Sama Ndiayen in 2022
This morning I left my village, Sama Ndiayen, and my life there as a Peace Corps volunteer. I awoke before sunrise in my empty hut, and said a tearful goodbye with my host family. I caught a car and then a bus to Dakar, where I now sit at a cyber cafe amid the busy streets, the ever-growing number of tall buildings, the ubiquitous advertising and glamorous lifestyles that mark the life of the city. It is a different world from the one in which I woke up.
A friend who recently finished his Peace Corps service told me that leaving was like having his Wolof alter-ego die. I think this is an apt metaphor. While I have learned much during my time here that I will take with me, the person I was in Sama Ndiayen, Babacar Ndiaye, was a product of the cross-cultural exchange involved in being a foreigner in a Senegalese village, and his time has come to an end.
I spent my last couple days visiting each household in my village and nearby Fas Toucouleur to say goodbye, and giving away many of my possessions to family members and friends – settling the estate of Babacar Ndiaye, if you will. I bought a few chickens for a farewell lunch with my family; my brother Seexu acted as official photographer with the camera I left him. It was difficult to bid farewell to my family and friends and many other colorful characters I have had the privilege of knowing during my time here. I wish them all the best. Yalla naa leen maaye sutura.
I am not sure when or if I will return to Sama Ndiayen, but over the past week I wrote up the following thoughts about what I might find if I were to return in 10 years:
1. Things will be bigger.
I have often tried to picture the kids in my host family as grown ups, but I can’t very well. At times the kids annoyed the hell out of me, but more often their curiosity and playful energy made me feel glad to be here. I will be eager to see how they turn out.
As the kids grow, I predict that the village will also. Village elders describe the Sama of their youth as a tiny village; indeed it was founded only about 100 years ago. Today, it has grown to over 600 people. I can only see this trend continuing. Families continue to have many kids, and better healthcare (we have a health post 4 km away) is decreasing child mortality and lengthening life expectancy. Older men in Sama Ndiayen are known in the area for taking multiple wives, and most of the younger men seem to want multiple wives, when they can afford them. Although some families may leave Sama for the cities to work, it is more typical (and cheaper) for families to stay in the village while sending sons and husbands to Kaolack, Dakar or abroad to work and send money home.
If I were to return in 10 years, I would likely see a good many new faces, and I would recognize more men than women. Women usually marry outside their home village, whereas men usually continue to live with their parents after marriage.
2. Some things won’t change
Today, Sama Ndiayen is accessible by a 4km dirt road that leads to the national highway. Most people travel this road by foot or horse cart, although there are about five bicycles in the village and a couple village men own scooters and two own taxis that they drive to Kaolack every day. If incomes rise, there will probably be more bikes, scooters and cars in the village 10 years on. But I doubt the road will be improved. Many of the national highways, including the one from Dakar to the Gambian capital Banjul, are in a very poor state, and it seems unlikely that the government will begin building small local roads to villages like Sama anytime soon.
People in my village have been talking about getting electricity for a long time, but this I also doubt will happen within 10 years. In the lead-up to the presidential elections last spring there was hope that former president Abdoulaye Wade would bring us electricity in order to help his campaign. The village sent three men, including my friend Papa, to Dakar to make a personal appeal to Wade’s son, Karim, who was then head of Senelec, but in the end Karim was too busy to meet with them. (Papa tells me, however, that they were fed good food by the staff and they were impressed by Karim’s elevator.) Most of the countryside remains unelectrified, and Senelec struggles to keep power on in the areas that are. Although compared to much of Senegal, Sama Ndiayen is not remote, many less-remote towns nearby on the national highway lack electricity, and in some there are even power lines that bypass the town. Thus, I doubt that Sama Ndiayen can expect electricity in the next ten years.
And I’m not sure that this is a bad thing. Electricity bills can be expensive, and the things electricity is often used for, like TV, cold drinks, and loud music, are not productive. However, my friend Tam who lives in Keur Socce, where there is electricity, says the town has grown a lot and there are more jobs now compared to ten years ago, when electricity came. The town now has a lot of businesses and government employers that use electricity – shops, metal workers, a health post and a new internationally-funded malaria research center. But I think that Keur Socce’s location on the highway has been equally important to its prosperity. If Sama were to become electrified, I doubt it would be able to reap the same benefits. Because of its location, it is unlikely to become a commercial center like Keur Socce.
3. Education and technology might improve people’s lives somewhat
Last year, the primary school in Sama Ndiayen, which opened 6 years ago, had its first graduating class, and ten students went on to the collège level. (A less momentous, though noteworthy achievement is that a development project built the school its first bathrooms this year. They are luxurious and handicap-accessible; unfortunately, the classrooms remain neither.) I think that as time goes on, more students will continue studying to higher levels. This is good, but I’m not sure the quality of the education is anything to get excited about. And this year the school year was nearly anulled because so many school days were lost to student and teacher strikes (often concerning the government’s failure to pay teachers).
As throughout the Muslim world, alongside the secular education system exists the Quranic schools, or daaras. Many students attend both religious and secular schools, but many only attend the daara. In Sama Ndiayen, there is a currently one daara, which provides a traditional religious education based on rote memorization of the Quran. Aliou Njay, a man from Sama Ndiayen who studied at Al-Azar University in Cairo, has proposed a second daara, to provide vocational as well as religious education and is awaiting a grant from the Turkish government. I hope to see this school up and running if I return in ten years.
Finally, it is often said that technology drives development. I think that technology can help improve people’s lives, but I also think this argument can be exaggerated. Cell phones have become widespread in Senegal over the past decade. In Sama Ndiayen, most households have at least one cell phone. But credit is so expensive that calls are pretty infrequent. It seems likely that smart phones and wireless internet access will become available over the next 10 years. While internet access could offer people here lots of useful information, I don’t think it will make much difference so long as literacy remains low.
4. Farming will be less important
Today much of Sama’s wealth comes from remittances. The families that have cement batiments are the ones that have members working in Dakar or abroad. Farming is important for food and income, but soils are poor and more and more fertilizer is needed each year in order to have a profitable crop. Chemical fertilizers hurt the soil in the long run, and soil is lost every year due to erosion. As the population increases there will be less land per person available for farming, and less land will go fallow each year. As farming becomes harder, I think families will depend more on their members who find work outside the village.
I think the farming problem will be worse in Sama than in other villages in the area because Sama already has relatively little land per person. Fas Toucouleur, the village right next door, has a smaller population and more land per person (a lot of people from Sama rent fields in Fas Toucouleur each rainy season). Because they have more land, people from Fas Toucouleur are able to fallow their fields more regularly than people in Sama. I think that extra land has also given them a more optimistic attitude toward farming as a way of life. Fewer young men from Fas leave the village to work than in Sama, and so their village has more labor available for agriculture. They grow a wider variety of crops (in addition to the staples peanuts, millet, sorghum, and corn, they grow a lot of cow peas, watermelon and cassava) and have invested a lot of time into building wooden fences around their fields to keep out animals. They also have substantial cashew orchards, and I worked with a number of people from Fas Toucouleur on planting live fences around their fields. I’ve asked people in Fas Toucouleur why people from Sama go to the cities to work instead of fencing in their fields and diversifying their crops, and a frequent response is “Wolofs just want money” (Sama Ndiayen is Wolof, whereas Fas Toucouleur is Toucouleur). That there is a cultural difference may be true, but I would hazard to speculate that the cultural difference is a result of an underlying economic difference. Our village’s culture may emphasize money because we have less land, and people depend more on cash income from outside.
It may be inevitable that more and more people will leave to seek work in cities, but before they go, I hope they plant lots of trees, especially cashews. Cashews grow well in our area, and they provide income through their fruit and nuts, as well as firewood. They also improve the soil. If people take the time to plant cashew orchards before they leave to work in Dakar or abroad, they will have a retirement fund waiting for them when they return. If I return in 10 years, I hope to see groves of cashews surrounding the village.