stopped and asked a passer-by what it was. An evening call to prayer, perhaps? The words of the Koran? “No,” he explained, “it’s very old sacred poetry” particular to Mourdisme, Senegal’s largest and one of its oldest muslim brotherhoods.

The chant was beautiful, but amplified to such an extent that it became distorted and strained. To my ears, frankly, it was, frankly, grating. Irritating. But then, at about 9PM, the power cut out, and the loud speaker was silenced. That’s when I heard the voices, chanting in unison, the same poems that the speaker was broadcasting moments earlier. I headed outside to investigate. About 25 men were seated on several prayer matts pushed together in the middle of an ally, huddled around several candles. At first, I watched from a distance. More men came and joined the group. I stopped one to ask if it was all right that I was listening — it wasn’t disrespectful, or otherwise offensive, was it? “Of course not,” he answered. “In fact, come join us, please!” So I did. I took off my shoes and socks, and took a seat on the mats. More men streamed in, and before long, I was in the middle of a group of at least one hundred people. Only the men in the centre chanted. The rest just sat, listening with me, occasionally snapping their fingers in rhythm to the chant, filling the gaps as the men took a breath. It was a powerful, beautiful experience, and a potent reminder of the important role faith plays in so many people’s lives.

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Partying with Pape Diouf

Last night, I caught a Pape Diouf concert at Club Nirvana, one of Dakar’s more bourgeois night clubs, with a few friends I met at Via Via, the hostel I’m starting at. When we arrived at around 12:30 AM, the place was still almost empty. It didn’t really start filling up until just a little before 2:00 AM. In the interim, I was struck by how the inside of the club resembled any other I’ve visited in the Toronto, Montreal, New York. Billboard 100 playlist, mirrors, strobe lights, leather and chrome — TVs showing scenes of scantily clad women and bling-clad men dancing around Bentleys. The playlist didn’t contain any surprises either. Even cover — about 6,000 CFA ($12) resembled a North American club.

Finally, at 2:30, the live music started. I’m no music critic, so I’ll let you watch Pape on youtube rather than trying to explain what his music is like. Clearly though, his music brought me back to Dakar. A few minutes into his set, the dance floor was packed — I mean, packed. The pulsing (yet seemingly entirely unpredictable) beat made you want to dance, but frankly, there wasn’t any room. That didn’t stop anyone (or even me) from trying, mind you.

Diouf was still playing when we left at 5AM, which brings me to the paradox of the evening. 6,000 CFA is pretty significant coin in Senegal. So presumably, most of the people at this concert had to jobs. But how can people with jobs party until 5:00 AM on a Wednesday night!

In any case, today was tough. Thank heavens for café Touba — Senegal’s strong and sweet-as-syrup caffeine fix.

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Another Election!?

After the Toronto municipal election in late 2010, the Canadian Federal election in early 2012, and the Ontario provincial election in October (which I worked on full-time) — and with the States’ 2012 election already dominating the headlines — I arrived in Senegal pretty much electioned-out. Tough luck for me. The first round of Senegal’s presidential elections will be held on February 26th!

Just a few days before I arrived in Senegal, its constitutional court ruled that the incumbent president, Abdulaye Wade, is eligible to seek a 3rd consecutive term on February 26th. Wade first earned a 7 year presidential mandate in 2000. Then, in 2007, he ran again — this time under a recently amended constitution providing for a 5-year (rather than 7-year) mandate. Incidentally, the constitution was amended again in 2008 to restore the 7-year term, but in any case, all of these constitutions restricted presidents to no more than two consecutive terms. So at first glance, it’s hard to understand how the president can run again. However, article 104 of the amended (2008) constitution states that “Le Président de la République en fonction poursuit son mandat jusqu’à son terme. Toutes les autres dispositions de la présente Constitution lui sont applicables.” Roughly, “The President of the Republic currently in office may serve his mandate to its completion. All of the other provisions of the current constitution apply to him.” President Wade argued, and the court ultimately agreed, that given this provision, his second mandate — under the previous constitution — didn’t count towards his two terms. Clearly, some Senegalese find this logic questionable. So in the week following the constitutional court’s ruling, major protests in Dakar and other cities across Senegal claimed several lives.

Djibril Ngom rally in Dakar

Djibril Ngom rally in Yoff, Dakar, just outside my office window!

The situation has calmed some now that the campaign has started in earnest. Clearly though, Senegal is groping its way through a dangerous time. It’s a fascinating period to be in Senegal. Everyone is talking politics all the time. The newspapers are jam packed with political stories every morning. The streets are full of political billboards and posters. The candidates are out main-streeting and door-knocking. In fact, in just two weeks, I’ve already seen two opposition candidates. The first — Moustapha Niasse, a former vice president and now one of Wade’s more important opponents — was waving from his motorcade as it headed to visit one of the local mosques, on Wednesday. Then yesterday, Djibril Ngom, a much less well-known candidate, held a rally literally right under my office window the very next day.

I chuckled when I saw that about 90% of the 200 or so supporters present were bussed-in. A fair proportion of the attendees at your average Canadian political rally are also bussed-in. In some respects, it appears, politics is just about the same everywhere. . .

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