Urbanizing Senegal

Urbanzation is changing the city of Dakar
and the countryside of Senegal. A collection of photo essays on the Washington
Post by Michael Robinson Chavez captures some of the result of this

Sitting on the square in Dakar, Senegal many years ago I had a conversation with a young man who sat beside me to talk. He was a recent emigre’ from the countryside, his English was broken and his manner more subdued than the aggressive street sellers who can make a simple stroll in this city feel more like an assault.

He had come to Dakar to find work and live a better life. It wasn’t as easy as he’d imagined. Several thousand other rural Senegalese had similar dreams. They were in competition not only with each other but with university educated young people.

Due to lack of jobs It was said there were more educated bakers in Dakar than any other city in the world because many formed coops to bake and sell bread.

When I asked him what attracted him to the city, his response was simple and straightforward. City lights. As young people everywhere, the glow of the city at night beckoned. The lights symbolized excitement. The city was as exotic to these young people as if it were a foreign country. The lights of the city are a magnet.

Later, as I traveled north of Dakar into the remote countryside the result of this migration was clear. Due to drought, and to a lesser extent, HIV/AIDS, some villages had no young adults. Others had been completely abandoned.

I walked into one abandoned village and looked into a typical thatch hut. Leaning against one wall was a metal push plow. Opposite it was a garden hoe. In better times they were valuable tools. But not in the drought. Dependence on rain-fed cultivation was futile. The family had pulled up stakes and moved on, probably southward. Perhaps the youth stopped in Dakar.

Beyond natural threat, the incursion of packaged food products from outside Senegal had also affected local production. I recall, for example, talking with a young herder in the country who struggled to keep his herds healthy while also finding a market for the yogurt he produced. His competition at the high-end was yogurt imported from big producers in France. It was as if this small farmer were taking on Dannon and it was a mismatch.

Back in Dakar, the late afternoon sun added a tinge of melancholy to my conversation with the young man. As we parted, to my surprise he didn’t ask for money or other favors. He was truly lonely and disconnected in the city and at the moment I was a sympathetic, listening ear.

I thought of this experience as I happened upon Michael Robinson Chavez’s photo essays of Dakar in the Washington Post. They offer a glimpse into the urbanization happening across the world as economic and cultural changes uproot traditional communities and young people try to adjust to new realities in a globalized economy. They hear the siren song of city lights. But for some, the city’s promise is cruel and harsh. Those lights change the rhythm of life and for many the city offers none of the traditional supports that family and village provide. Finding one’s self in the city can be a struggle marked by loneliness fostered by wrenching dislocation.

If you look closely at Chavez’s photos, you can see the solitary figures around the edges. Young people for whom urbanization is a mixed blessing, a hopeful promise not yet realized.

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