Money, Movement, and (Co)Dependency

Alec Yeh - Senegal


March 8, 2010

Monsieur Ba, my boss at the Traditional Hospital, and I were discussing the Chinese one day. We were talking about foreigners, and in particular immigration. He said something along the lines of, “The Senegalese are everywhere; Europe, Australia, China, the United States. Everywhere.” I responded with, “Yeah. That sounds like the Chinese.” This is where he pointed out something I never realized.

He said there is one essential difference between the Chinese and Senegalese, and that is their mentality. Most immigrants, like the Chinese, the Indians, the Mexicans, immigrate to leave a country. They go the US to make money and they leave their homes forever. They move out of their native country and re-establish themselves elsewhere in hopes of a better life. The Senegalese have a different pattern of immigration. Because the Senegalese have such a strong sense of family and solidarity, they immigrate but don’t plan on staying. They immigrate to make money, but they send back as much money as they can. That’s why remittances are such a huge part of the Senegalese economy, and not just Senegal, but Africa as a whole.

Walking around Senegal, you will see a ridiculous amount of Western Unions or MoneyGrams. From what I remember of Taiwan, that’s not the case (that was a long time ago though). People tend not to leave Senegal for good. They generally plan on returning at some point. For example, Gaya’s Dakar host-mother was raising three of her grandchildren. Their parents were working in France. But they didn’t want to raise their kids in France, so they sent them back to Senegal to be raised. I was surprised since you would think since the quality of life in France is much better than in Senegal, they would want to raise their family in France. But to the parents, Senegalese values are much more important than the quality of life.

Another example is Akon’s family. Akon is Senegalese. Although he moved to the US when he was very young. He can barely speak Wolof apparently. But Akon is ridiculously rich. His family immigrated to the US in hopes of a better life. But now that Akon’s family is rich, his extended family could easily immigrate to the US. But they still own a farm in Bambylor. Akon’s family lives about ten minutes away from me. Too bad I don’t really like Akon. But the point is, they choose to live in Senegal, and to continue working their farm. I’m curious what is it that’s so inherent in the Senegalese that makes them so loyal to their land and culture.

Since we were talking about the Chinese, sort of, I was curious about his opinion of them. The Chinese are by far, the most economically influential people in Senegal; not the Europeans, not the Americans, but the Chinese. So how do the people of Senegal feel about that?

I was expecting a the-Chinese-come-in-and-take-advantage-of-us kind of answer. But Monsieur Ba was at the opposite extreme. He said it was the best thing ever, and everybody agrees. I was taken aback. He saw how surprised I was. He explained that when the Chinese came, everything became five times cheaper. He said, “The Senegalese live day by day. Because 75% of the population earns less than a dollar a day, and because for every person that earns an income, there is another eight people that person has to feed, things have to be cheap in order for the Senegalese to survive.” The Chinese provide cheap goods (though I think also cheaply made) that the Senegalese actually use.

I responded with, “Wow. But I think that that creates co-dependence. Not only that, the money is going to the Chinese. If Senegal was self-sufficient and was able to produce their own goods, then not only would the goods be cheap, but the money would be going back into the Senegalese government, which ideally would be going back to the citizens. And it would provide for more jobs.”

He said, “If the goods are cheap and available, it doesn’t matter. We live day by day, so we don’t think about it that way. Plus, the Senegalese still benefit. The Chinese sell to the businesses, who sells to the providers and warehouses, who sells to the boutiques and wandering merchants, who then sell to the consumer. Everybody gets a small cut on the way. Everybody is happy.”

What he said makes sense, yet I still think Senegal needs to be self-sufficient to get out of poverty. But it’s interesting to here the perspective of a Senegalese citizen. My issue is that I continue to think as an outsider. But I won’t really understand the Senegalese until I start thinking like them. There are good things that I just don’t see or understand because I’m not there to experience it on a day-to-day basis. And seriously, who are we to judge? Monsieur Ba said, though I’m paraphrasing, “Look at the US and Europe. They already depend so heavily on China.” Senegal is just following suit.

Alec Yeh