Youth and Politics in Senegal

My name is Kenny Mok and I am a rising junior majoring in Political Science. I will spend the next two months on my own in Senegal, the Francophone West African country, in its capital city Dakar. I will be researching the relationship between youth and political parties in the aftermath of a widespread protest movement called Y’en a marre. The movement started two years ago leading up to the 2012 presidential elections, which ousted the incumbent of 12 years. Through the West African Research Center, which is affiliated with Northwestern, I will be interviewing party officials and randomly selected youth. Kenny is funded by the <a href="" target="_blank">Summer Undergraduate Research Grant</a> program run by Northwestern’s <a href="">Office of Undergraduate Research</a>, which also sponsors these blogs.

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

Wednesday August 13 – The last week of my trip got very busy so I didn’t have time to update my blog. I have now arrived home in New Jersey and am finishing it all now! Hope you enjoy my last couple of posts (the final four posts to be exact).

After two amazing months in Senegal, I will return home to New Jersey from Dakar later tonight and I cannot believe it. I finished my fieldwork with a total of 88 survey responses which I am very happy with and in the next month or two, I will analyze my data to draw conclusions about the political opinions of Senegalese youth today. I will split questions into particular groups that measure different things 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, which is the degree to which one feels his or her government responds to his or her actions in the political process. Like I’ve previously mentioned, the main question I’m trying to answer is whether youth express an increased trust or willingness to participate in formal politics, namely the activities of political parties, since the 2012 elections and since the rise of the Y’en a marre movement. I haven’t taken a look at all the survey responses but form the several I have seen, my hunch is that youth’s distrust of politicians has remained consistent and strong. Y’en a marre might have politically mobilized youth on an unprecedented scale but a significant portion of youth believe they are working with the government. Another trend that I’m  believing is that the 2012 opposition coalition was more about anti-Wade (anti-incumbent) rather than about the Macky Sall’s (opposition candidate’s) competency which explains why the majority of people strongly disapprove of his performance. It seems as if he has played the same old dirty game of politics as he has fired handfuls of Ministers in his cabinet. One positive way of spinning this is that since the invigorating events of 2012, the young citizenry demand much more out of their politicians and that Macky does not have as much time as past politicians to impress. I’m excited to look further into my research subjects’ responses and reporting my findings to the Northwestern professors who helped me and to the academics and politically involved people I’ve met in Senegal.

Surveyed one of the poorest neighborhoods in Dakar, Guédiawaye

Looking back on my trip, I cannot help but look at my last two months as a roller-coaster ride of challenges and triumphs. In the first few weeks, I was a naive, excited newcomer enjoying what the city had to offer before Ramadan started, settling into the cultural center and research center, and making new friends. Then shortly after I got settled, 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 week of recovery that followed was definitely the hardest period not only because I could not do anything during that time but also because I found myself homesick and understandably lonely in a country to which I had just traveled by myself. I expected the recovery to go well but there was still the possibility of returning home early if it didn’t go well which I really didn’t want. But I would be lying if I didn’t admit that at times I questioned myself “Why did I even go for this research grant opportunity?” or “Do I really want to do this?” which I also asked a few times throughout the year when I was busy and stressed with other things besides the research grant application. “Why was I all alone pursuing this when I could be relaxing with my closest friends back home or at college?” Since I had Wi-Fi access at my home, it was very easy to just block myself off from my Senegal adventures and just surf the Internet in my room – talking to friends on Facebook, watching “Suits”, reading news articles, anticipating junior year plans… missing Chicago, Northwestern, and NJ. This internal battle actually plagued me for most of my trip but I learned to deal with it and still make the most out of my Senegalese experience. I know this struggle isn’t what you might have expected since the rest of my blog has sounded really adventurous /fun up till now but I would be remiss to leave this part out.

Enjoying the comforts of my room


Exploring the city    

 I did both.

         A couple weeks after the operation, I physically felt 100% and was cleared to do my research once again. Since I lost some valuable time, I suddenly found myself very busy with 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. However, 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 time. In the beginning, I took a cab with a Senegalese friend to make this journey because I didn’t know my way around but more importantly, I didn’t know how to bargain for a good price with the cab. Everything in Senegal, including street vendors and public transport, requires waxale, or bargaining. However, after learning how to bargain in Wolof and continuing to improve my French, I was able to bargain the cab for a good price and take it by myself, which felt amazing the first time. When I found out I had to go everyday, I decided to take the bus which was a little hard to learn at first but became second-nature after a couple weeks. From the congested traffic to the crowded buses, Dakar is overpopulated (and polluted) in every sense. Sometimes, I would wait up to an hour at the bus stop and up to two hours at the hospital if it was busy. This was certainly not enjoyable and I felt like I was wasting my time but I knew it was something I had to do and deal with.

Congested downtown area

Despite the constant inconveniences, a week after I started working again, I was able to find an amazing research assistant for a good price and begin my survey fieldwork with relative ease. As I’ve described in my previous posts, my surveying had its challenges but was successful overall as I walked through 6 different neighborhoods in Dakar and surveyed young people in 88 households! I could not have done it without Macodou, my assistant, who turned out to be my closest Senegalese friend on this trip. As you saw from my last post, I have been welcomed into his family and I consider them to be my Senegalese family also. Macodou is one of the hardest working people I have ever met and he does everything whole-hardheartedly to support his family which I respect so much. He dreams of making it to the United States and although I know the immigration wait-time averages up to 5 years, I will do my best to help him in the process. All in all since my trip to the hospital, I would describe my Senegal experience as a steady upward curve (with small ups and downs) that exponentially got better in the last week or so. This is because I had more ease and success with my research, I became more confident in navigating my life in Dakar on my own, and I was able to explore more of the country and make friends.

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 Senegal, my travel experiences had consisted of a couple trips to Europe and South Korea – the second was an important culture shock in my life as I returned to my motherland. However, those experiences definitely do not compare to the culture shock I dealt with this summer as almost every aspect of life in Senegal and the U.S. is completely different. From the majority Islam population to the decreased standard of living, Senegal challenged everything I had ever been taught growing up. Some key notes:

Family, more than religion and politics, is the core of Senegalese society. Although the traditional structure of multiple wives and dozens of children has diminished, men are still expected to support the family no matter what and women are expected to stay home as caregivers. Marriage is seen as a necessity – a Senegalese doesn’t think for a SECOND that he or she will never eventually get married and settle down. One conversation with Macodou really struck me when he said that his biggest goals are to get a good job to provide for his family and equally as important, to get married to his girlfriend. I told him that young Americans are getting married at older ages because financial stability takes priority before settling down with someone. In Senegal, this is not necessarily the case as people get married and then deal with the financials afterwards, often living in their parents’ homes. All in all, most Senegalese live with their families while Americans are more likely to live in atypical living situations (single parent, gay couple, post-grad young adults sharing an apartment). I think the emphasis on the family structure explains a lot about the kindness and hospitality of Senegalese people but also characteristics like the country’s homophobia and its overpopulation that show that they are a little behind.

Family at Touba Sane

Despite having virtually no healthcare, a shotty education system, lackluster job opportunities, and dirty politics, Senegalese people live virtuous and happy lives in the name of God and family. They truly care about their country, democracy, economy and culture. They identify as Senegalese and are proud to be a Muslim and democratic people. Of course, they have been struggling with an economy that hasn’t improved in a very long time and things today don’t seem to be getting better. That’s why it is common for all Senegalese, including young people, to talk intensely about politics and other serious affairs in very ordinary places such as in the streets during the day or over the dinner table at night. In other developing countries, unacceptable economic conditions, corrupt political institutions, and ethnic or societal divisions often lead to social anarchy but in Senegal, there has been peace since its independence in 1960. They recognize its many problems but in the end, they love their country and they learn to lead modestly happy lives in it while hoping for better.

The Senegalese flag is proudly hoisted throughout Dakar

The biggest adjustment that anyone has to make when living in a completely different country is dealing with the fact that you stand out and that people treat you differently while respecting the very different cultural norms you live in. For example, I quickly had to get used to being gawked at, constantly honked at by cabs, and called “Chinois” or Chinese. With children, I particularly had to get used to the incessant staring and occasional laughing and Chinese yelling. It’s strange to say but I also had to get used to being looked at as more important, more valued, more intelligent and worldly. Some of the people that I met in the households I surveyed and at the village of Touba Sane jokingly asked me to take their children to America but I think some of them were definitely not joking. All of this was challenging and strange. Also, Senegal’s poverty exceeded what I expected and I had to learn how to navigate through that. These are the facts I knew before the trip:

      • About 60% of the country is 33 years old and younger.
      • 50% of this young population is unemployed.
      • More than 50% of those who are employed work in the informal sector ie. street vendors

Despite knowing these facts, I was vividly struck by the ubiquity of street vendors and beggars in Dakar. This has reminded me that facts about poverty can easily impress upon someone as merely numbers until he or she has a very personal experience or connection to it – this really applies to everything in life that one decides to care about and not care so much about. Almost everyday when I walked outside, little children would come up to me holding up a bucket with desolate faces, begging for change. When I was at the beach or downtown with my European or American friends, we would constantly be approached by random Senegalese who would try to begin polite conversation but almost always, they would guilt you into buying their things. Don’t get me wrong: the Senegalese people’s well-know hospitality, or teranga, has been incredibly warming and pleasant.. but also overwhelming. People are truly nice and grateful towards Americans but you never ever know if they’re in it for the money or if they just really want to be friends with you. I’ve found that when they’re strangers who randomly come up to you, it’s just for the money but when you meet a Senegalese person through a friend, they are truly thrilled to meet you and befriend you – they might want to marry you after a week but they’re genuine. Also, if you say that you’re coming back in one year, they take you for your word very seriously and get hurt/mad if you don’t come back. I heard countless stories of this from fellow foreigners and their friends. As I’ve thought about this, I am comfortable saying that I will return because I cannot imagine living the rest of my life without returning at least once. However, I’ve said that I do not know when I will come back – only that I will eventually.

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 Poli Sci classes, this experience has actually made me realize that I am ready to explore a new field. A field that I believe is just as, if not more, important than politics: economics. I don’t think someone can seriously discuss one without integrating elements of the other. I first decided on 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. Although learning about foreign policy, city government, and the international economy has been extremely eye-opening, I’ve come to realize that one cannot start addressing solutions to major problems without versing himself or herself in the monetary institutions that govern all these systems. Because when it comes down to it, the world operates on money. Your house, your education, the people you surround yourself with, your political and legal capacity, your lifestyle, your values and beliefs – these are all outcomes of the financial system because with whom and where you grow up is dictated by your income. Without political knowledge, I could not have reached this conclusion but without economic knowledge, I do not believe that I can address the question of how institutional flaws can be addressed or more importantly, whether they should be addressed in the first place. More specifically, I am fascinated with the growing debate on inequality not only in the U.S. (poor vs rich, shrinking middle class) but also in the international economy (developing countries getting poorer, developed countries getting richer).

This experience has also taught me that I do not want to be an academic when I grow up. I immensely respect the graduate and PhD students whom I’ve befriended on this trip for what they do but the lifestyle is simply not for me. It’s really cool that one gets to travel a lot and continually learn but it’s a very slow and independently-monitored process. This does not mean however, that I would not pursue an international fellowship or international research in the near future. This simply means that I definitely do not want to be an academic as my primary career. Although I’ve loved my stay in Senegal, this experience has made me realized that I would not want to settle down in the different country. Instead, I’ve become more and more convinced that the city of Chicago is truly where I belong. I know I want to delve myself into the economics, politics, and communities of Chicago gaining experience in the private, non-profit, and public sector. This doesn’t mean I don’t love traveling and I don’t want to travel for the rest of my life (which I address next) but simply that I know where I want to call home for a long time.

In front of the National Assembly

3. Global Citizen

This summer experience has motivated me to become an active global citizen for the rest of my life because it makes life enjoyable and exciting and it gives you a smarter perspective on your life. Drastically improving in French and communicating with my Senegalese family, friends, and colleagues made me feel cool and challenged, adequate and inadequate, cool and new all at the same time. I’ve learned that the concept of things getting “lost in translation” really holds true: there are certain nuances, feelings, unspoken understandings that a language simply cannot convey that another language can. This can be viewed negatively but I think this is what makes our world interesting and beautiful which has so many different societies that possess and take pride in their unique customs and culture. I’ve also come to realize that the best way, IMO the only way, to really learn a new language is to speak it throughout the day and constantly listen to how the native people speak it. The American education system from kindergarten to college really fails at this because rudimentary grammar exercises and memorizing vocabulary doesn’t do much if you’re not actually learning and practicing how to verbalize everything. In addition to Korean and English, it’s nice to say that I can now communicate in French because it means that I can interact with many more people in the world – 33 Francophone countries to be exact. After this summer, I am motivated to keep up my French by reading French news and remaining connected with the French-speaking people I know. I want to maintain this ability so that I may return to Paris, where my aunt got married to a French man two years ago, and reconnect with that entire side of the family. I refuse to forget it like I did with my Spanish, which I learned from Kindergarten to junior year of high school. Speaking of, my renewed desire to travel the world has me set on South America as my next international plan, perhaps Ecuador or Chile, because I haven’t been to that continent yet and I could relearn and re-practice my Spanish. In addition, making new friends from Germany, Scotland, Norway, and other European  countries summer has motivated me to plan and do the ideal, expansive Europe trip that I, like many Americans, dream of doing – probably the summer after I graduate Northwestern. Even more, I so badly want to return to my motherland, South Korea, because it’s been six years since I’ve seen all my family there and I want to improve my Korean. Other places on my list: Thailand, Turkey, Israel, Afghanistan. So clearly, the hardest thing about being an active global citizen is that it requires plenty of time and money but getting this research grant has proven to me that if one really wants travel opportunities and works hard at making them happen, they are more than possible. There are also always ways to make traveling more affordable and shorter.

Most importantly, this travel experience has made me realize how little Americans know and care about the world and has reaffirmed that we are truly not the center of the universe like many of us subconsciously and consciously are taught to believe. Talking to my European and African friends about their country’s histories, politics, economies, and biggest priorities going forward, I’ve realized that America may have a large influence on other countries but that does not mean we are dominant in their affairs nor that we are qualitatively “better” by any stretch of the imagination. Because America is so big and surrounded by two oceans, it is so easy for us to stay in our communities, carve out our happy lives, and buy American exceptionalism. Yes, I am proud to be American and I do believe it’s a uniquely large, diverse, and free nation that present opportunities for people like my parents who immigrated here in the 80’s. But I also know that we have the highest economic inequality out of any developed country and serious societal problems along the lines of race that threaten the American Dream and the core American principle that one who works hard can advance himself in society. Every nation has its strengths and weaknesses, its beautiful and ugly aspects, its triumphs and tragedies. After growing up in such a rich, white, Jewish/Christian world, this summer I immersed myself in a poor(er), black, Muslim world. However, I refuse to even think about whether one is “better” than the other, a sentiment that mainstream America does not espouse, because in the end, we are all human and the world is too complicated and big to try to reach conclusions about who’s “better”. One doesn’t get anywhere when he or she starts comparing countries and talking about why certain aspects of one are better than the those of the other. Instead, I’ve learned that first and foremost, one must respect and appreciate the other for its pros AND its cons. If you’re trying to decide which one is better, stop because the only productive conclusion you’ll ever reach is that they are merely different and that we are all human.

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

On my last day, my Norwegian friend Vajna, who has traveled all over the world, warned me about “counter culture shock” which refers to feeling strange or depressed when you return home after having adjusted to a completely different country. Right now, I am so pleased with my stay in Senegal and so proud of how I adjusted to challenges that I wouldn’t be surprised if I experience a little “counter culture shock,” as I haven’t actually been home in New Jersey for 8 months. However, I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you how excited I am to get a haircut (8 weeks has been the longest I’ve ever gone without one), use reliable plumbing and electricity, enjoy air conditioning, reunite with all my hometown friends and family, eat homemade Korean food, drive a car, etc. Soon, I will enjoy the comfortable, privileged lifestyle in which I grew up and leave the Senegalese lifestyle with all its daily inconveniences. The power outages, the plumbing problems, the scorching heat, the pollution and dust from which I would cough, the 4 hours I took out of my day everyday to change my bandage at the hospital… these are things I will not miss. But, I will miss the beaches, historical sites, and cultural immersions. I will miss speaking French everyday and learning the indigenous language Wolof. I will miss the mafé, the ceebu jën, the buy, and all the other amazing Senegalese meals and drinks that I enjoyed. I will miss the peaceful Muslim communities and incredibly close-knit families. I will miss surveying Dakar neighborhoods, learning from fellow academics, and meeting prominent political figures in Senegal. Most of all, I will miss all the people: my home-stay family, Macodou, my friends at the Baobab Center, and many more.

     As I depart for New Jersey with a layover in Belgium, I hope to avoid the delays and baggage problems that I faced on my flight back in June, which I so vividly described in my second post on this blog. But hey, out of the many things this trip has taught me, I’ve learned to embrace the uncomfortable things in life. Life is too short and the world is too interesting to stay upset or stationary for too long. When my friends ask me about Senegal, I will say that it was interesting, extremely different, and challenging but also rewarding, special and amazing because it’s a place that grows on you in ways you wouldn’t expect. This is also largely the consensus among the dozens of foreigners I know who have been to Senegal and those I’ve gotten to befriend here. I know I will be back to Senegal because I want to remember and experience all these things again. Obviously, the second time around is different anywhere but Senegal will always be special part of my life as it has allowed me to grow so much this summer. So Babenen (See you soon) Senegal because you’re worthy of a second visit and a visit from the rest of 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,



A Weekend at a Village

Monday August 11

            I have just returned from my last weekend here in Senegal, the best weekend I’ve had on the trip, and one of the most interesting weekends of my life. For the last three days, I accompanied my research assistant, Macodou, to his hometown city, Thiès, and then to his mother’s hometown village, Touba Sane. Soon I would realize that he is the direct descendant of one of the most important religious figures in Senegal’s history, Sheikh Ibrahima Fall (1855-1930). Fall was one of the first and most illustrious disciples of Aamadu Bàmba Mbàkke, the founder of the the Mouride brotherhood, the most prominent Islamic order in Senegal. He also founded the Baye Fall movement, a sub-group of the brotherhood, which substituted hard labor for the usual pieties like fasting and catalysed the Mouride movement. I spent the weekend at a village named Touba Sane, where the Baye Fall movement started, in order to celebrate the people’s biggest annual celebration. On the way, we visited the holy city of Touba, the “Mecca” of Africa if you will, as that’s where the brotherhood started and the home of the biggest mosque in Africa to which millions migrate to every year. In a country that’s 95% Muslim, I’ve witnessed the time and energy that Senegalese devote to Islam as Dakarians take work breaks several times a day to pray, including Macodou when we’re surveying at some homes. This weekend, I experienced the origins of these practices with the people who never left their roots. I was so excited to finally see the country outside of the capital city, Dakar, where I’ve been spending all of my time and it turned out to be the most eye-opening experience of my life.

The city of Thiès is about a 2 hour drive east of Dakar, Touba another 3 hours east, and Touba Sane another 1 hour east. In other words, Touba Sane is located in middle of nowhere in the center region of Senegal, 6 hours away from the coastal city of Dakar. In general, travel was NOT easy, something that Macodou blatantly warned me about and accommodated for as best as he could. After a morning of surveying, we were set to take the train Friday afternoon but it came two hours late. We arrived at Thiès where we ate dinner at Macodou’s home and I met his amazing family. Then at midnight, we took a personal “cab” to the city of Touba. Cab is a loose word in this sense because what that really meant was eight people and their luggage squeezed into an average-sized sedan whose doors and seats hinged loosely off. At about 3 AM, we stayed at a relative’s house but the only available room to sleep in was unbearably hot so we took a mattress outside and slept there. After getting eaten alive by bugs all night, we woke up at 6 AM and I showered with very tepid, warm water that frankly spelled like poop. The reason we traveled late in the night and early in the morning like this was to be able to enjoy the festivities at Touba Sane all day Saturday. Thus, we took another “cab” ride from the city of Touba to the village of Touba Sane, which was even more crowded and janky since almost no one ever travels to this village. A total of 30 people squeezed into a truck-like vehicle – about 10 people on the hood, a dozen people in the back seating area, a couple people in the front, and a couple people hanging onto the back doors. Since I was a guest, I got to sit in between the driver and passenger. Although uncomfortable, traveling like this was exciting and new for me.

Where I slept my first night
Transport to Touba Sane
Method of local transport in Touba  
Rural side
Oxes roaming the streets

During my travels, I felt was just how vast, abandoned, and peaceful the rural area truly is. While driving through the region, I saw very few hospitals, schools, or stores but merely small enclaves of huts dispersed in the vast fields, swarms of wild animals, and a sheppard or water gatherer here and there. But the biggest culture shock I experienced on my trip is the typical size of the Senegalese and the Muslim influence on this. As recently as one generation ago, a typical Muslim and thus Senegalese family (95% of the country is Muslim) practiced polygamy to theoretically help create as many followers of Islam as possible. A typical family comprised 3-5 wives and up to 30 children. Then, imagine all the guys of the next generation having just as many children. It’s always fascinating to ask about Macodou’s relatives and to what extent he feels close to them. Some of them are the most famous marabouts, or spiritual leaders, in the country but do not keep close contact with him. The weekend at Touba Sane was a huge family reunion but Macodou only really knew half of his “family.” 

         The Saturday was full of traditional feasts, dance, music, and prayer. Macodou and his mom said that I was probably the first American, let alone the first Asian, to visit the village. I’ve never felt so out of place and so welcomed at the same time – a combination I will probably never feel quite as strongly again. The day started with a large breakfast consisting of lamb and fries, followed by a fruity dessert. In a traditional Senegalese meal, a group of people sit around a communal dish and eat only with their hands (right hand to be specific), never with utensils. After breakfast, some of us took a food-coma nap outside after traveling a lot during the previous 12 hours. Throughout the day, Macodou introduced me to all his distant relatives in every crevasse of the encampment and I met countless people who were very excited to have me as a guest. I got to practice my Wolof speaking abilities a lot as I greeted everyone in Wolof. I also followed a handshake custom that only these people, as members of the Baay Faal, specifically practiced in the country: One person puts his palm to his forehead, the other person follows suit, and the first person does it again. People asked a lot of questions about who I was, where I came from, and what I was doing in Senegal. Several of them believed that I was taking Macodou to America and genuinely asked me to bring them with me to America which I respectfully declined. In huts located throughout the village, I greeted the elder spiritual leaders, or marabouts. These people are highly revered in Senegalese society – they often have more influence over people’s attitudes and decisions than the most prominent politicians. I felt most out-of-place during these encounters: imagine a hut full of elders dressed in traditional clothing speaking Wolof while a Korean-American in quasi-Senegalese clothing walks in. Like everyone else, I greeted the marabout by kneeling down in front of him, slightly bowing my head, and reaching both of my arms out to shake his hand. I had to make sure to follow certain customs including not staring at them in the eyes and never shaking with only my left hand. Both of these are very disrespectful in Senegalese society. Anyways, these leaders were really nice to me, inquired about my stay in Senegal, and prayed for me.

Touba Sane
Touba Sane      
Huts where most people stayed
Communal hand-eating
Receiving blessings from one of the marabouts (spiritual leader)

It seemed as if I had just finished breakfast when it was already lunch time. There was a large ceremonial gathering to commence the meal as a group of young men chanted songs while older men passed along the plates of food from a tent towards another area. The rest of the day simply consisted of sitting around, chilling, greeting people, enjoying each other’s company… a lifestyle that is very indicative of the relaxed, benevolent nature of Senegalese culture and people. I played with children, laid around in the tent, and enjoyed Café Touba coffee, Senegal’s signature traditional coffee. At dusk, Macodou, his brothers, and I took a walk towards the most remote areas of Touba Sane and the landscape was beautiful. After an up and down 7 weeks in Dakar, I hadn’t felt so relaxed in a very long time. At night, we waited for dinner which was to be served around midnight. Macodou and I accidentally fell asleep outside. When I woke up at 1 AM, there was a huge plate of meat and vegetables in front of me and the stars and moon were shining brightly outside. In the distance, I could hear men singing songs of prayer and praise. As I stuffed myself with food and enjoyed the serenity of the situation, I felt the happiness of experiencing something new and exciting, which I’ve alluded to several times in this blog. After eating, we headed over to the large communal tent where very intense prayer sessions were taking place. Famous Muslim spiritual singers took turns chanting their songs of prayer. Many people gathered to watch this spectacle and pray together. Growing up in a church my whole life, I understood the spiritual fulfillment and dedication that people were feeling. Although the settings were so different, I saw people nod in affirmation to the prayers, close their eyes, and cry in happiness. Something quite bizarre however was that some young men completely lost their minds. They were completely “overcome” by the spirit, as if possessed, and would violently fidget their bodies and fling their arms. A crowd would quickly surround that person and observe him. When other men would try to calm him down physically, he would violently push them away and things would escalate. The crowd, particularly the children, would run away in fear and amusement. In the tent, one of these possessed men screamed and hit his head strongly and repeatedly against the pole before others forced him away. At church, I observed people possessed by the Holy Spirit but never had I seen such physically intense and threatening behavior from spiritual ecstasy.

Pre-meal ceremony
He loved my camera
New friends
Me with Macodou’s younger brother
The main marabout (spiritual leader)        
The tent where hundreds later gathered for night prayer

The weekend ended with a traditional dance celebration on Sunday morning in which several people go to the center of the circle and dance for the marabouts. The traditional style of dance consisted of a lot of stomping, thrusting, and even some breakdancing. This surprised me a lot since most of the dancing I had seen in Dakar nightclubs was pretty conservative compared to America and out of all places, I was seeing some more provocative moves in a traditional, remote village. As a special guest, I had one of the best seats in the house and got to sit near the main marabout to whom the dancers addressed their moves. Probably my biggest regret on this trip is that I chickened out of dancing myself as the entire atmosphere was very exciting but intimidating.

The “thrust” move
Booty shake
Matrix shot

After the dance ceremony, Macodou, his mom, his brothers, and I set off on our long journey back home to Thiès. We squeezed into another SUV-sized white vehicle for a 1 hour ride. When we arrived at the holy city of Touba, an incident occurred which was probably the most disturbing thing I’ve seen in Senegal. There was a dispute between the driver and one of the customers about their money exchange and it turned into an brawl. I was staying behind by the car when the customer furiously returned to grab a machéte from the driver’s seat and return towards the scene. Thankfully, other people quickly forced it out of him but his intentions were clearly to hurt the driver. Senegal is one of the most peaceful countries in the world but what I made out of this incident is that there are exceptions, particularly when money is so hard to come by. Poverty and frustrations can really push one to the boiling point. Sunday was especially hot, humid, and sunny. We got lost in Touba for a bit before finding a bus, which was ridiculously filled to the brim with people and babies. After a very uncomfortable, we arrived back in Thiès, the second biggest city in the country and an upcoming political and economic force – I would say Dakar is Senegal’s New York and Thiès is Senegal’s Chicago. Once again, I ate dinner at Macodou’s house and enjoyed the company of his entire family. He has about a dozen brothers and sisters who are overwhelmingly kind and fun. They taught me some African dance moves, showed me all their pictures, and told me about their hobbies which was basketball for many of them. In all my life, I have never met such a cohesive, joyful family as them. Every single second, all the siblings joked around, laughed, and appreciated each other and I was lucky to be a part of it. I want to come back to them one day.

Me with Macodou’s younger brother
Me with Macodou’s younger sister
Family Portrait
Dinner prepared by Mama

When I first sought a travel grant to go to Africa, this kind of experience was the dream I had in mind – to finally escape the bubble of my rich suburban life and an even more privileged Northwestern campus and see how millions of other people live their lives differently. There are a hundred other thoughts in my head that I will save for my last post but right now, I cannot believe my time here is nearly coming to an end and I could not have imagined a better way to spend my last weekend.





The Game of Politics. The Hope of Youth.

In my last post, I laid out several challenges I’ve faced in surveying random young people in neighborhoods such as lacking time, willingness, or the appropriate qualifications. After the last couple days of surveying, those still hold true but the positives have become more apparent. More than several times, people have complimented me on the quality of the questions and asked for more details about my project. Sometimes, my research assistant and I are treated to ice drinks and strongly urged to stick around for lunch, which I’ve been very tempted to do but cannot because there’s not enough time. The most enjoyable part for me have been the kids at each home that I end up playing with while waiting for the subject to complete the survey. I’ve found myself playing soccer in the streets with up to 12 kids or simply tickling/giving high-fives to 3 year olds. Every time, children initially stop whatever they’re doing and stare at me with a blank, sometimes disgruntled face as they’ve never seen an American, let alone an Asian, before. But by the end of my short stay, they’re all smiles.

My research assistant, Macadou, and I in Guédiawaye

Kids love the camera

            In my last couple days of fieldwork, I have surveyed Guédiawaye, the second largest neighborhood in Dakar. Like Pikine, it is a sprawling suburb that has been left behind as impoverished homes flock the region and it is also where the youth-active political movement, Y’en a marre, began. Today, I had the honor to sit down and talk with one of the founders of Y’en a marre and a very popular rap artist in Senegal, Foumalade ( I visited him at his organization, GHipHop community center, which holds socially and politically conscious classes in hip hop music, graffiti art, and dance for youth. Walking into the headquarters, I was absolutely blown away because it was one of the few community spaces (if not the only one) I’ve seen in Dakar that are completely free of trash and simply beautiful. When I arrived, multiple classes were taking place with dozens of children chanting and singing music. I could feel the mission of the organization at work: channeling young energy for a positive Senegalese future. It’s the same mission that Y’en a marre pursued in the presidential elections of 2012.Fed up” (what Y’en a marre means) with frequent power outages, then-President Abdoulaye Wade’s attempts to change the constitution, and his failure to reform health and education on, rappers and journalists rallied together using music as a tool to communicate messages of social empowerment of youth. They encouraged youth to think for themselves, to demand more from their elected officials, and to be accountable third-party observers of Senegal’s democracy. There was a lot of research done about the movement’s revolutionary message and positive impact of the 2012 election. A void that my research project seeks to fill is to find out how the youth actually feel about this youth-based movement and whether the movement had a tangible, long-term impact on how the masses feel about the formal political process in Senegal (The norm is that youth largely distrust politicians). I do this by asking how they feel about certain political actors, namely political parties, President Macky Sall, and Y’en a marre.

GHipHop Headquarters

After I’ve observed several of the survey responses, I’ve noticed that a significant portion of youth said that their opinion of Y’en a marre has changed for the worse since 2012. Mainly, they believe that the movement has started working with the President and other politicians, received money from prominent Western organizations, and betrayed their original message. When I asked Foumalade about that, he said that after winning the presidential election, (arguably due to the help of Y’en a marre) President Macky Sall approached them multiple times to work together but they refused because their mission is to remain a reliable, third-party watchdog of politicians (no party affiliation whatsoever). They knew that if they accepted, he’d find a way to co-opt them. Nonetheless, politicians like Sall have come out and publicly stated that they are working with Y’en a marre, a savvy, dirty political move that he says has unfortunately turned youth’s opinions against them. He also commented on 2012 – how “heated” the country was that year and how Y’en a marre took advantage of this agitation to successfully register 500,000 youth to vote and change the course of the election. Despite its success in 2012 and its continued efforts to fight against youth apathy and distrust, we see that those in power can find simple ways to weaken them.

         Foumalade and I exchanged emails and he said he was interested in learning about the results of my survey, specifically those regarding Y’en a marre. He also said he’d like to speak and perform at Northwestern like he’s done several times for NYU – I’m excited to propose it when I’m back in Evanston, IL. 

The rap artist Foumalade and I  
Music class for children
Graffiti at G-HipHop

I’ve come to notice that Senegalese and American youth share common ground in terms of political interest and social behavior. In general, youth tend not to be politically interested and are so distrustful of politicians’ failures that they focus their attention on other things. Some say that Senegalese youth only care about “LDM – Lutte, Danse, et Musique” or “Fitness, Music, Dance” which sounds similar to Americans’ obsession with pop culture. Despite this generalization, which I’m sure can apply for many other country’s youth, there are obvious differences between them stemming from the economic disparity in Senegal. Senegalese youth grow to love their country (like most of us) but many dream of one day, making it out to Europe or the United States for a better life because there are simply not enough economic opportunities for the bulging population. The university students here are smart and hard-working, like my research assistant Macadou, but there are simply no opportunities to realize their full potential. In my opinions, they study more hours than American students and many obtain Master’s degrees but most cannot find an average paying job after graduation. The masses who don’t even make it that far in the education system have devoted their lives to religion, which has become another hot topic in African academia. As the government, time and time again, seems to always play the game of politics instead of actually creating jobs, it’s no surprise that youth have given up on politicians. Although there are lots of youth everywhere not politically engaged, I think Senegalese are definitely more knowledgeable about the issues and what’s going on. I recently read an article called “8 Ways that American Youth Are Opressed” which talked about how the Internet and TV age has made us apathetic, complacent citizens of society. I find this valid because the Senegalese culture involves people who are not isolated on their smartphones but instead, always around the company of friends and family. They sit around together waiting for a better job and life but they are actively engaged in real, fruitful discussions about their country’s affairs.

            I’ll end this post by displaying all the political graffiti that I’ve seen throughout the capital city. Senegalese youth turn to graffiti to express their political opinions because they feel that they can’t be heard by society (politicians, media) otherwise. It’s a method similar to the way youth mobilized rap music for political activism in 2012 because they are both easily accessible “spaces” for youth. You can see painted slogans and designs on almost every block of the city and most of it refers to political candidates from past and present elections. Enjoy.

After a couple more days of surveying, I will be visiting the hometown of my research assistant, Macadou. I am extremely excited because after seven weeks in Senegal, it will finally be my first time out of the capital city, Dakar! I am leaving back for the States next Wednesday already and my last week will certainly be my busiest.




“Votez Pour Khalifa Sall” or “Vote for Khalifa Sall” who just got elected Mayor of Dakar. His popularity has jumped as of late and many believe he is the favorite to be elected President in 2017.
“Liberez Karim” or “Free Karim”. Karim Wade, son of former President Abdoulaye Wade, is currently imprisoned and under trial for corruption charges. Many Senegalese believe this is just a strong-armed political move.  
“Wade Rek” or “Only Wade”
“Wade Degage” or “No More Wade”
“J’aime mon pays” or “I like my country” but someone inserted “Gourgui”, which is Abdoulaye Wade’s nickname, so that it would mean “J’aime Gourgui” or “I like Wade”. Posted over these messages is a campaign flyer for this year’s local elections.
Promotion for young-based local development group
The political party “Rewmi” promoted over a soccer team’s advertisement
More political messages

The political coalition, Bokk-Gis-Gis

Fieldwork Update: Pikine


After an additional week of surveying youth in neighborhoods, I have thus far collected 57 responses. The most recent neighborhood I surveyed is Pikine, a sprawling and populous suburb that holds about 800,000 people. Although clearly neglected and desolate in several areas, Pikine also has a charm of youth and community. It is also the place where the political, hip-hop based youth movement Y’en a marrebegan, which is the focus of my research topic.

Up until I took on this neighborhood, surveying did not seem to be too difficult but my two days in Pikine demonstrated to me how hard my project can be. Because the neighborhood was in the outskirts of the city, I had to wake up earlier than usual, around 6:30 am, to catch multiple buses in order to get there. My Senegalese breakfast largely consists of a long piece of bread which doesn’t cut it out for me in general, let alone for a full day of walking and standing/waiting for respondents to complete the survey. The next 7 hours consisted of walking through the huge neighborhood in scorching +100 degrees weather. Since I was not surveying near home for the first time, I ate lunch in Pikine which does not have any restaurants meant for foreigners. Instead, I ate a fast-food type mafé (my favorite Senegalese dish, rice and chicken in peanut sauce) for $1 at a local restaurant which my stomach would regret the next day.



My $1 meal


Goats are everywhere in Pikine

Overall, people’s reception to our surveying have been mixed. Some immediately welcome us with open arms and invite us to stay for lunch while the children play with me. Some are busy, unwilling to participate, or suspicious that we work for the government. A few people have also taken an inordinate amount of time, up to 40 minutes, to finish the survey, which is supposed to last 20 minutes, either because they really like to talk or they read/type very slowly/thoroughly. Throughout the process, I’ve also realized that some of the French wording and formatting in my survey can be misconstrued by Senegalese. However, I cannot change it because a survey must remain constant for all respondents in order for its results to be viable. Many other times, households simply do not meet the criteria of the age range 18-30 and the alternation of male and female. Despite all these hurdles,  most people who agree to participate do not have any complaints and finish in a reasonable amount of time.

The thing about Pikine that I love is that there are always so many children playing sports outside and enjoying each other’s company. They often yell “Chinois!” which means “Chinese!” and come up to me to touch me. Senegalese of all ages (mostly strangers when I’m surveying, not those whom I’ve befriended) have called me Chinese and look at me like they’ve never seen an Asian before in their live besides those on karate movies, which is almost definitely true. This is something I would find unacceptable in the United States but here in Senegal, I recognize that people do not grasp the idea of second-generation Asian-Americans and don’t know better than what they are exposed to, which is not very much.


Some other things I did this past week

Celebrating Korité with lamb and traditional clothing


Shopping at H.L.M Marché


Helping a friend build her coconut drink shack


Yoff Beach


Riding the cheap, dangerous Karabou shuttle

I already leave Senegal in 9 days! Although I’m excited to go home, there’s still so much I want to do here and my last week will definitely be the busiest in terms of work and play. I will be surveying tomorrow (Tuesday) morning, Wednesday morning, and all day Thursday. In between, I will meet with one of the founders of Y’en a marre, attend a meeting for the local Rotary Club, eat dinner at the Korean Ambassador’s home, and hang out with friends. On Friday, I will visit the hometown of my research assistant, Thiès, and spend time with his family! I will then survey all day Sunday and Monday. I leave next Wednesday.


PS. I went to the hospital for the last time today! (Knock on wood). The huge bandage over my stomach from the past month is finally off and I no longer have to ride the bus for 2 hours everyday to go to the hospital to change the bandage.

Also for those who are wondering, the recent Ebola virus outbreak in located in several countries in West Africa but not in Senegal or in its bordering countries. I have been told there is no reason to be especially alarmed for several reasons, particularly because Dakar is a capital city in the very western coast of the region. So I am not worrying but at the same time, I am aware of the fact that the most threatening disease in the world today is two countries away from me.


Till next time,



Fieldwork and Exploration

As of Wednesday July 23rd, I was two weeks out of the hospital, five weeks into my trip, and three weeks away from returning home. It was also my first day of fieldwork! It was the accumulation of six months of preliminary research of Africa and development, two months of composing and constantly editing a 35 question political survey of Senegalese youth, one month of talking with politically involved Senegalese officials, and several weeks of finding and hiring a research assistant. After all this, I finally had to just trust myself with what I prepared and go out into the field.
Leading up to that day, I had been meeting with my research assistant whom I recently hired to plan out which neighborhoods and which days I would be surveying. His name is Macadou, a doctoral linguistic student and one of the nicest, most generous people I’ve met. He’s so enthusiastic about my project that he always emphasizes that he doesn’t care about the money. He’s even invited me over to meet his family at his hometown Thiès which is two hours away from Dakar.
My survey seeks to capture the political opinions of Senegalese youth aged 18-30 in the capital city. For the next three weeks, Macadou and I plan to walk throughout 8 different neighborhoods in Dakar to survey at least 15 in each neighborhood, aiming for a total of at least 120. I purposely chose the eight neighborhoods, or communes d’arrondissments, out of 19 to properly represent the city’s youth population, covering multiple socioeconomic and social characteristics. The demographic geography of Dakar, a city of one million, is fairly simple. The wealthier downtown/port area is located in the south of the peninsula and the further north you go, neighborhoods are more disadvantaged and impoverished especially the suburbs – the very opposite situation from American cities. I survey middle-class neighborhoods close to the downtown area like Médina as well as struggling suburbs, or banlieues, like Pikine. Within each neighborhood, I randomly survey households by counting off every 10 houses and making sure I cover ground in all areas of the neighborhood.

Map of Dakar

Since Wednesday, my research assistant and I have completed four days of fieldwork and gathered 30 successful responses in two middle-class neighborhoods, Grand Yoff and SICAP Liberté. A typical fieldwork day starts at 8 AM and ends around 3 PM. The amount of time that it takes for subjects to finish my survey takes longer than I expected, an average of 20 minutes, so I may not get as many responses as I initially planned. Other than that, there have been no major problems as people have been very open and welcoming to me. In a typical Senegalese home, there are usually up to 15 people living together. A maid usually answers our knock/doorbell and directs us to the oldest member of the household, usually the father or mother. Macadou explains my research project and asks if there is any young person aged 18-30. If the family approves of our study and a young member agrees to participate, the family invites us to sit next to them in their living rooms, bed rooms, or in the courtyard while the person fill out the survey on my iPad tablet. We’ve definitely found ourselves in a variety of homes: from crowded, run-down huts to well-furnished, air-conditioned apartments. We’ve interviewed college students, women with children, working men, young maids, Muslims, Christians, etc. Sometimes, we are with the person alone in a separate peaceful room and other times, we are among a group of people gossiping or going about their everyday lives. A handful were not literate in French so Macadou would explain every question in Wolof, the indigenous language. Translating in this way and appropriately approaching Senegalese households in general are exactly what I needed him for. Some of my participants were clearly more interested in politics than others but when people responded they really seemed to care for their country, no matter how many problems it faced. There have been plenty of households where the people are not present, not available, or not willing but overall, I’ve been overwhelmed by the hospitality, or teranga, that Senegalese people are known for.

Walking through Grand Yoff


SICAP Liberté, which is more middle-class than Grand Yoff

      Although my survey and methodology are sound, I have approached my fieldwork with tempered expectations. Unlike Afrobarometer, an independent research organization that conducts public opinion surveys in 35 African countries, which has teams of professional fieldworkers, a lot of money, and a lot of time, I am one undergraduate student with limited funding and time. I’m only have about 2 weeks remaining and I still have to go to the hospital almost everyday to change my bandage (post-surgery period). Given these circumstances I know it will be difficult to get enough respondents for my results to be statistically significant. Despite this, I am determined to gather as many survey responses as possible until my departure date. Then later, I can adequately analyze the data and see how my findings apply to the political theory/policy and the state of Senegalese politics.

Now that I’m on my way to a full recovery from my surgery, I’ve been able to explore the city again! Here are some of my adventures described in pictures: 

In front of the Presidential Palace

In front of the Legislative Assembly


Shop at Marché Kermel

Bought some great statues from a native sculptor

Enjoyed a free contemporary dance show

Marché at Grand Yoff

Lunch by the coast with a friend from the Korean Embassy

African Renaissance Monument, the tallest statue in Africa

Mosquée de la Divinité

Friends and I at Ngor Island

After a busy week of surveying, I have about three days off because the end of Ramadan is coming up tomorrow, Tuesday July 29th! Most young Senegalese who left their rural hometowns to pursue an education in Dakar, like my research assistant, return home to their families to celebrate one of the most important days of the year. La Fête de Ramadan or La Korité marks the end of a month-long fast which 95% of the country participates in. On this fateful day, Senegalese people will rejoice in the name of God with a full day of food and family as no one will be working on this holiday. Apparently, it’s the one day that this country embraces eating lots of meat and yesterday, I saw my family preparing over 30 pieces of beef! There should be other traditional dishes and several desserts. As a big food guy, I could not be more excited.

Till next time,



Back to Work

It’s been 8 days since I was discharged from the hospital and I’m feeling almost 100% recovered and back to normal. I can walk around a lot without feeling any pain but I still cannot lift heavy objects or exercise. I get my bandage changed for the wound over my stomach every two days and this Saturday will be my last visit to the hospital (hopefully), as the doctor will evaluate me and take out the stitches. Regardless for now, I am cleared to go back to work on my research.

It is Tuesday July 15 and I have reached the midpoint of my stay here in Senegal (4 weeks in, 4 weeks left). Because I lost a week to my operation, I am quickly and aggressively getting back to work while making sure not to push myself too hard. Thinking about my crazy first four weeks, I could not help but think about a famous Islamic prayer that a Northwestern professor forwarded to me before I left for my trip:

        Istikhar – prayer “asking for the best”

Mon Dieu, si ce voyage est la meilleure chose pour moi

pour ce monde et pour l’autre,

rends le [pour] moi facile et benefique.

Si ce n’est pas le cas,

remplace-le par un autre qui lui me sera benefique en ce monde et en l’autre,

car tu es Celui qui sait et nous ne savons pas.

**’My God, if this journey is the best thing

for me

for this world and for the other,

make it for me easy and beneficial.

If it is not the case,

replace it with another which will be for me

beneficial in this world and in the other,

for you are the One who knows and we do not know.’

Despite the challenges, I am even more determined to complete the task that I came here to do. This week, I have set up at least 5 meetings with graduate students, professors, party officials, and political activists to talk about my research project and learn more about what’s been going on politically recently. Although you can learn a lot from academic journals and newspapers, there are important lessons and recent trends that one can only learn by talking with people who have directly experienced whatever you are studying. It’s been an incredible experience to actually meet the people who were involved in many of the events I had been reading about for the last 5 months often during late hours at Northwestern’s Main Library. For example, I met a university professor named Seydi who was the head of the public university’s student union 20 years ago during a period when young people protested for political change. Now the Secretary of a rising political party, he gave me advice on my research, told me stories from the past, and gave me insight into current social trends. One fact that absolutely stood out for me was that the main public university, Cheikh Anta Diop University, is overburdened with 80,000 undergraduate students and only 1,500 full time staff. In a couple years, they expect that number to rise to 100,000!

This points to one of the country’s two biggest shortcomings: education and health. I already summarized the country’s healthcare in my previous post. As for education, there are simply not enough schools and resources to take in the amount of eligible students at every level of Senegal’s public educational system (elementary/middle, high school, university). The richest students are able to attend the few elite private universities while the typical Senegalese will attend the public university which, as I mentioned,  is ridiculously overburdened. I’ve walked through campus several times and on the outside, you would think it’s a nice, big campus with a lot of facilities. When I actually enter the buildings, I see that the hallways, classrooms, library, and common areas are always absolutely jam-packed with students. Most rooms only have the traditional blackboard and no AC. Handfuls of students often have to stand and take notes because all the chairs are taken. Today, I even saw a class being held in a section of the hallway.

Cheikh Anta Diop University, Main Library

To refresh on my project, I will travel to at least eight different neighborhoods in Dakar and survey youth with a questionnaire of 33 multiple choice questions, several of which have open-ended follow up questions. I plan to survey at least 15-20 young people in each of the eight neighborhoods. The questions will seek to measure youth’s external political efficacy or the degree to which a person feels his or her government responds to his or her actions in the political process and how well the political institutions reflect his or her needs and concerns. The questions mainly ask about young people’s opinions of the government post-2012, since there are already academic articles that address the historic electoral events of 2012 and population surveys up to 2012. Some examples of questions include “Do you believe the President’s political reforms have made a difference?”, “Are you hopeful of the country’s future?”, and “Do you believe the Senegalese Democratic Party is based on a clear set of ideas or on individual leadership?” I also ask background questions that ask about one’s political interest, affiliation, and specific past involvements to separate them into different sample groups. Overall, I hope to learn about youth’s overall trust in the political system since 2012 overall and discover trends by comparing responses between different kinds of youth. After a lot of meticulous translating, editing, and coding, my French survey is 100% ready to go on an iPad tablet. By using the tablet, youth will be able to easily go through each question and the data will automatically be recorded.

Screenshot of survey 1

Screenshot of survey 2

Screenshot of survey 3

In the past couple weeks, I have recruited about 4 potential native translators who would accompany me on my surveying. They serve to properly approach random young people, to guide me through public transportation, and help me with any other challenges that may come up. This week, I must decide on one translator. It is tough because they each have different strengths and weaknesses in terms of their time availability, price, enthusiasm/willingness, and personal relationship with me. Regardless, I am looking forward to finally starting my fieldwork next week.

The Coast

Big Roadbump: Hospital

(late submission: post written on Tuesday July 7)

Late Saturday night around midnight, my abdominal pain suddenly worsened so that it was unbearable. I couldn’t move without experiencing incredibly sharp, heavy pain in my lower abdomen. I had the emergency doctor come to my house and evaluate me, which took about 30 minutes, because of my house’s obscure location and Senegal’s generally disorganized healthcare system which I will talk about later. He said I needed to go to the hospital to get an X-Ray right away, called the ambulance, and put an IV in my arm. 20 minutes later, the ambulance arrived and I was taken to the downtown hospital, Clinique de la Madeleine. The hospital seemed absolutely deserted as when I got there, I saw almost no nurses or doctors, the hallways were dark, and most rooms were empty. They put me into a room, which had air conditioning and television, but told me that unfortunately, I had to wait till 8 AM to get the X-Ray test because the specialist was not on duty. My home-stay mother was very upset at this but there was nothing we could do. My <<Mama>> and my friend Yelena returned home while I waited for the morning. Thankfully, the IV eased the pain in my stomach a little bit but being hospitalized in a foreign country with no remaining credit on my phone to call anyone, I experienced some of my loneliest hours. Around 9 AM, I received my X-Ray test and an hour later, the doctor told me I had an umbilical abscess in my abdominal wall, which wasn’t too serious but required surgery right away before it complicated other vital organs. He recommended that I have the surgery with anesthesia at 11:30 AM. I reached the US Embassy and Northwestern but I could not get a hold of my family. Given the circumstances, I decided to go ahead with the surgery. In the operation room, the anesthesia completely knocked me out and they surgically removed the bacteria from my abdomen. I rested the entire day, had some visitors, and reached my family. On Monday afternoon, I was discharged and returned to my Senegalese home.

Senegal’s healthcare system is virtually inaccessible to the majority of people here because it is so expensive. I am extremely lucky because I am fully covered by Northwestern’s travel insurance but even so, I experienced very long waits for the doctor, ambulance, and hospital treatment in comparison to the US. To get an idea of the costs, my ambulance ride alone was $60. I also saw how eerily empty the ER wing of the hospital was when I got there because for most Senegalese, hospital treatment is not an option and they deal with medical emergencies on their own. For example, when people get malaria here, they most likely never go to the doctor or the hospital and instead, take increased dosages of the preventative malaria pill (which apparently works just fine).

Anyways, I am now on the road to recovery. My stomach still hurts but mainly because of the surgery and it is getting better by the day. My constipation is also seeming to go away. The doctor said I should be fully recovered in two weeks and that I cannot do any work for one week so my research plans are on hold for now. I will see how I progress and will have a discussion later on with my family about whether I should stay as originally planned or whether it is best for me to return home early. Meanwhile, I will be reading some books, catching up on Game of Thrones, and loitering on Facebook. I sincerely hope I can stick it out, complete what I came here for, and see more of this country but health comes first – sometimes, there’s just nothing more one can do but hope for the best. I trust everything will work out.



It is Saturday, July 5th and I’ve still been sick for about a week ago. I no longer have traveler’s diarrhea but instead, a digestive problem that could be more serious since I haven’t gone to the bathroom for an extended period of time. Since Sunday, I’ve also suffered an acute, lower abdominal pain, occasional fits of fever, and other symptoms. It was getting pretty painful Thursday night so I cancelled some research plans on Friday to go to the doctor. I got prescribed two medications and was blood-tested at a laboratory, the results of which will be coming in soon. I will be returning to him Monday and I really hope this goes away soon so I can continue with my research project and my experiences in this country. Until then, I am resting at home.

Elections, Ramadan, Sickness

After a busy couple of days, I planned to rest all day on Sunday (June 29th), a quiet and important day for Senegal because it was the local political elections and the beginning of Ramadan. Leading up to the elections, caravans and groups of political volunteers marched through the neighborhoods throughout the day and as late as 2 am, blasting music and chanting slogans. On Sunday, all that noise, which would wake me up at night, finally ended with a day of peaceful voting of the mayor and district legislators. Ramadan, the annual month of fasting for Muslims, also began on Sunday. Since 95% of Senegalese practice Islam, this affects the entire country and apparently, everything slows down. In a typical day, one wakes up at dawn to pray and fasts (no food, no water) until dusk while living their normal lives. One of the Senegalese people I’ve met is a modern dance choreographer and he will be rehearsing his usual 6 hours per day in 90 degree weather without any water. One must also pray 5 times a day and do some sort of charity work. The more I read up on Islam and talk to the people who practice it, I realize just how little the average American knows about the fastest growing religion in the world. When you actually take the time to learn the fundamentals of it, you realize that it is not very different from Christianity or Judaism, founded  in the belief of a higher being, prophets, angels, values of love, generosity, and absolute devotion. There’s still a lot more for me to learn and I can’t help but feel disappointed in the US education system’s failure to teach me and others the basics of a religion to which over 1 billion people in this world devote their lives.


       This trip has had its great people, resources, and immersion opportunities but not everything is smooth sailing. In addition to the research-specific challenges I described in an earlier post, walking 50 minutes everyday to commute to and from the research center in 90 degrees and sunny weather isn’t the most pleasant thing. What makes the heat here different from the US is the notoriously unhealthy amount of pollution and dust in Dakar as well as the consistently 80%+ humidity due to the rainy season.  Also, power outages are very common in Dakar and the electricity shuts off in the area at least once or twice a day. However, I stress that all of these are simply inconveniences. On Sunday, I encountered my first real challenge. Suddenly in the middle of the day, I fell sick with food poisoning and traveler’s diarrhea. Staying home all day, I had to go to the bathroom handfuls of times and it was tough to walk around. I’m still not sure what it was but most likely, it was the vegetables or eggs in my home-stay meal (note: almost everyone traveling here will get sick at least once). After taking antibacterial medicine for three days, I feel better but my stomach/intestines area hurts a bit. Although I‘m really enjoying my trip all in all, I sometimes find myself homesick for my friends, family, and Chicago/Northwestern. With Wi-Fi at my home, it’s easy to get distracted from what I’m doing here but everyday, I remind myself that I’m living through the ups and downs of an amazing opportunity. 






New city, new friends

One of the best parts about doing an independent research project has been befriending graduate students and learning about their research projects and their lives. Almost everyday, I am able to meet someone new at the cultural center or research center. People come through at a wide variety of stages in their lives and for a wide variety of purposes. From a woman from Columbia who’s worked on the front lines of multiple human rights NGO’s, to a theatre student who is choreographing a contemporary Senegalese dance piece, to public school teachers learning the indigenous language Wolof to bring back to the US, I’ve gotten a personal glimpse of truly global citizens who work on the front lines of human rights, education, and academia. They’re also really fun to go out with. As the token undergrad, I’ve been able to experience the city with them such as surfing by the Norg beach and attending an international music concert at the French Institute. The other main group of people I’ve been fortunate to meet are 11 undergrad students in a study abroad program for Virginia Tech. They’ve basically included me in their group and the professor has allowed me to tag along when they do cultural immersion trips throughout the city. This past Saturday, we went the historical tourist attraction called Gorée Island which was a holding place for slaves in the transatlantic slave trade.

My surfing instructor and I
Yoff Beach      
Gorée Island
Slave House: Up to 40 people would be held in this small room
Slave House

         In addition to foreign friends, my homestay family has been a great second home for me. My home is located in the neighborhood of Sacre-Couer/Mermoz right by the main highway, V.D.N., which leads to the airport. In Senegal, family does not mean the intermediate family but instead, often includes relatives and family friends. My new family is no exception: there is <<Papa>> who lives in the top floor and almost never comes down, <<Mama>> who lives in the second floor, their son Moctar who is at least 40 years old, Moctar’s wife, Moctor’s new-born baby, two maids who do most of the housework, and two very cool middle-aged people who live in the house, are treated as part of the family, but are not related to the family. One of them, Sanou, took my new friends and me out to experience the nightlife this past weekend (Some differences to note: people dance more conservatively, love jazz/reggae, and often begin their nights at 2 AM). If that’s not enough people, there are two other foreigners living with me in the house: an American girl my age and a German guy about 5 years older than me. Despite the number of people, I can enjoy the privacy of my own room. 



Living Room of my homestay (and baby Mohammed sleeping)




     It’s crazy to think how anxious I was about traveling on my own before the trip started. Thus far, I am extremely grateful for the people and the resources I have with me and am looking forward to experiencing more.



L’Institut Français: holds concerts and other events for foreigners
Concert at L’Institut Français
Senegalese art