Babenen (Farewell/See you soon) Senegal: Final Thoughts

Wednesday August 13

After two eventful months in Senegal, I will fly home to New Jersey from Dakar tonight. I finished my fieldwork with a total of 88 survey responses and in the next month or two, I will analyze my data to draw conclusions about the current political opinions of Senegalese youth. I will split questions into several categories that represent different traits such as the level of one’s belief in the influence of the Y’en a marre movement. I will also split subjects into different sample groups by age, gender and political involvement to account for confounding variables when measuring political external efficacy, the degree to which one feels his or her government responds to his or her actions in the political process. Like mentioned before, I hope to determine whether youth express an increased trust or willingness to participate in formal politics since the rise of the Y’en a marre movement during the 2012 elections. I have not looked at all the survey responses but from the several I have seen, my hypothesis is that young people’s distrust of politicians remains strong. Y’en a marre might have politically mobilized youth on an unprecedented scale, but a significant portion of youth believe the government has co-opted the group. It also seems that the 2012 opposition coalition centered on anti-incumbent, or anti-Wade, sentiments rather than about the competency of the opposition candidate, Macky Sall. This description would explain why most people in my survey disapproved of both figures. Sall seemingly plays the same old dirty game of politics after recently firing handfuls of Ministers in his cabinet for obscure reasons. A positive analysis of these preliminary results is that the invigorating events of 2012 has prompted the young citizenry to demand much more out of their politicians and so Sall does not have as much time as past politicians had to impress constituents. I am excited to further examine my research subjects’ responses and report my findings to my Northwestern professors, teacher assistants and Senegalese peers.

 

Surveyed one of the poorest neighborhoods in Dakar, Guédiawaye

I look back on my trip as a roller-coaster ride of challenges and triumphs. In the first few weeks, I was a naive, excited newcomer enjoying all that the city had to offer before Ramadan shut things down. Just as I settled into the centers and made new friends, I fell ill for one week before going to the emergency room in the middle of the night for an operation on an infected umbilical cord. That incident and the following week of recovery became the hardest challenge to hurdle because I could not do anything mentally or physically productive and I found myself homesick in a country to which I had just traveled alone. I expected the recovery to go well but there was still the possibility of returning home early if it did not, which was the last thing I wanted. There were times when I questioned, “Do I really want to do this?” or “Why am I bending over backwards to pursue this when I could be relaxing with my closest friends back home or at college?” Even before and after my illness, having Wi-Fi access in my room made it easy to block myself off from my Senegalese adventures and talk to friends on Facebook, watch “Suits”, read U.S. news articles and anticipate junior year plans. This internal battle plagued me for most of my trip, but I fought against it and made the most out of my Senegalese experience. This struggle may surprise you since the rest of my blog sounds adventurous and fun thus far, but I would be remiss to leave it out. 

Enjoying the comforts of my room

VS.

Exploring the city

 I did both.

A couple weeks after the operation, the doctor cleared me to do research again. Since I lost valuable time, I became frantically busy improving my survey, making appointments with political activists and party members, and reconnecting with new friends. In other words, I was back to normal: excited and motivated to pursue my project and experience the country. Yet, I still had to commute to the downtown hospital every day to change my bandage, which took a significant chunk of time out of surveying. In the beginning, a Senegalese friend helped me take a cab to make this journey. I needed help because I did not know my way around to give directions but more importantly, I did not know how to bargain for a good price with the cab. To purchase most things in Senegal, including food at street vendors, requires waxale or bargaining. Once you hail a taxi, you must negotiate with the driver on the price before entering the car. After refining my Wolof and French skills, I eventually figured out how to bargain cab rides and consequently felt triumphant. When I learned that I needed to make this trip to the hospital every day, I decided to commute by taking the local bus which was initially difficult to figure out but became second-nature after a couple weeks. From the congested traffic to the buses filled with people, Dakar is a heavily overpopulated and polluted city. A few times, I had to wait up to an hour at the bus stop near my home and up to two hours to receive treatment at the hospital. I did not enjoy this because I felt like I was wasting my time, yet I knew finishing my treatment was not negotiable. About a week after I was cleared, I adjusted to my post-recovery routine, found an exceptional research assistant for a bargain and began my survey fieldwork with relative ease.

Congested downtown area

All in all, I overcame lifestyle inconveniences and research obstacles to successfully survey young people in 88 households through 6 different neighborhoods in Dakar! Since my trip to the hospital, I would describe my Senegal experience as a steady upward curve that exponentially got better in the last couple weeks. I gradually gained ease and success with my research, I became more confident in navigating my life in Dakar, and I increasingly explored the country and made new friends. I could not have done any of this without Macodou, my assistant, who turned out to be my closest Senegalese friend on this trip. As you saw from my last post, his family welcomed me into their home and I now consider them to be my Senegalese family. It was such a pleasure to work with him as he is one of the most hardworking, respectable people I have met. He does everything whole-hardheartedly to support his family and he dreams of making it to the United States. Although I know the immigration wait-time averages up to five years, I will do my best to help him in the process. 

Macodou and I at Touba Sane
Party at the Korean Ambassador’s House in Senegal
Exchanging banners with the Dakar Point E Rotary Club President
Enjoying fresh coconut drinks at the beach with my Norwegian roommate
Some graduate students and I. Two are also from Northwestern!

Here are my final takeaways from the trip

1. Culture Shock and Adjustment

Before this trip, I had experienced a formative culture shock when I returned to my motherland, South Korea, in 2009 and solidified my identity as a Korean-American. However, that shock does not compare to the adjustment I made this summer. The French and Wolof language barrier, the pervasive Muslim influence during Ramadan season, and a significantly lower standard of living challenged my conception of the world and the people in it.

Not unlike other countries, family holds together the core of Senegalese society. Although the traditional polygamous family has diminished, traditional gender roles have not. From my conversations with locals, men are still expected to support the family no matter what and women are expected to stay home as caregivers. Nearly every local I met expressed his or her wish to get married and settle down. Macodou told me that his most important goals are to get a good job to provide for his family and to get married to his current girlfriend. I told him that young Americans are getting married at increasingly older ages because financial stability tends to take priority before settling down with someone. In contrast, young Senegalese often get married first and then move into one of their parents’ homes. Most Senegalese generally live with their families into their 30s, while most Americans move out by then. In addition to establishing social expectations, the family structure of Senegalese society underlies the people’s religious devotion and renown hospitality as well as the country’s problems of overpopulation and homophobia.

Family at Touba Sane

Despite limited access to healthcare, education and jobs, Senegalese people live virtuously and happily for God and family. Strongly identifying as Senegalese, they care deeply about their country’s current affairs and identify proudly as a Muslim, democratic nation. The country’s lagging economic growth has plagued its people, but that also explains why they commonly talk about politics and other serious affairs in ordinary spaces such as in the streets during the day or over the dinner table at night. In other African countries, unacceptable economic conditions, corrupt political institutions and ethnic divisions have led to social anarchy but in Senegal, its people have maintained peace since its independence in 1960. Notwithstanding serious hardships, the Senegalese people love their country and lead modest lives with enduring hope for the better.

The Senegalese flag is proudly hoisted throughout Dakar

 

Street Vendors at Grand Yoff

2. Life Decisions

Entering my junior year, I am nearly done with my Political Science degree requirements and I will have this political research experience under my belt. Although I am excited to analyze my results, report my findings and explore other classes in the major, this experience has actually made me realize that I want to focus on a different field: economics. I first studied political science because it involves the study of domestic and international institutions that shape human behavior and produce the complex world that we live in today. I now want to shift my attention because I believe that I can never seriously address policy issues without versing myself in the fiscal and monetary institutions that shape their outcomes. Fundraising Super-PACs drive elections, a few partisan corporations direct our mass media, and elite universities and hospitals increasingly operate like businesses. Understanding exactly how these influences work will be the next step for my intellectual growth.

I gained two other realizations from this trip experience. First, I am almost certain that I do not want to be a career academic. I immensely respect the Masters and PhD students whom I befriended on this trip for what they do, but their lifestyle is not something I could do as a living. Social sciences research can be an intellectually exciting and emotionally rewarding experience, but it is also a slow, disorganized and difficult process. Finally, this trip confirmed my love for international travel but also made me realize that I would likely never settle down outside the U.S. Instead, I am convinced that I belong in the Chicago area because of how much I missed it this summer, even more than my home state of New Jersey.

In front of the National Assembly

3. Global Citizen

This summer experience has motivated me to remain an active global citizen for the rest of my life. I am grateful that this trip has equipped me with advanced abilities to read, write and speak in French. In the last two months, I frequently experienced having my intended thoughts lost in translation but I ultimately overcame those language barriers. I am now convinced that the only way to master a new language is to travel to a country where it is spoken, speak it throughout the day and constantly listen to how the native people speak it. Although my college classes provided me a foundation in grammar and vocabulary, I only made significant improvements in French once I immersed myself in Senegalese life. In addition to Korean and Spanish, I can now communicate in French, which allows me to potentially interact with people from up to 33 Francophone countries. I hope to maintain my French by reading French news and keeping in touch with the Senegalese friends I made. Now, I am particularly motivated to visit Paris, where my aunt married a French man two years ago, and reconnect with that side of the family. In addition, making new friends from Germany, Scotland and Norway has motivated me to do a comprehensive Europe trip the summer after I graduate. Even more, I would like to return to South Korea because six years have passed since I have seen all my family there and I want to improve my Korean. Peru, Thailand, Turkey, Israel and Afghanistan also top my list of places to visit. Clearly, the hardest thing about being an active global citizen is the time and money it requires, but receiving this research grant proves that I can always find ways to make traveling more affordable.

This experience has also re-aligned my understanding of America’s influence in the world. After living in a developed, white and Judea-Christian country for 20 years, I lived in a developing, black and Muslim one. Talking to my European and African friends about their countries, I realized that America may dominate international foreign affairs but it does not dominate their lives culturally. I also could not avoid thinking about the immense privilege of living in America and the history of colonialism behind the world’s growing inequality. I think we often find it easy to stay in our communities, carve out our happy lives and buy into American exceptionalism. But Americans only make up 4.4% of the world’s population. As other countries like China and Brazil expand in influence, understanding how other people in this world live will be increasingly important.

Grand Mosque (and some political graffiti)
One of few churches in Senegal

On my last day, my Norwegian friend, Vajna, warned me about “counter culture shock” which refers to feeling strange or depressed when one returns home after having adjusted to a foreign country. I am so satisfied with my stay in Senegal that I expect to experience some “counter culture shock,” particularly because I have not been home in New Jersey for eight months. Despite these reservations, I am still so excited to finally get a haircut after two months, use reliable plumbing and electricity, reunite with my hometown friends and family, eat homemade Korean food and drive my car. Soon, I will enjoy the comfortable, privileged lifestyle in which I grew up and leave behind the power outages, plumbing problems, scorching heat, dusty air and the long commute required to change my bandage at the hospital.

I will also have to leave behind many good things. I will miss speaking French every day and learning the indigenous language, Wolof. I will miss the mafé, ceebu jën, buy and all the other delicious Senegalese meals and drinks I had. I will miss the tight-knit Muslim communities and families. I will miss surveying Dakar neighborhoods, meeting local political figures and spending time with new friends from all over the world. Most importantly, I will miss the Senegalese people. My home-stay family, Macodou, staff members from the Baobab Center and the research facility, the 88 young people whom I surveyed and kind strangers on the street taught me the value of teranga (hospitality). True teranga offers genuine and unconditional camaraderie, tolerance and respect to people of all ethnic backgrounds, social classes and religions.

As I depart for New Jersey with a layover in Belgium, I hope to avoid the flight delays and baggage problems that I faced during my initial flights. But hey: Of the many lessons this trip has taught me, I have learned to embrace discomfort. Life is too short and the world is too interesting to remain upset or stationally. When my friends ask me about Senegal, I will say that it was a difficult and challenging place to live, yet a country that I learned to love in unexpected ways. I know I will be back to Senegal because I want to remember and experience all these things again. Senegal has allowed me to grow into a more knowledgeable person and will always be special part of my life. Babenen (Farewell / See you soon) Senegal because you are worthy of a second visit and a visit from everyone in the world.

A big thank you to…

  • Peter Civetta, the Director of the Undergraduate Research Grant Office, for giving me this incredible opportunity
  • The multiple professors, graduate students, and faculty members at Northwestern who helped me discover my research question and develop my project
  • Professor Rachel Riedl for guiding me through the long process as a Faculty Adviser
  • The West African Research Center and the ACI/Baobab Cultural Center who eased my transition into a country I’d never been to and to which I was traveling on my own
  • My friends and family for never questioning my pursuit of this experience and instead, encouraging me along the way.
  • YOU for being interested enough to read this blog

Peace and love,

Kenny