Postcard from Senegal

Wednesday 28 May 2003, by Sara SCHROETER

Photo : CIDA

As Friday dawns in Dakar, Senegal’s capital city begins its weekly ritual of parading its paradoxes. West African haute couture is flaunted in honor of the week’s most important day of prayer, and the city’s poor take to the streets to beg as Muslim teachings on giving are more widely practiced on Friday. Though many are driven to charity, others do not hesitate to profit from the holiness of the day.

Traffic is horrendous as thousands flock downtown to participate in the afternoon communal prayer. Taxi drivers, determined to make some quick money on the congested streets, charge outrageous fares and the art of bargaining flourishes as few resist calling upon religion to get their desired price.

At two o’clock, the hush that rolls through the streets of Dakar as they become a sea of prayer carpets is beautiful and exotic to the Western eye. The public display of brotherhood between rich and poor, praying side by side, does not hide the inequality and discrimination prevalent in Senegal, where 54 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

Religious charity has not effected real change in the country’s uneven distribution of wealth. Though a multiparty democracy, 97 percent of the population is Muslim, so political lip service is oftern paid to religious sensivities. The government refrains from bulldozing poor neighbourhoods on Friday, taking the day off from its demolition-happy urban renewal effort..

President Abdoulaye Wade’s "urban cleansing policies" are yet another attempt to make Dakar more appealing to international investors. A running joke in the streets is that the President spends more time dealing with international affairs than tackling domestic problems. President Wade’s obsession with attracting international attention and praise illustrates the complete success of neocolonialism in Senegal. How effective is any democracy where the President attributes more importance to bowing to international demands than to being accountable to his people?

It is worrisome that this city, which boasts the West African headquarters of many international aid organizations, is purging its downtown of poverty. Dakar’s poor are being pushed further to the periphery of the city, while nothing is done to remedy the social malaise that caused their problems.

So it is that Friday in Dakar displays a cacophony of religious faith, economic growth and despair, and the apathy of the Senegalese government. Strangely, the longer one stays in the city, the more one looks forward to the one day of the week when it cannot escape its contradictions.

Sara Schroeter, Surfin’ the World intern in Dakar

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