Friday, July 1, 2011

Mass protests and beautiful music.

I went to see this group at a venue here in Dakar last night, recent violent demonstrations in that part of town notwithstanding.

Although I didn't stroll through the epicenter of the protests, there were plenty of signs downtown that something had happened. Broken windows and signs were everywhere, as were swept-up piles of glass shards. Not every business seemed to be open, even though it was only the early evening. I couldn't be sure it wasn't my imagination, but it seemed like there were fewer people out on the streets. No white tourists, anyway.

Something's happening in Senegal. There's a presidential election coming up in February of 2012, and the current President, Abdoulaye Wade, has lost the esteem of the voters. He knows it, or at least someone close to him does: he's 85, and the term of office here is seven years. Rumors of senility and weakness are already circling. In advance of the election, Wade has introduced several new laws designed to keep him in office for the beginning of another term for at least a little while. His true objective, people say, is to step down and boost his deeply unpopular son Karim into office. The bill that was up in the Senegalese legislature on Thursday the 23rd would have virtually guaranteed his ability to do this.

The 23rd will be remembered here in Senegal for a long time, I suspect. Thousands of young Senegalese, pushed over the brink by their disappointment and anger, took to the streets outside of the legislature and presidential palace. Soon, people started calling it a riot. The demonstrations spread throughout the city and even, after a couple of days, into the suburbs of Dakar and to other large cities in the country. Protesters burned cars and tires and sacked and burned government buildings. The demonstrations turned violent when the national security forces attempted to disperse the crowd with tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets. No one needs this story finished for them: these days, we all know what police brutality in struggling countries looks like. One Senegalese man, attempting to describe his despair to me, held out his hands in front of his chest and slowly drew them inward, clenching them into fists. "This is our country, and it is being held hostage."

If this is an awakening, it is a welcome one. Often I have sat in an overcrowded truck or car lurching slowly down a pot-holed road (though its hardly fair to describe these "roads" like that: they're more pot-hole than flat surface), inching forward, taking hours to travel just some twenty-odd miles. Often I have looked around at the faces of the Senegalese men and women traveling with me, glazed over with indifference, scarves and wraps held to their noses and mouths to filter some of the choking dust out of the air, babies and small children draped over their laps or across their backs. Often I have wondered where their breaking point could be found: when is a road so pot-holed that it is no longer a road? When is a government so corrupt that it is no longer a government? When will these people rise against their corrupt leaders and their poverty?

Wade backed down, and the demonstrations are over for now. We're expecting more trouble in the months to come, however, if Wade does not surrender this country to its people.

Peace having been restored to the city of Dakar, our security guy gave us his blessing to attend this concert. I was excited. Daara J Family has some beautiful songs (seriously, check out that link up at the top), and they're also a very political group.

The show was amazing. We were seated in the highest of the semi-circular rows. In front of us stretched a view of Senegalese families and white couples. Behind us was a standing, swaying crowd of young Senegalese people, who knew every word to every song and who danced in ecstasy for the entire two hours, screaming out requests and cheering as loud as they could. The men sang about putting aside sadness and despair, about being proud of Senegalese and African heritage, of being responsible for their lives and futures. In a city no longer in thrall to violence, one hundred of us were transported by the music of hope andjoy.

Being at the show, getting caught up in the music, listening to the lyrics in Wolof (and some French) and watching the crowd respond made me feel so much a part of Senegal. I know it's an illusion, I know this place is not mine. But even outsiders must feel something stirring in response to the claim that man made to me: this is a country held hostage. It is a country holding a village where I spent two years growing up. It is a country where I have chosen to work for three years, where my future has been shaped and my heart warmed and softened. It is a country where children I love will grow up, where they wil make families, where they will raise children. Is it somehow vulgar to feel, really feel, the injustice holding this country and these people in a vice grip? Why has this place, which is no particular place, become so particular for me?

Thian and Fama, my host sisters in the village of Ndiago, are two of millions of children born into poverty, destined for a lifetime of back-breaking work in the fields, insufficient schooling, early marriage, and repeated childbirth. They shine for me because I spent two years with them. Maybe it's the same thing with Senegal: this country where I was not raised has lifted me up, become particular and special and worth caring about with everything I have. This is another lesson for me about doing the job in front of you, however you define that job: this child, this village, this country.

Love and guts and music,



  1. Excellent reportage and commentary. You have given me an inside view of a nation's hunger, will and spontaneity.

    Be safe.

    Cousin Doug

  2. Well done. It really is all about the roads first.