Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Election Journal Round 1


It’s February, the middle of the eight to nine month dry season in Senegal. For most farmers here, there is little work at this time of year. Days are spent napping, drinking tea, eating, going to a neighbor’s house to drink tea, then maybe napping some more. (This is a broad generalization, and it really applies only to men. Women have to keep up their work cooking, cleaning, caring for babies, and yelling at kids, who seem to have a driving passion for getting in trouble. And there are many people, both men and women, who find other work during this season – gardening, making fencing, construction, or going to the cities to find temporary work.)

At this time of year many men pass their days at the “penc,” a meeting- and hangout-spot in the center of the village. The penc consists of a raised wooden platform for sitting on, which is about 3m x 3m and 50 cm off the ground, under a thatch shade structure. There are no walls, only wooden posts that support the thatch roof, but the roof comes down so low and is so shady that from the outside you can’t really see who’s in there, unless you stoop. But once inside you have a clear 360* view of the outside. It’s kind of like a bunker.

Men come to the penc to hang out, chat, or take a nap away from all the noisy kids at home. It is a very low-key scene. They often bring their radios, and sometimes there’ll be several on at once, all tuned in to different radio stations. Senegalese people seem to have a high tolerance for dissonant noises. One time my family and I were listening to the radio when the station cut out, and we listened to static all through dinner and for a good while afterwards before anyone got up and changed the tuning. At the penc, it is not uncommon to come across a slumbering group of middle aged and older men, whilst several radios play different stations, and maybe one plays static.

In stark contrast to the penc is the women’s cooperative market, which lies on the other side of the village central square. The market bustles with noisy ladies dressed in colorful complets, gossiping and haggling as they buy and sell vegetables and fish each morning from about 10:30-12. The market is frequently a venue for loud arguments, and on occasion I have even seen group wrestling matches spontaneously occur. The penc looks out on the market from about 50m away, and in between is a sort of no-man’s land that no one seems to cross. In my year and a half in Sama Ndiayen, I haven’t once seen a woman go to the penc to hang out (they find it boring, probably) and I have only once seen a man set foot in the women’s market (mostly I think they’re intimidated).

Despite the general lethargy of the season, there has been some excitement because it is an election year and the vote is just days away, on Feb 26. Incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade is running for a third term against 13 opponents, who range from the millionaire businessman Mustafa Niasse to the Democratic Socialist Ousmane Tanor Dieng. The candidates range in age from the Macky Sall, who is just 51, to the ancient Abdoulaye Wade who is rumored to be over 90 although his official ID states he is 85. There are two female candidates, Diouma Diakhate (who is a fashion designer) and Amsatou Sow-Sidibe (a professor), although they don’t seem to stand a chance. A few weeks ago I saw campaigners for Sow-Sidibe in the market in Kaolack. There were two guys standing on the back of an 18 wheeler truck who had a sort of rap going back and forth about her election platform, which was well rehearsed and very loud, but no one seemed to be listening. They were just going about their daily business.

Women in Senegal can of course vote, but it seems like they have a harder time doing so than men. For example, they may not have time to register to vote, chores keeping them at home. Getting an ID and voting card costs 6,000 CFA and requires traveling to the arrondisement capital, Diedieng. My host sister-in-law has a voter card, but is registered to vote in her home village and she’s not sure she can make it back there for the election. It seems like this is an issue for a lot of women, who usually marry outside their villages. Men usually live in their ancestral homes, but those who work seasonally in cities would face the same problem.

The campaign rhetoric has been heated, and there have been daily demonstrations throughout the country, but the most intense have been in Dakar. Most of the opposition contend that it is unconstitutional for Wade to seek a third term in office. Wade contends that it is constitutional, because the new constitution limiting presidents to two terms was adopted only during his second term in office, and so his first term doesn’t count. This was also the judgment of the Constitutional Council, which approved his candidacy last month. (The members of the Council were appointed by Wade.) Wade seems to be weary of his appearance abroad, and reportedly paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to an American political consulting firm to write a paper explaining the legal case for his candidacy to the White House. (Prior to the Council’s decision, US diplomats made statements disparaging Wade for seeking a third term, but recently they have been silent about it. Apparently other American lobbyists also encouraged other Senegalese candidates to use their services but none did. I’m not in a position to assess the extent of a cause and effect relationship here, but US superpower sure seems like good business for lobbyists.) However, domestically Wade seems to be meeting opposition with force. Police have killed a number of demonstrators and recently threw tear gas into a mosque that was used by demonstrators. One hears conflicting accounts as to who started the violence, the police or the demonstrators, and being remote from it all I really have no idea.

I can’t claim to be a well-informed political commentator, but sometimes I ask my villagers about their political views. I get the sense that the issues that they care most about are the ones that are important in their day to day lives: they will vote for whoever they think can improve the health post (it’s often out of medicine), fund the schools (teachers have been striking because their salaries are regularly paid months late), lower the price of gasoline (public transportation has been getting expensive), lower inflation generally, bring electricity to our village, or ensure a good price for peanuts. It seems like most of the candidates promise most of these things, but it’s often unclear how they plan to do it. Maybe that’s why my host mother says, in the end, it all comes down to who pays the most for votes. I have heard that teams from both the Wade and Sall campaigns have offered my villagers money in return for support at the polls. (Sadly, I can’t claim that American presidential elections aren’t caught up in abstractions or controlled by money, either.)

I get the sense that in Sama Ndiayen Wade supporters are a minority, but a vocal one. One of the Arabic teachers is a Wade supporter and has glued a big portrait of Wade to the side of his house. The women’s group president is also campaigning for Wade, and extolls his virtues to members of the women’s group, who humor her by listening and agreeing to vote for him but once she leaves they tell me they have no intention of doing so. One of my closest friends, Tam, who I think is very smart and I respect very much, also supports Wade although he told me he thinks Wade is too old to be president and wishes he had allowed someone else from his party to run. (He also disapproves of how Wade has handled demonstrators violently.)

Among those in my village who don’t support Wade, there doesn’t seem to be one clear candidate of choice. One guy, Aliou, is campaigning for Macky Sall and arranged for a campaign team to visit Sama. They drove up in a five-car motorcade with horns blasting one afternoon, and there was a rumor that the candidate himself was here, so a lot of people rushed to the scene. I started to go with my neighbor Xadi but we were 15 minutes late and by the time we got there the campaign team had left. Macky Sall himself did not show up (I doubt candidates ever go to villages as small as ours), and it turned out the campaign team had talked about how Wade had messed up the country for 15 minutes before moving on.

Another popular candidate is Mustafa Niasse, whose hometown, Keur Madiabel, is only 25 km away. My friend Papa, who supports Niasse, explained to me why in his view he would make a good president:

(1) 1He is an honest man, and moreover he has so much money of his own that he won’t be tempted to use the presidency for personal gain. He says that if elected, he will donate his presidential salary to the handicapped or for education.

(2) 2He has political experience. He was in the cabinet of Abdou Diouf, the last Socialist president, served as Wade’s first PM.

(3) 3He’s aware of issues affecting farmers, because he’s involved in agribusiness in the Keur Madiabel area.

(4) 4He will be able to lower the price of gasoline because he has good connections with the Saudis.

(5) 5He says that he only seeks one term in office. (He’s already 72, so that’s probably a good thing.)

The president of our communite rurale is also a Niasse supporter, and a few days back he came to our village on campaign. He showed up hours late. It was around dinner time when his car came honking into town. In towns and cities, the campaigns provide lunches with meat, but in the villages they seem less spendthrift, relying on honking horns and megaphones and other loud noises to bring out the crowd. The thing is, this seems to attract a younger-than-target audience. Upon hearing the honking horns of the campaign, my younger sisters (aged 3-12) rushed off to join in the commotion, but my father and mother and I, tired and weary of the noise, stayed home. I have a feeling that the campaigner was speaking to a mostly pre-pubescent audience.

It was actually quite nice that night – we could hear people drumming and yelling at the meeting in the distance, but with my sisters’ absence it was a lot quieter than usual. I took the opportunity to get out my guitar and practice a new song I’m learning. I don’t like playing when my sisters are around because they always ask me to change the song, or they crowd around and dance in a sort of mosh pit until inevitably someone gets hurt and a fight breaks out and someone gets thrown against my guitar. If only they could have political meetings every night, and the kids would always be out, I joked to my parents, and they laughed hard, but I could tell they kind of wished it.

The next day I was walking by the mosque when I saw Malick and Sega Gaye, two brothers who are some of the oldest men in the village, sitting at their usual spot under a mango tree. I asked them if they went to the previous night’s meeting. No, they said. Malick explained that nothing good would come of the elections, people were going out and protesting and police killed people, but it was all over nothing of importance. They said they weren’t sure if they would vote, but probably not. Sega said people get carried away with politics instead of focusing on their own lives. For him, getting his cows fed and milked comes first.


The election took place yesterday, and they counted votes all last night and today, announcing results polling station by polling station on the radio. There was little commentary on who was in the lead nationally for the longest time, which was frustrating for those eager to find out, but I suppose announcing results piecemeal is worthwhile because it helps make things more transparent.

The polls in Sama Ndiayen were held at the primary school and were overseen by the teachers and three election officials who came from outside the village. The voting site served my village and two neighboring Pulaar villages, Fas Toucaleur and Keur Gueladio. When I dropped in in the morning there was a line about ten people long, but many people were loitering outside. I saw Sainabu the women’s group leader and Papa Dia and Aliou Toure there, talking politics and with people who waited to vote. After voting, each person had to dip a finger into a can of pink ink to prevent attempts at double-voting.

The polls closed at 6 pm, and by eight they had finished counting the votes from Sama. Papa showed me the list later. Mustafa Niasse received 79 votes, Wade 49, Sall 16, and Dieng 7. The rest of the candidates received one or two votes only or none at all. I saw Amsatou Sow-Sidibe, the female professor, got a solitary vote.

Upon hearing Sama’s results, a group of teenage boys and young men who support Niasse started running around the village whooping and chanting slogans and lighting firecrackers. I was surprised at how fierce their political feelings appeared to be. Things had been low-key all day, and as people awaited the election results in the schoolyard they mingled and chatted softly. But these kids looked like they were ready to go riot in Dakar. I didn't recognize a lot of them. I think a lot of young men who are living away came back to Sama to vote. Later I heard that someone threw a stone into the compound of Mere Sainabu and one other outspoken Wade supporter. No one was hurt. But everyone I talked with today agreed this was an ugly thing to do.

I stayed up late last night listening to the radio with my family, but at 1 am they were still announcing poll results station by station so I went to bed. It wasn’t until this afternoon that it became pretty clear there will be a runoff vote in March between Wade and Sall (Niasse was popular in Kaolack, but nationally came in third). I’m told that the cities are mostly peaceful and the election was seen as mostly free and fair.

Election leaflets.

My uncle Aliou voted.

So did the shopkeeper Nday Ba.

The scene at the polls in Sama Ndiayen. The voting booth is on the left - the black curtain.