Senegal: A Primer

By Victoria Barone | Dakar, Senegal

FullSizeRender (1)As salaam aleekum.  Nanga def?

Hello from Dakar, Senegal and thanks for following the 2017 GW UNESCO Fellows blog.  Each of this year’s Fellows will be regularly updating the blog with our thoughts, observations, and experiences from UNESCO regional/field offices and institutes around the world.

I arrived in Dakar just two weeks ago and am already amazed by this country and the work carried out by the UNESCO Dakar office.  I have managed to pack a lot of exploring into these first two weeks and am excited to share an introduction to the country with you.

Senegal is the westernmost country in Africa and it boasts one of the most stable and successful democracies on the continent.  The country is on the Atlantic Ocean and shares borders with five nations: Mauritania, Mali, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and The Gambia (which is more or less enveloped by Senegal).  The nation has a diverse geography, from the deserts of the Sahel to rainforests and mangroves.

Perhaps even more diverse than the geography of Senegal are the nation’s people.  There are at least six different ethnic groups (Wolof, Pular, Serer, Mandinka, Jola, Soninke), as well as immigrants from Europe and Lebanon and refugees from Mauritania, living in Senegal today.  Approximately 38 languages are spoken across the country, with French as the official language and Wolof the lingua franca.  The dominant religion is Islam, with Muslims making up approximately 95% of the population (most are Sunni and follow one of the Sufi brotherhoods).  Approximately 4% of the population in Senegal are Christians (predominantly Roman Catholic, though Protestant denominations are also present), and less than 1% are animist.  While religiosity is deeply embedded in the Senegalese culture, the government is secular and is known for its support of religious freedom.

While diverse cultural and religious backgrounds often lead to tension and conflict in countries throughout the world, Senegal has a history of tolerance, peace, and stability.  Resulting from their political stability, Senegal also plays an active role in UN peacekeeping throughout the region.  Since independence from France in 1960, the country has had three peaceful political transitions, has never experienced a coup d’état, and has successfully mounted a defense against past attempts to consolidate power and to overstay term limits of the president.  For example, the constitution that was adopted in 2001 limits presidents to two terms, and in March 2016 the Senegalese voted to shorten presidential term limits from seven years to five years.

While the nation is a leader among its West African neighbors in this regard, Senegal is not completely without political challenges.  There has been a long-standing separatist conflict in the country’s southern region of Casamance, but an unofficial ceasefire has held since 2012.  During the 2012 elections, opposition parties and the police clashed when violent protests broke out over then-president Abdoulaye Wade running for a third term, and there were reports of threats to media freedom during this time.  However, many were reassured of Senegal’s regional political leadership by the successful transition of power when Wade was voted out and current president Macky Sall took office.  The next presidential election in Senegal is to be held in 2019 and the next legislative election is to be held in July of this year.

During my two weeks here, I have made an effort to engage everyone I meet in conversation about life in Senegal and in Dakar.  Just like every democratic nation around the globe, some are happy with their current political leadership, while others are not and are awaiting the next election with hope for change.  When I speak to young men and women, they often tell me that life here is difficult, but that’s just the way it is.  And when I speak with young men who have jobs, I can count on them saying they are thankful to have work, even if they have to live away from their families to work in the city and send money home.  I understand, because when I walk around the streets of Dakar, I see many who are out of work.  But, they also seem motivated and entrepreneurial, looking for opportunities and creating work for themselves as street vendors in the informal market.

Senegal has a population of approximately 15.3 million people with more than 60% under the age of 25.  Indeed, this youth bulge is a common phenomenon in developing regions of the world, and it is easy to see the need to continue to build education and employment opportunities for these growing populations.  UNESCO plays a vital role in this process as the specialized UN agency for education, and I am excited to be working with UNESCO Dakar, which supports seven countries in West and Central Africa in “rethinking and re-envisioning education and training for all, contributing to peaceful, sustainable and healthy societies.”

Through my work with UNESCO Dakar, I have the opportunity to contribute to gender equality and capacity building in Niger’s education system by designing program activities which will train teachers in gender-responsive education, sensitize communities to the importance of educating girls, and engage both girls and boys to participate in STEM subjects through the use of culturally relevant class activities and group projects.

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Victoria is a Master’s candidate in International Development Studies at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, with a concentration in Gender, Education, and Development and a regional focus in Sub-Saharan Africa.  You can follow Victoria on Instagram or connect with her on LinkedIn.

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