I am beginning to think that Senegal is the land of happiness. Not only do young people often use this English word — along with “nice,” “fine,” and “cool” — to express that everything is OK (in reference to a popular comedian), but my Wolof teacher, Fatou, has informed me that the national language has no easy way of saying “I’m frustrated,” or even for that matter “I’m sad.” Or “what a pity.” Should I attribute this to the complexity of a language that also happens to have no adjectives, or have I really landed in a country that knows no sadness? To say the least, the situation is inconvenient for someone who is frustrated as often as I am — for me Africa is a fascinating, if not always an easy, place to live. As for Fatou, who also teaches French, she claims she didn’t even know the word frustré until she started working with Americans.
To put it less frivolously, I am impressed not only by the linguistic acrobatics that the Wolof language imposes on my brain, but by the determination of many of the Kiva borrowers that I’ve met during my first month here. Sem, my MFI, is a little different from others in that it functions something like the microfinance wing of a separate organization, namely the Senegalese branch of the Global Ecovillage Network. (That is, we refer to Sem as being affiliated with Gen-Sen.) Gen-Sen has a whole set of ideals and goals that go beyond microfinance, including revitalizing traditional values, emphasizing community and spirituality, and protecting the environment. It is comprised of a network of ecovillages, or communities of people throughout Senegal who strive to live in a sustainable way and to engage local communities with sustainable living strategies. Each ecovillage selects, trains, and tracks business groups to be financed by Sem, often through Kiva funds, which means that Sem’s office in Dakar only has a very few employees; much of the on-site work is done by committees of volunteers. Once a group is selected to have its project financed, its participants are considered members of the ecovillage and are expected to live and work in accordance with Gen-Sen’s mission.
For some reason I’ve been surprised to find that these ideals are more than just words. Maybe it’s because the Senegalese news, at least on the state-owned channel RTS, runs story after story about conferences, seminars, master classes, meetings, think sessions, and workshops about development. It all sounds good — even euphoric — but I have a feeling that this choice of content is meant to reinforce Senegal’s national myth of being the “best” country in West Africa, that is, the country that enjoys more stability, greater freedoms, and a higher quality of life than its neighbors. Personally, I would rather like to know why the electricity is always going out in some neighborhoods of Dakar but not in others, and why that is accepted as a fact of life here. When I express this to Fatou in my broken Wolof, she charges, with her typical level-headedness and a touch of irony, that Senegal is a place for talking, not doing.
But that judgment might be a bit harsh. I’ve seen plenty of “doing” lately, for the most part far from the TV spotlight. Many of the people I’ve interviewed don’t tell me about their desire to make a profit or improve their quality of life, but about their determination to benefit the whole local community. At Diourbel, several groups said so explicitly. They feel that if they can implant the example of successful small businesses and jobs in the community’s mind that they might stand a chance of slowing the exodus of young people to the big city. The president of the ecovillage there, Ibrahima Faye, always seems to be bursting at the seams with ideas and advice about how to provide better support for the Kiva borrowers as their businesses progress. He has popularized the plan of holding off on all profit for the first few years and reinvesting it back into the business to make sure that the business is solid on its feet. This seems like a tough deal to me — since it means lots of work and no pay, borrowers who do this must live by other means on the side in the meantime. But the hard work is paying off: many groups say that they either are expanding or hope to expand their operations into other West African countries. Ibrahima, himself a member of a Kiva-financed group, is working to open a second shop in Bamako, the capital of Mali which is an arduous 2-day bus trip away, in a few weeks.
Another Kiva group from Diourbel, called Propaf, was awarded 3rd prize from the President of Senegal for women’s entrepreneurship in May. Its members, who refine and process grain to be resold, also spoke of extending their reach outward into the “subregion,” as people say. More importantly though, they said they would have continued their daily work processing grain even without a prize, even if the profits remained small. As it is, they never had any hope of being rewarded in such a prestigious manner.
From another angle, a group of women in Popenguine is so committed to the environment that they allow their profitable activities (an educational camp, selling grains and baby mango trees) to revolve around their original volunteer activity, promoting reforestation. They regularly plant trees in their own area and try to inspire others to care about the environment as well.
These humble successes do not mean that profit isn’t important — after all, the first goal of microfinance is to empower people to lift themselves out of poverty. For all the positive stories, peanut farmers in Louly are struggling to even survive given last year’s poor harvest and this year’s already late rainy season. But they maintain hope and are determined to pay back their loans on time; and plans are under way to supplement their traditional profession with more diverse activities like raising livestock.
It looks like Senegal may not be the land of happiness, after all. Like any country, it’s a place of competing discourses and tough realities. Amid power and water shortages, the whims of Mother Nature, and the TV’s insistence that everything is just dandy, people are facing the difficulties of entrenched poverty with courage and generosity. Perhaps, then, I should have the courage to see the inability to say “I’m frustrated” as a learning experience?