Hello all and greetings from Yaféra (pictured in the photo above)! I have now been out in the department of Bakel (a Senegalese administrative division roughly equivalent to an American county) for over a month and things are going well so far. So sorry for the delay on posting! Internet service has actually been pretty good, but I’m paying for it by usage, so I’m not going to include any photos on the blog for the time being in an effort to conserve data. I’ll keep updating Instagram (pictured at right) and will eventually get around to posting photos more extensively once I am reunited with unlimited wifi [update: if you’re reading this post with photos present, I returned back to Dakar and the glories of accessible Internet].
After an overnight coach bus ride of around 15 hours (smooth sailing except for the massive potholes on the stretch of highway from the regional capital of Tambacounda onwards), I arrived safely in Bakel. The city of Bakel is the departmental capital and home to a linguistically and culturally diverse population of approximately 15,000 people living on the banks of the Senegal River. After a week of preparations for my fieldwork, a little site-seeing of the vestiges of the French colonizers’ architecture, and lots of watching the African Cup of Nations, I packed up my bags again and headed out to my first site for my fieldwork.
Yaféra is a Soninké village of about 2500 people, located approximately 25 km south of Bakel. While this may not seem very far by American standards, the village is not located on the highway and so the trip takes much longer than it would on a paved road, as vehicles have to avoid the dirt road’s bumps and potholes for half of the journey. The Soninké are found across Senegal, Mali, and Mauritania and while they are one of Senegal’s smaller ethnic groups, they travel frequently and are highly represented in the Senegalese community abroad. During my MAP research, I met many Soninké Malians living France and studied their migratory history extensively, so it’s been fascinating for me to spend time in one of their communities.
I am staying with relatives of one of my professors at UCAD and I have been shown so much kindness and welcome by everyone, despite the fact that most of the household doesn’t speak more than a handful of French words. Given my minimal Soninké, we’ve had to do a lot of communicating through single words, hand gestures, and eventual clarification by one few of the Francophone members of the family. I have been renamed Touré, which is a name traditionally given to a Soninké family’s oldest daughter. At the moment, the house has between 40 and 45 occupants, primarily women and children. The vast majority of the men (and many of their offspring) in the family live in Dakar or France. These migrants helped finance the construction of the house, which is quite enormous and has numerous amenities, including an upper level, electricity, and running water to a single tap in the giant communal courtyard.
The actual research aspect of my time here has been going well! I’ve done around 25 individual interviews and am feeling pretty good about the results of the conversations. I’ve met with local authorities, both elected officials and traditional leaders. I’ve also discussed with local development actors, including a women’s agricultural association, a butcher collective, and the staff at the various migrant-funded public structures (the two elementary schools, the middle school, the health center, the post office, and the water tower). Finally, I’ve gotten to do some household-level interviews with families who have been impacted by migration, including wives or returned retirees themselves, as well as households whose family members have not migrated. Some of the conversations have been in French, while others have taken place in Soninké with translation assistance from young people around my age with high school or university-level educations.
I have loved working on these interviews, because I am finally getting to investigate phenomena on the ground after years of studying the theory in the classroom. While I will spend much more time analyzing and forming conclusions when I get back to Dakar, one underlying theme that has already emerged is the crucial importance that migration has played in shaping this village and its livelihood. When walking down the street, it is easy to see which families are supported by migrants abroad, because their homes are vast concrete structures, often with multiple levels. Non-migrant families tend to live in smaller houses or huts made out of mud with straw roofs.
Over and over again, my interview participants repeat the same things: without migration to France, they would not be able to feed their families. Without migration to France, they would not be able to build large and comfortable houses.Without migration to France, they would not benefit from all of the public goods that have improved the village’s levels of education, health, and communication with the rest of the world. Many of the state employees such as the teachers, health workers, and postal workers are Wolof and are not originally from this part of the country. They too echo that despite the numerous problems stemming from poverty that still exist in Yaféra, subsistence farming communities in other regions do not have this type of infrastructure. It is the income from abroad that has been funding these important structures that we as Americans would normally assume would be paid for by the state. I wish that more of the individuals currently spewing hateful rhetoric about immigration and Islam in the United States or in Europe would come to places like Yaféra and see how much good these Muslim migrants have done for their families and community members.
When not working, I have also gotten to hang out with my host family and explore the area a little bit. There are lots of little kids around in the house and throughout the village. When I first arrived, their reactions to my presence ranged from fear, staring, and even sometimes crying to extreme excitement with screams of “Toubab! Toubab!,” giggling, and even swarms of kids trying to pet my arms to see what my skin felt like. If it wasn’t already obvious, white people are few and far between out here. After a few weeks, the novelty has definitely not worn off, but people now recognize me and most of them greet me by name instead of by my skin color. The kids in the house have warmed up to me and love playing with me, despite our minimal shared vocabulary.
The adults in the house have also been great, with several of the women my age making sure I’m fed and hydrated, but also taking me along to their various activities. I’ve visited the men’s corn, onion, and sweet potato fields and the women’s vegetable gardens. I’ve ridden in pirogues on the Senegal River. I attended the drumming and dancing circle during the afterparty of a neighbor’s wedding. I went to the neighboring villages of Golmy and Ballou, the latter of which is the seat of the commune (the smallest and newest administrative division after decentralization). In doing so, I experienced the joys of some of Senegal’s forms of rural transit, including shared bush taxis, enclosed truck beds, vans with bench seats, and my mother’s favorite, motos (motor bikes somewhere in between the size of a moped and a huge Harley). Possibly my favorite adventure so far was seeing the point where Senegal, Mali, and Mauritania intersect as the Senegal and Falémé rivers split. I’ve also eaten many carbs, drunk numerous rounds of tea, done lots of reading and journaling, and watched numerous episodes of the French-dubbed Mexican telenovelas that play in a loop each day.
Despite all of these incredible new personal and professional experiences, there have definitely been challenging moments. The hotter part of the dry season is starting and temperatures are maxing out between 100 and 105 °F every day. It’s only going to keep getting hotter for the next couple of months, but I’m a wimp and it feels really hot during the middle of the day and the afternoon. My digestive system has suffered several major setbacks and I have learned to appreciate the modern medical miracles that are Imodium and Pepto-Bismol. Non-meat protein sources and produce diversity are infrequent at best, making vegetarian eating a bit of a struggle. The linguistic barriers make me feel lonely sometimes, even when I’m almost always surrounded by people. I am very dependent on others to cook me food, supply me with water for bathing and toilet use, help me initiate contacts for my research, and generally do most things, all of which feels strange to an adult person who normally strives to be independent in most domains of her life.
I am learning a lot about my own economic and geographic privilege as I encounter inequalities in terms of material wealth and the educational and professional opportunities available to me as an American woman. People are mesmerized by my Apple laptop, Kindle, and fancy headlamp. They are surprised and sorry for me when I tell them at 22, I am neither married nor do I have children. They want to know how to visit the United States and ask me to bring development projects to the village. Although most people now understand that my presence here is solely in the capacity of a student researcher, it is difficult for some people to understand that the toubab with her electronics and fancy waterproof shoes is not here to invest money in their community, but instead just wants to ask a bunch of questions, doesn’t want to eat any fish, and doesn’t seem to appreciate getting up early to avoid the heat the way everyone else does.
However, barring some temporary stressors and discomforts, I have been treated with such kindness, generosity, and openness by everyone I have met here. I am learning so much about the subject of my research and what migration and development actually look like on the ground, but also about life in rural Senegal more generally. I drink lots of water and think about all of the food groups I will reincorporate when I get back to Dakar. I say thank you in as many languages as I can as often as I can. I try to respect traditional gender roles and marriage practices while also occasionally expressing my own feminist views. I answer questions about the current American administration and about life at home as honestly as I can. I try not to make any promises about providing financial or material support to the village while also reflecting how I could use this outcome of this research to enact some sort of change.
This week, I am returning to Bakel for a couple of days before heading to my next field site in a different part of the department. It will be sad to say goodbye to the community here, but I am also excited to see something new and further my project! Stay tuned for updates (hopefully) once I’ve settled into the next village and thanks so much for reading!