Some Politics with your Rice and Fish?

David Suk | KF 17 | Senegal

It’s been a constant refrain in e-mails from family, friends: “Are you okay over there? It sound’s dangerous. Be careful!”

Rally for Djibril Ngom, one of the lesser-known candidates in the presidential race

Between protests, candidates find time for political rallies. This one, for the candidate Djibril Ngom, took place right outside my office window!

I arrived here in Senegal February 1st, just five days after the Constitutional Court ruled that Abdulaye Wade, Senegal’s incumbent president, may seek a third mandate, even though a casual reading of the constitution would seem to suggest a two-term limit.

Many Senegalese support Wade’s re-election bid, pointing to progressive gender parity initiatives and massive infrastructure investments, especially in rural and suburban areas. Others — especially city-dwellers — believe the pro-poor message that swept Wade to power in 2000 was little more than empty rhetoric. They feel trapped between rapid price inflation, slower wage inflation, and high unemployment.

And so, led by a loose coalition of opposition parties and Y’en a marre (Fed Up), a collection of politically-savvy hip-hop artists, some Senegalese responded to the Court’s ruling by protesting — indeed, rioting — on the streets of Dakar. Several protesters have been kiled in skirmishes with the police.

It's lunch time, UIMCEC!

It's lunch time, UIMCEC!

A sad story, to be sure. Yet there is more to the Senegalese story – and I’m not even referring to flashes of hope and perseverance that emerge on the Kiva Website. Rather, I’m getting at the lunchtime back-and-forth around the communal Thiebou Diene (rice and fish) bowl.

My UIMCEC colleagues’ banter always seems to circle back to politics. They pass around the morning’s newspaper, and speculate about which articles contain kernels of truth. They argue about whether or not the protesters are destroying Senegal’s intentional reputation for Teranga (hospitality), or doing what’s necessary to preserve it. They ask one another if any of the opposition candidates has what it takes.

These uninhibited discussions — which are taking place at every bar, restaurant, and street corner across the country — are fuelled by dozens of newspapers, radio stations, television channels packed full of debate and speculation. Senegalese unions, women’s groups and human rights coalitions inject their own flavour, too.

I contrast this to my experience three years ago in Zimbabwe, which I visited to celebrate my brother’s wedding. I hardly ever heard Zimbabweans talking about politics. It wasn’t part of the political culture. It wasn’t safe – and since the only newspapers and radio stations available were essentially devoid of dissenting content, there wasn’t much to talk about anyways.

Senegalese is buzzing with political dialogue. It’s a humming a cacophony of dissenting and defending voices. This gives me hope.

And for those of you still worried about me, I assure you, I am okay over here – and I promise I’ll be careful.

David Suk (KF17) is serving as a Kiva Fellow with UIMCEC in Thiès, Senegal. Support UIMCEC by joining the UIMCEC Lending Team. Or lend to one of their borrowers right now.

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