What we can learn from Senegal

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By Musa Bah

I spent the last days of December 2022 in the Senegalese capital, Dakar because I was there to attend a conference but also to conduct research for a book I am currently writing. I have observed with ‘nostalgia’ some character traits which I really think we, as Gambians, can learn from. I will try to present these one point at a time.

I was based inside the city and at some point needed to go to the outskirts, a place called Diamniadio to be precise. Of course anyone who knows Dakar, knows of its teeming population and thus the traffic congestions especially in festive days like New Year’s Eve and the like. So, someone suggested that I use the train service which will be about twenty minutes instead of the two to three hours I would spend if I were to join commercial vehicles.

At the train station, the first thing that caught my attention was the organisation and security arrangements. One had to buy the ticket at a particular point and walk a long distance on a flyover and then pass through a special security post. One places the ticket on a console which reads it and opens the doors for you. Then I arrived at the tracks and a monitor displayed that the train will be there in four minutes. Exactly four minutes later, the train pulled up. This reminded me of when I went to England and later Sweden, the efficiency is second to none.

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I boarded the train and it moved. Clear and precise announcements informed us of each stop ahead in French, English and Wollof. So, I could tell which station was next until we reached my destination in exactly the number of minutes predicted earlier. I unboarded and followed the many commuters through the security gates (all automated) and emerged on the other side. Within a short time, I was at the conference venue. No sweat, no hassle. True, it is more expensive than the commercial vehicles but considering the comfort, ease and time, it is worth every nickle. If Senegal can, why can’t we?

Then I went to the garage where taxis pick passengers and take them to various parts of the city. Here, I was even more amazed by what I saw. Given that the people are too many and not enough taxis to take everyone at the same time, the commuters automatically (on their own) formed queues. Anytime a taxi came, the four in front boarded and the next one will come. In this way, all of us (I had quietly joined the queue as I saw everyone do) boarded taxis for our various destinations. No hassle, no quarrels, no push and pull. And certainly no fights or ‘saaga ndeys’. The drivers follow the same trend thus everything was going on smoothly. If Senegal can, why can’t we?

It was not all about those who have money and can therefore afford the luxury ones, I also joined what they call the Njagga Njies. These are huge gele-geles sometimes as old as time itself or close to enough. Here also, I observed some amazing behaviour. Usually there are about six or seven rows in these, with each taking five passengers. I saw that the moment the vehicle moves, the passengers in each of the rows will collect the fares (take care of the small change and stuff like that) so that by the time the apprentice asks, one of them will give him and say ‘Juroom’ which means, fares for five people. Within a few minutes, the apprentice will collect all the fares. No hassle, no fights, no quarrels and no ‘saaganteh’. If Senegal can, why can’t we?

I am not saying it’s all good in Senegal but some of these traits are worth emulating. If you are a Gambian and join the public transport system, you know exactly what I am talking about. It is good to look at ourselves introspectively and see what we are doing wrong and seek remedies.

Now, how did they attain this level of maturity and organisation? Obviously, I am no social scientist and I have not conducted any research to come to a definitive conclusion but I will venture an opinion. The person I came to interview, Mr Mamadou Jara Diouf, was once the Secretary General of the Senegalese Teachers’ Union. I asked him how he thinks they got there. In addition to being the SG of that union, he is a renowned writer who chooses to write in Wollof. Most of his books are in Wollof despite having the highest qualifications in French.

He said that they did a study and found out that only about twenty percent of the citizens are conversant in French. Therefore, they knew that if they want to reach the majority they had to communicate in Wollof, Pulaar and Mandinka. They set out to write in these national languages which are accessible to the greater numbers. Thus, we see a level of awareness among Senegalese which I daresay is not in the Gambia.

Communication is key in shaping the mindset and perseption of a nation and in order to communicate well, one has to chose the language spoken and understood by the greater majority of the people. We must use our languages to create awareness in our people. This is one of the surest ways to bring about transformation.