I had just left the Dakar headquarters of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) after a meeting with Ms. Debbie Gueye, a malaria adviser, when I decided, rather than to return home immediately, to explore the area. Only about 150 meters from the office lay the great Atlantic coast. I stepped onto the sandy beach from the equally sandy road, heading west towards Cap Vert’s (the peninsula on which Dakar lies) northwestern point.
After being waylaid by street vendors selling knock-off Rolex watches and Gucci sunglasses, I began to wave away the next approaching man. By this point I had nearly come to the end of the beach, having left the tourists’ restaurants and hotels behind. “Ba banan,” meaning “next time,” I said to him, indicating I was not interested in buying anything. But my assumption that the man was a hawking vender was wrong. He introduced himself as Babacar, an inhabitant of Ngor village.
“Not many tourists come down here,” he told me, wondering what I was up to. I explained that while I was a complete stranger to the area, I was not on vacation, but rather that I was living in Senegal as part of a program similar to the Peace Corps. Having had a strong presence in Senegal for nearly 50 years now, “le Corps de la Paix” is familiar to just about everyone.
He immediately took interest in me, motioning us down a narrow path between concrete houses, little more than one meter wide. For the following hour or so, he generously presented to me his family, the village of Ngor. Continually switching from English, to French, to Wolof, we walked through his native fishing community, introducing me to everyone we passed. Word of my presence flew ahead of us. After about fifteen minutes with Babacar, he told me, “Everybody already knows you’re here with me.”
The first aspect of the community he presented to me was their local, self-imposed tax system, independent of Senegal’s formal government. It works like this: When a fisherman brings in his catch, his fish is weighed and the amount recorded. His fish is then thrown together with everyone else’s fish, which is promptly brought to various markets throughout Dakar. 25 percent of the income generated from all the fish sold is kept for the community as a whole. The rest of the money is split between the fishermen, with each individual receiving an amount corresponding to the proportion of his catch to the catch of the entire village.
The community’s funds are saved and appropriated for public goods, such as repairing their primary school or mosque, funding festivals, or fixing boat engines. I was impressed, to say the least.
At the weigh station, a record book is kept of all fishermen presently out on the water. At the end of the day, the list is checked to make sure everyone has returned safely. If not, a large drum is used to alert the neighborhood (it is also used in cases of births and deaths, meetings, and fires). A search team is then dispatched, with their one modern style patrol boat. I told Babacar I thought both systems were brilliant.
Babacar then described the local government, which is also independent from the federal state. There is a council consisting of 22 members, 21 of whom are men and all of whom are of the eldest members of the village. I questioned the gender equality of the system, but I was surprised when Babacar told me that the one woman holds the most powerful voice of all. Said to be 102 or 103 years old, the granddaughter of the village founder and spiritual leader, she could be equated to a chief. She also holds informal judiciary power, presiding over local disputes.
Babacar and I stopped last at the cemetery. He fell quiet and began to pray. Once he was finished, he explained that one first prays for everyone, before one prays for members of their more immediate family. He also said that everyone is buried in the same way. No headstones are marked and the burial yard is not altered much from its natural state; occasionally, large pieces of growth are removed. Everyone is buried one meter below ground, with their heads toward Mecca. All of this is to acknowledge that there is equality under God and that God makes no distinction between the rich and poor, men and women.
The sun was slowly heading towards the horizon, changing its color from intense white to soft yellow. Babacar pointed up to the trees where dozens of birds were perched. “They always come here to the cemetery in the early evening,” he said.
I informed him I needed to get back and thanked him for his gracious welcoming. He invited me back anytime. “If I am not here it won’t matter; everyone here now knows you.”
I bid him farewell, flagged down a cab, and bargained for a reasonable price. I rode back in silence, contemplating what I had just seen.