Upon coming to Senegal I decided I wanted to highlight women that inspired me and my fellow fellows because many people in the states believe that women in Muslim countries are oppressed, forced to serve their husbands and not allowed to get an education. While there is definitely some of that in the world I wanted to show people women that do not fit the stereotype.
My fellow Senegalese fellow, Jackson Harris, introduced me to his friend Ne Ne Gallay Ba, who he met in his village of Pellel, but she recently moved to Kedougou a city about an hour and a half away. I went to meet with Ne Ne Gallay at her house in Kedougou and was immediately embraced with Senegalese hospitality, her beautiful smile and laughter. She had never met me before, but she told me to treat her home like it was my own and showed me her wedding photos pointing out all her family members. Instantly I felt a connection to her. While waiting for Jackson to arrive she told me she would teach me how to cook ceppu jen, the Senegalese national dish, and I didn’t do much cooking, but I did do a lot of listening. While we were cooking (I was “cooking” or basically just sitting in a chair and watching) she told me her whole life story. We were having this whole conversation in a mix of French, English, and Pulaar, so I may have some of the small details wrong.
She grew up with her grandma in a village near the city Tamba, where she was sent to school, but everyday after school she had to come home to cook, clean, and fetch water, which she said could take up to two hours. Even with all her chores she was determined to get her education. When she finished the money for her schooling ran out and her parents wanted to her to get married, but she refused and immediately called her principal, who agreed to help her pay for school. The secondary school was an hour away (walking) from her village, so her principal also agreed to let her live with him. People told her that she shouldn’t do it because she needed to take care of her grandma, but her grandma wanted her to get an education and let her leave. After a year of living with her principal, she decided to move back with her parents and go to school in their village. After finishing quartème (the french education system’s equivalent of 8th grade) her family moved to Tamba, where she got her Baccalaureate or her high school diploma in 2013. She wanted to go to university, but since her parents did not have a lot of money, she couldn’t. In Senegal university is free, but they only give you a small amount of money for living expenses, so as she said “if you don’t have a lot of money you will suffer there”. There are 80,000 students at the university in Dakar, classes are overloaded and I have heard from university students that if you don’t have a computer it makes everything harder, because there are study groups online. So, after she got her baccalaureate her father told her that she needed to get married and this time she didn’t refuse and within a year of her marriage she had a baby boy and moved to Jackson’s village, Pellel. After moving to the village she still wanted to finish her education, but the community college in Kedougou city was too expensive for her husband. She understood, but she still wasn’t going to give up finishing her education so that she could work, so she found a class that she could take in Tamba, which is about 4 hours away from Kedougou, and her father agreed to help her pay for her room and give her food, but her husband didn’t allow her because he said it was too far. She was still frustrated, so she told him that he had to find her something to do because she wasn’t happy and she wanted to have some independence. Eventually he found a computer class that she could take, to be able to work with computers, in Kedougou. She finished that class this past year, but now is still looking for a paying job.
After she told me her life story I was in awe of her dedication to getting an education. She really made me realize that I have taken granted all the education that I have received and how I have the ability to go to university. She then started explaining to me many of the problems that they have in Senegal. One that is very prevalent in her life is how it’s harder to find a job as a women in Senegal and she also said it’s hard when you don’t come from a rich family. She explained to me that when you family has money and knows people in the organizations it is much easier to find a job and since she is not from the Kedougou area it is even harder for her because she doesn’t know the area. Ne Ne Gallay told me “I really, really do love my husband, but I do regret not having a job before I got married”. She went on the explain how she believes that all women need to work, so that they don’t have to be dependent on their husbands. Something that even stay at home moms don’t have to worry about in the states because of bank accounts and credit cards, so if they need to buy sugar and their husband isn’t home than they are able to. She also explained that in Senegal if you have money than you are respected more by your peers and family members. As she said “you don’t need to speak, money speaks”. I can see some of this myself, but I also see a culture that values people who give all they can. If you don’t have a lot of money, but you are still willing to help others I believe that the Senegalese value that as well.
The next problem that she identified was the sex culture. She told “people here don’t understand love”. Many of the marriages here are arranged and the dating culture is underground. From what I have observed many of the marriages are partnerships to have children, but they love their children a lot. That is not to say that men and women don’t love each other here, but as Ne Ne Gallay says “sex is not love and a women needs love”. This lead her into the nest problem that she identified, which was the religious barrier. Senegal is around 90% muslim, Ne Ne Gallay being part of that group and polygamy is a large part of the culture that I have witnessed here. She has no problems with religion, but when it comes to polygamy she doesn’t understand. She believes that it causes jealousy, makes the women unhappy, and it causes monetary problems, especially when only the husband it working. I have seen the jealousy that the polygamous culture can cause first hand. My older brother is married, but before he got married he had a child with another women and when he ask that women’s parents if he could marry her, they said no. Now whenever his ex-girlfriend comes into our compound, my sister in law really worried that he still wants to marry her and she stops eating for a few days. I can tell how much it hurts her to think that her husband may want another wife. The other barrier that religion brings is it outlaws family planning, so very low income families are having 7 or 8 children and do not have enough food to feed them or enough money to send them to school. Ne Ne Gallay said that this is due to ignorance because in muslim culture you are allowed to stop having children if you had to have 3 c-sections, if you don’t have the means to educate your children, or if you are ill. What makes her most angry though is that “they say that they are muslim, but they never pray”. It makes her angry that women don’t try and make their situations better by working or having less children, but she understands that sometimes it’s hard to do these things in a male dominated society.
I then asked her what can be done about these situations and she said that it has to come from the community. “It can discourage people if Americans come and tell them that they are wrong without people respecting them”, but she thinks that the sage-femmes (mid wives) need to begin explaining family planning to women better. I agree with her, I believe that if some of these problems are going to be changed than it needs to come from within, but as Ne Ne Gallay told me many of the educated people from the cities don’t go to villages, so the rural women do not have that influence.
Ne Ne Gallay is proof of how important education is. She had the determination and resources to finish her education, which many people do not and it made her the inspirational women she is. She shows me that as more and more women get and education things will begin to change in Senegal, more women will be in the work force, meaning that more children will be able to go to school, nutrition will get better, and the birth rate might even begin to drop. The harder question to answer is how do we get more girls to finish school? It won’t be an easy question to answer, but Ne Ne Gallay is proof of how important it is.