Friday, April 30, 2010

Human Rights Watch Report: Off the Backs of the Children: Forced Begging and Other Abuses Against Talibes in Senegal

Photos above from hrw.

Human Rights Watch has recently published a report on child begging and abuse in urban daara. It is a comprehensive and disturbing investigation. The report is available on-line at OffTheBacks. It is a must read.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Were I An Artist: The Sculpture of Jason de Caires Taylor

These sculptures were created by artist Jason de Calires Taylor. See his website at UnderwaterSculpture.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Two Senegal-Related BBC Articles: Lutte & Fishing

By Rose Skelton
BBC Africa Business Report, Senegal

As dusk falls on the ramshackle neighbourhood of Guediawaye, on the outskirts of Dakar, hundreds of young men and boys in loincloths and Nike shorts are being put through their paces by trainers brandishing whistles.

In their hundreds, the athletes drop to the ground and, seemingly effortlessly, run off dozens of push-ups while the trainer shouts encouragements from the sandy training ground.

Young kids sell peanuts around the edges of the patch of land, which is strewn with rocks and rubbish.

They watch eagerly as these bright young stars of the country's booming wrestling industry get ready to grapple with their opponents, hoping to throw them to the ground in an athletic display of strength, skill and style.

Only a few of the more than 200 men who belong to this school will make it on to the professional wrestling circuit.

For those that do, the stakes are high. The young men who make it up the ranks can look forward to winning up to 100 million West African CFA francs ($205,000) per game.

In one of the world's poorest countries, where the average annual income is $980 according to the World Bank's latest figures, this will make them part of the country's financial elite and national heroes to the millions of men and women who follow the game.

Humble beginnings

Senegalese wrestling began in the villages, when farmers who only worked during the fertile rainy season would pass the time with this traditional African sport that has been practised across the continent for hundreds of years.

Senegalese wrestler Mohamed Ndao, also known as Tyson
Mohamed Ndao, also known as Tyson, was a wrestling pioneer in Senegal

During the dry seasons, the farmers would come to the cities looking for work. There they found an audience of people keen to watch and bet on the matches.

As the sport gained in popularity, it began to take on elements of martial arts, incorporating boxing, judo and karate, as well as the traditional elements of African wrestling.

In the 1990s, Gaston Mbengue, a Senegalese sports promoter, started to stage matches that allowed bare-fisted fighting.

In one of the only countries in the world where this kind of fighting is legal, this modern twist revolutionised the sport and turned it into a multi-million dollar game that now attracts more fans than any other sport, including football.

With fans flocking to the stadiums - one match can attract up to 80,000 people - commercial companies are desperate to get their brands into the ring, from where the images will be beamed on television screens to millions of viewers across the country.

"The main sponsors are the telecommunications companies," says Serigne Sarr, head of marketing at the state-owned television station Radiodiffusion Television Senegalaise, which televises the matches put on by Mr Mbengue.

"It wasn't hard to sell them sponsorship rights, because they go where there is an audience. Since wrestling attracts a lot of people, they are necessarily interested by it too."

Gaston Mbengue, sports promoter
Gaston Mbengue created the Senegalese wrestling boom

While the wrestling scene bristles with rumours of how much money is earned in this famously-secretive game, RTS's Mr Sarr says that the game attracts between half and one billion CFA francs ($1m-2m) in sponsorship money a year.

While Senegal failed to qualify for both the World Cup and the African Cup of Nations in the last two years, the audiences have flocked to wrestling and left football out in the cold.

"The future of wrestling is bright," says Mr Sarr. "The whole thing is managed professionally now, like football."

Gaining respect

When wrestling first became popular as an urban sport, parents were unhappy about their children going into the game.

It was seen as the pastime of thugs who typically had very little formal education and did not speak French, the administrative language of Senegal, a former French colony.

"The first fight where someone earned a million CFA francs was like a miracle," says Pape Konate, a 31-year-old wrestler who goes by the name of Capitaine PK when in the ring and weighs in at 100kg.

Crowd at wrestling match in Senegal
Audiences in Senegal now favour wrestling over football

His body rippling as he hoists weights above his head in one of the city's gyms, he remembers how in 1995 a young wrestler called Tyson, named after the American boxer, was offered 15 million CFA for a fight.

"When we young wrestlers love wrestling, it's because of Tyson," he says between sets of exercises.

"Back then, wrestlers weren't taken notice of, but he had a good intellect, he spoke French well.

"He came on to the scene with his image and then the sponsorship started to follow him. He had a match for 15 million CFA and kept on pushing to 30 million CFA.

"That's when people started to take notice of the sport. Tyson woke things up."

Reducing crime

Nowadays the sport is considered one of the few routes to financial success in a country which is becoming increasingly poor.

Senegal dropped 10 places in the United Nations Human Development Index in 2009 to become the world's 17th poorest country.

"Wrestling has been able to reduce crime and delinquency in the suburbs," says Aboubacry Ba, one of the country's best-known sports journalists.

"Young people now train hard and they can earn money from their work. Before, they didn't have any work, they were in the suburbs getting into drugs and fighting.

"But now, with wrestling, they have a healthy occupation. It's a job which has really been able to turn the youth around, reduce unemployment and crime."

Pape Konate, set to become one of the country's wrestling stars, agrees. He gets up at 0500 and runs 20km along the beach and then trains in the gym throughout the day.

In the evening, he comes to the wrestling school to spar with the other young wrestlers, a routine which is physically gruelling and keeps him occupied in a country where half the population are unemployed.

"Wrestling is our work and it's a proper profession now," says Konate. "You have to work hard and concentrate to get to the highest level.

"Tyson is stepping down now, so it's us, the next generation. I'm working to be a big champion and to retire at 45, exceedingly rich."

By Egon Cossou
BBC Africa Business Report, Senegal

fishermen in kayar senegal
Fishermen in Kayar are worried about their future

Wherever you go in Senegal, fish is always on the menu.

But not only is it an important part of the diet here - it's a crucial way of people making a living.

In the small town of Kayar, 60km from the capital, Dakar, fishing is what people know best.

It's a family thing: fishing has sustained generations of townspeople.

But the very industry that has kept the town afloat for countless years is in danger of sinking.

Catches are dramatically down.

Many fingers here are being pointed at the big, sophisticated foreign boats which are allowed to fish in Senegalese waters.

The government says it has taken steps to address these concerns and has cut down the number of European boats permitted to a mere handful.

But that reassurance cuts little ice here.

Fish shortage

Abdoul Aziz Dieng has fished all his adult life. Now, though, things look grim.

"There is a real shortage of fish," he says.

"All our revenues come from fish. If there is a shortage, it affects all areas of everyday life. Things are very hard and I don't have enough money to look after my family."

It's not just the men who haul the fish out of the sea who are hurting. The women who dry and smoke the fish are also suffering.

Codou Diop represents them. She says there has been a real reduction in activity because of the shortage of fish.

Not so long ago, they used to sell hundreds of boxes of fish, but now they only sell a few.

That has reduced the income for the entire town, so people have less money to spend on dried fish.

Infrastructure problems

But the industry has more than just foreign ships to worry about. Despite the shortage of fish, it has an increasing abundance of fishermen.

People have flocked to towns such as Kayar to escape hard times in other sectors, like agriculture.

And then there is the poor infrastructure. Many people cannot afford the refrigeration or transport necessary to sell their fish in more lucrative urban markets.

So, paradoxically, some fishermen are actually having to throw fish away - at a time when they are struggling to catch them in the first place.


Hard times mean hard measures are required. So the industry is busy reorganising itself.

This includes putting weekly limits on the number of times people can set out to sea.

Fishermen in Kayar, Senegal
Abdoulaye Diop says the fishing industry must organise itself

Abdoulaye Diop represents fishermen throughout the country and says the industry is acting to save itself.

"We have decided to manage the resources and organise ourselves," he says.

So they have introduced a fishing rota. People can only fish a few days a week.

Abdoulaye Diop says they do not want to waste resources and that it is the industry's responsibility to manage what they get from the sea.

So there are also self-imposed limits on the age and size of fish which may be caught.

The industry hopes these measures will help see them through turbulent times.

The future of the next generation could ride on their success.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Collaboration With Lebou Historian Oumar N'Galla Gueye 2

Note the 22 new clips -- comprising three hours of video -- now uploaded to OmarGueye. The topics include a review of the Lebou migration from India, to Persian-controlled Egypt in the 6th century BCE, to Nubia, through the Sahara, to Senegal. Omar also discusses the derivation of the Wolof language, and the nature of the Lebou character.

Internalizing Senegal


We experience Senegal in a wide variety of ways. It's like being around a swimming pool. A few of us are, for a variety of reasons, uncomfortable in the water, or being around water, so we resist getting wet. These non-swimmers remain on the pool deck, or are content to sit on the side of the pool and dangle their feet in the water. Almost all of us enjoy being in the water -- splashing and laughing with our friends, playing with our pool toys. A few of us have swim goggles and explore the waters below the surface, scanning the pool bottom, only to discover that, in Senegal, we're hovering above a coral reef. From the surface, the bottom is colorful and vibrant with life, and many are content to observe it from a distance. A few of us are divers, and set ourselves to explore the ecology of the reef, which is the culture/s of Senegal.

Life is, however, seldom so simple and linear, save in our conception of it. We are complex organisms, with a great many parts, constantly shifting, inhabiting both an external physical world and an internal psychological world. Thus, the pool is within us, as are each of the participants -- the one who is water-shy, the playful child, the observer, and the explorer. Perhaps there is a center-of-gravity: we can characterize ourselves as tending to gravitate to the pool deck, or tending to play with our friends, or tending toward solitary exploring.

Our response to the setting is dependent upon the context -- our mood, our motivation, the level of our interest, our disposition.

* * *

Tim Jensen and his three middle school-age daughters, from Monterey, California, recently spent eleven days visiting Senegal, hosted by their former teachers and friends -- Mike D. and Devon S., Randi and I. They certainly received the tour deluxe, seeing/experiencing many sides of Senegal, both in and around Dakar, and outside the city, in the quiet of the rural village.

I asked that Tim share his impressions of his time with us in Senegal, and reflect on his return home. Here’s his response:

April 12th

We had an uneventfully long flight back to this reality. Leopold Senghor airport was crowded. We were befriended by an airport employee in a suit and tie who helped these struggling toubabs through the lines and gates. His English was not extensive, but he could see that we were bewildered. He took us out of the customs line and ushered us through a private room ahead of at least 75+ other people shuffling slowly along. He received a good tip. On the plane the girls slept. I contemplated.

We arrived in New York with 10 hours until our connecting flight left for San Francisco. I decided on some shock therapy that might uncover the underlying cause for my post-Senegal malaise. We toured the Big Apple by taxi: Grand Central Station, Empire State Building, Central Park, Astoria Hotel, Brooklyn Bridge, Statue of Liberty, World Trade Center site, blah, blah, blah. It was mind-blowing, un-settling. It was America. The girls were unimpressed and slept through it. I was quietly proud of them. I also felt as if I were a stranger in a strange land, an observer of an alien race and place.

Customs and check-in was efficient. My regard for TSA greatly improved. They were actually friendly and helpful, not like my first oppressive and officious encounter. Our flight was delayed an hour and crowded. Both the airport runways and the plane itself were over-booked. It was another long flight and the flight crew was noticeably less friendly than the international flight crews. The flight was 7-hours and girls were hungry and cold. There were no pillows or blankets and no food other than coke and pretzels. I couldn't do anything but try to sleep. Short cat naps interrupted by my seat neighbors need to order beers and pretzels, use the toilet, jostle in their seats, watch movies with the sound turned way-up on the headphones, and my own need to circulate blood to my butt and legs. We arrived in San Francisco to wind, cold, and rain. Was it a sign or just wind, cold and rain? The extremes just kept occurring.

My sister picked us up and took us to her home in San Jose where beds were already made-up and waiting for us. It was mid-night and our beds received us with loving embraces. We slept soundly through the night. I was up at 7:00 with the sounds and sights of Senegal still buzzing around inside my brain. I was determined to be home, to be whole.

I was un-settled but didn't know why. I was struggling with the question you asked, "what is the most significant thing about Senegal that you will take back with you; what impressed you?" There was so much to decipher and sift through, new perspectives to adjust and focus. One feeling was very real: I left a part of me in Senegal and I was definitely taking some of Senegal home. Even now I have Saharan dust in my hair; Peugeot diesel in my lungs; bissap and bouye in my veins; jellyfish toxin and palm tree fibers in my skin; thiéboudieune in my belly; and a kaleidoscope of countless and fantastic images swirling like a dust-devil in the vastness of my mind. But these are just the surface. There was something else.

Was it the garbage everywhere? Yeah, it was unbelievable, but nothing out-of-the ordinary when you consider what happens to any city in America when the garbage workers union goes out on strike. In Senegal I was unaware of any signs of garbage service. No garbage can or dumpster anywhere. I dread to see what would happen if every American was suddenly responsible for their own garbage. Air pollution? Basically diesel. At least with diesel you know what you're breathing. Here in America you can't smell all the car exhaust you breath-in every day, or the changes to global climate we're causing. On the other side, I saw extreme effort in cleanliness. I just had to look at the clothes -- beautifully colorful and clean while surrounded by dirt and dust. The villages were all made of dirt but even there it was swept regularly. No, the extremes of the human environment and cleanliness, though obvious, were not the most significant impression. These were just on the surface.

There are so many extremes to make comparisons of. Even the crumbling streets, buildings, cars, and neighborhoods are not all that different from what would happen to any first world country under similar circumstances. No, there was something else. Something else I was leaving behind and regretting. The baobabs and the landscape? No. Senegal is definitely a different landscape but nature is nature in all its beauty and wonder wherever you go. The baobab is as unique, as is the Giant Sequoia.

Was it the Senegalese themselves? Maybe. Was it the way they lived their lives? I don't think so. We all struggle in one way or another and do what we need to do. Becaye Diop and I shared the same values that only Dad's can share. I saw the same traits in Marie Suzzane's mom as in my own. I experienced the same hard work that the street vendors put out every day that the farm workers do here and the street vendors do in San Francisco. The alienation, desperation, and resignation I sensed in Senegal I have seen here, even in affluent suburbs. I have also here seen and sensed over the joy, happiness, and friendship I felt in Senegal. So what was it I left behind and what is it I've taken with me?

For a brief moment I shared the essence of what makes us human in a place as exotic and extreme as Senegal with you all and your Senegalese friends and family -- even the lady at the bakery. Going to Senegal was an emotionally and psychologically significant event for me (us) and you were all there to support and sustain that event by generously sharing yourselves and embracing me and my daughters into your lives and reality. I was made to feel welcome, liked, cared for and about. There was also a palpable sense of "here and now" wherever we went and with whomever we met, even the street vendors. Something westerners spend billions on trying to learn to do just seemed to come naturally to Senegalese, and to you toubabs as well. There isn't a religion I've read about that doesn't preach the necessity of living in the "here and now" as a requisite for inner peace. This is what I felt and what, to me, was the most memorable experience I have brought back -- the one thing that is truly different between my world here and the world I experienced in Senegal. Senegal is definitely NOT experienced with only eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and hands; or in the "bubble". Senegal has a spirit that can only be experienced by toubabs through genuine "here and now" connection with its people on their terms and in their realities. Thank you all for a most excellent adventure.

What I left behind was the human connectedness that isn't seen, only felt -- something rare over here because of the fast and superficial pace of life, something New York (and Casino) reinforced quite adequately. I (we) would have had a completely different experience without you all. I dreamed of being lost in Dakar the first night and felt the disconnected alienation of being an invisible stranger when trying to figure out what was what at Senghor Airport. Both experiences were not pleasant. What made Senegal so wonderful was you all. What I have brought back is an enlarged sense of community. I've brought you all back with me -- Yoro, Becaye, the bakery lady, the airport employee, the kids, the stranger at Isle Ngor beach, everyone. My imagination, my world, my perception of reality, all are enlarged and altered. I feel closer to wholeness than when I left here.

* * *

April 13th

I'm still trying to sort things out. While sitting at my desk at work this afternoon trying to wade through the e-mails, p-mail, and phone messages, I just needed to stop. I couldn't focus. I stared out my third-story, heated (it's still windy, cold, and raining) office-building window and drifted back to the land of baobabs and street markets. It struck me that while in Senegal I experienced the full range of universal social expression one would expect among human beings: silence, laughter, anger, joy, resignation, involvement, openness, contempt, all of it. What I experienced wasn't anything I hadn't experienced here in the good ol’ USA.

The twist was that environment had no apparent relationship to behavior. Senegal and the USA are at the extremes of material wealth and Senegalese and Americans are no different socially. Oh yeah, there are social class differences and demographic differences, but we all exhibit the same range of social expression. So material wealth and poverty have no real meaning when it comes to how people relate to each other. For all the ridiculous, immoral, and outrageous wealth that is concentrated in the USA, our society is no better than Senegal's. Wealth is immaterial. All wealth does is make living easier, more convenient, and less labor intensive. What it doesn't do is make you friendlier, happier, wiser, more generous, transparent, honest, genuine, respectful, courteous, trustworthy, or empathetic. If it did the USA would be a country of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and Senegal would be a country of sinners and criminals.

My experience in Senegal has showed me otherwise. In fact, the people of Senegal showed me that they are much more socially advanced than we are. Despite all the poverty and lack of even simple material goods there are no fewer happy, friendly, helpful, honest people than there are here in terms of relative population. However, I would flee in a heartbeat to Senegal if America were to switch places overnight. In America looting is common when natural disasters strike a community. In Senegal the street vendors can leave their goods out on the street unattended and come back the next morning without a thing disturbed. This is what is disturbing my brain, putting me into psychological dis-ease. For all our material wealth we Americans, as a society, are no better, and arguably inferior, to Senegalese when measured by our human relationships. I have no doubt that I could be more socially content in Senegal than I am here in the USA because of the "here and now" nature of Senegalese society. My interpersonal and social relationships there would be deeper and more open than what I have experienced here The only difference would be the ease and convenience of living. Is giving up a richer life worth the ease and convenience of just living? Why is material wealth the measure of human progress when it does nothing for social progress?

April 17th

One week ago today at this time I was being taxied through downtown NY while in what I can only describe as an out-of-body experience; as if I was outside the cab watching us drive around in and around all the organized chaos. I remember thinking that I had formed this reductionist cliche of Dakar as a city on the move to nowhere but as I was whisked in and around NY I realized that it too was a city on the move to nowhere. The people in NY reminded me of the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers; bodies without souls. I never felt that way in Dakar. When I think about it, more often than not when I greet people here I get a surprised look or a quick Pavlovian "hi" back. In Senegal I would get a coy, shy, or embarrassed look and a quiet, look-you-in-the-eye, greeting from women and a genuine smile and warm-feeling maaleekum salaam back from men. Occasionally I would get no reply and they, sometimes a man and sometimes a woman, would just look straight ahead and not even look (kinda like toubabs do to street vendors). But I do have to say that that response was a rare exception but all too typical here. And the children, they were something else; all smiles from ear to ear. And something inside me says it was genuine, not just because I was a peculiar-looking toubab, even for a toubab. On-the-street kids here are much more cautious around strangers, even peculiar ones like me.

Well, it's been a week and my attempts at painting a verbal 3-dimensional picture of my experiences in Senegal are like out-of-body experiences where I am watching this conversation of me trying to re-live the moments there to someone completely out of context here. It's wierd. I don't think I can adequately explain so others can feel what sort of impact Senegal had on a family of toubab, or what we felt or learned while there, or how definitions of reality have changed and blurred. Dr. Taylor's TEDTalk was much more meaningful now than it would have been if I had heard it before I experienced Senegal.


As for me one week later? I've never been much of a TV or radio junkie but now even the little bit I did watch and listen to seems pointless; such a waste of time when there are people and life outdoors to experience. My world is sooo much different now. I feel more pleasure riding the road I take every day to work. Asphalt never seemed so wonderful before. Now all the comforts of civilization have taken-on new sensuality; the visibly clean air, the smooth-surfaced roads, the relative order that stripes on the road and signs bring, building codes and planning procedures, garbage service, honest cops, ... everything that makes life in America convenient. Strangely though, I feel I could do just fine without it all and miss the hectic chaos, unpredictability, smell, color, and social vibrancy of Senegal.

I feel there is unfinished business for me in Senegal. Maybe its a symptom of first love; once experienced it takes you over. On the other hand, I'm too old to be infatuated; next time will be less awkward experiment and more purposeful discovery.