I have a secret. It’s a secret that, if discovered, could mark me as a traitor, a hold out, stingy and untrustworthy, at least to my Global Citizen Year cohort. The secret is the location of a place in Dakar where one can sit poolside, sip cocktails in bikinis, be fed complimentary olives while listening to a British jazz band play standards as the sun sets over the Atlantic. Oh yes, the bathrooms have flush toilets complete with toilet paper and a dual-flush setting. Business men sit and look important in the air conditioned lounge, and the sight of a woman’s thigh is not that strange. Perhaps you believe I’m describing a place in the US, and it certainly could be, but in fact I’m describing the Radisson Blu, a swanky coastal hotel in Dakar, where a room costs upwards of 260 USD a night.
What I’m describing surely does not shock or outrage you. Why should it? It’s a completely normal Western-style hotel, a world away from a “third-world” country. In fact, parts of Dakar are designed to do just that: make you forget the poverty that surrounds you and focus on the amazing progress and modernity of this African nation.
Driving from the airport (they’re currently building a new one two hours away) to the African Renaissance Monument ( with a price tag of $27 million and made by a North Korean firm), down the coastal road called the Corniche, Malibu-sized homes and beautiful seaside condominium development is all you will see. This part of Dakar is certainly developed in the literal sense, building and growing. But, as David Abernathy taught us in our pre-entry training, there are many types of development. Outwardly, from this minute piece of Senegal, things are great! They have a thriving economy, foreign investors, local workers, minimal garbage waste, and a whole lot of people working on their fitness (the Corniche is the best place to go for a run, as many do). But turning to the rest of Senegal, seeing the other factors of social development and political development and how they come into play on the national stage, Senegal is certainly a developing nation.
This eastern coast of Senegal is certainly one of the things that has surprised me the most about this country. As much as I tried to begin this experience not assuming things about Senegal, not going in with a “single story” about West Africa, I did pack all my shampoo, ibuprofen, and band aids for the next six months, expecting that I would not be able to buy my specific brands. Little did I know that Pantene is sold in the local supermarket, the supermarket where I, me, the toubab, was the only person wearing authentic Senegalese clothing.
But when I see a woman carrying an impossible load of firewood on her head with her eight year old son doing the same while walking in front of a beautiful, empty, brand-spanking new condominium complex, I am filled with frustration. Do the condos really need that infinity pool? The money saved could possibly fix the constant power outages in Dakar, or stock penicillin in the Poste de Sante where I’ll be working, or pave the road down to Palmarin where three of our fellows will be staying.
With just a small dose of utilitarianism (doing things that bring the greatest good for the greatest number of people), I can affect a life. Instead of buying a juice I can give that 100 CFA to the crippled man who roams the highway. Instead of going to Casino or Myshop (the local chain stores) I can go to my neighborhood boutique. I can buy local peanuts instead of American Pringles (yea, they sell those too). And you can do the same. yes you, sitting in your favorite swivel chair or college dorm room. Buy local. Reuse your plastic bags. Donate $10 to a charity of your choice. donate to Global Citizen Year if you so choose, so that others can go out and experience the world’s problems for themselves. The revolution truly starts with the smallest action, and you don’t need to be in Senegal to do something. It just gives you a lot more credibility.