The Reality of the Definition

Cheyenne Tessier - Senegal


January 31, 2013

I am an actor of development in Noflaye, Senegal. I believe in neither mass fabrication, nor Western medicine. I am an actor of development. I no longer contribute to NGO’s, nor would I call myself a supporter of government aid projects. I am not a journalist, nor am I a revolutionist. I don’t think the answer is politics, nor do I think it is religion. Nor do I think it is technology. Nor do I know the answer. I am an actor of development. I don’t have the answer, completely, but I know what is good here, and what is bad here, sometimes, and the standard definition of development is completely and utterly against the fate of this culture and of this people. So, I am an actor of development, because I don’t believe in the “development” effort here.

Let me explain, before I am accused of being racist, dense, or just plainly pessimistic.

The French invented the word development here, in Senegal. They defined it as was in their own stately interest: putting the focus on French education, French medicine, French technology, and most devastatingly for society here, the French culture.  “Development” was used to colonize West Africa, but the disease was not evicted with the independence movement of 1960. No, the occupational government parted the country, but left behind the imposed ground-nut economy, the newly disastrous and unhealthy cuisine, and the French language.

Nobody can argue that the Wolof wasn’t a healthier society before French imperialism. Yet, the current standard of development in Senegal is based on improving the failing systems the French left in their wake.

Here are the statistics. They are not taken from a government website, nor did I conduct an intensive study. They are what I call “family statistics.” They are the facts that matter to the people I love here. And they are real. The current education for a Senegalese child takes place in French, which is the “official language,” but is only widely spoken in Dakar, and is barely ever spoken in the family. In other words, imagine having to learn a completely new language in order to participate in the classroom. In high school, a student can expect to learn French philosophy, French history, American history, French geography, French literature, French language, English language…but read not a single work by a Senegalese author. But still, the development effort is focused on strengthening the French educational system and making the poison even more widely available.

Before that child leaves for school, he can expect to have a breakfast of baguette and butter, which has, in the past 50 years, replaced the traditional locally produced porridge. After school, he can come home to a lunch of imported low-quality rice, which was also introduced by the French to replace the locally grown couscous. But still, the fight against hunger focuses on subsidizing bread and grain imports to a country apt to grow its own food.

If that same child gets sick, the child can travel close to an hour to a clinic, where he may or may not get to see a doctor. The consultation will not be expensive: in fact, for the student, it will be close to free. If it is not malaria, the practitioner will no doubt, without testing, send the child to the pharmacy to buy a concoction of French medicine that would treat everything from tonsillitis to dengue fever. If the child is not treated, or healed, or suffers from a negative side effect of the drug which warns on the label “known carcinogen in rats and mice,” the family can expect to travel to Dakar to pay a high fee and collect the body from a blood-stained mortician in order to give the child a proper funeral. But still, the development effort in Senegal focuses on opening clinics and shipping in French medicine and tearing apart the structure of traditional medicine which once was sufficient in healing the maladies of Senegal naturally or giving a person his religious rights in death.

Do I know how to develop Senegal, or even Noflaye, a village of just 2,000? No. The answer is no. I don’t know how to reverse the pollution brought here by Western packaging and vehicles, or how to evict the imperialist culture and language from a land which once strived. I don’t know how to undo the damage the West has done here. But I have yet to see an effort either by an NGO, or by our own government, for that matter, which focuses on strengthening the nationalism and culturalism of this people in order to boost the welfare of the villager.

No, every effort I have seen focuses on “development,” which is defined by us, in the West, and brought to a people who strived only before us. Whether we take the liberal approach in dealing aid for the humanity, or the realist approach in dealing aid for our political interests, we are in the wrong. I think aid could work someday, in the future, with careful planning and loans and grants to specific projects and local organizations; but right now, aid is creating a society which relies more on Western systems than on itself. Yes, I am an actor of development, because I believe that the Senegalese are apt and ready to define their own future and take back what used to be theirs: without me, without us, without the development effort.

Cheyenne Tessier