senegal1A May 31, 2014 article in the Economist magazine entitled “Migration from Africa: No Wonder They Still Try” (here) describes how migrants from further south in Africa are desperately trying to make their way through Libya and across the Mediterranean to Europe. Some migrants pay close to $2,000 for passage on rickety boats to European landing points. As the Economist reports,  “Many do not survive.”  Armed conflict, swelling populations and other factors have driven many to make the attempt to flee, despite the dangers involved. 


Many of these migrants come from countries such as Central African Republic, Mali,  northern Nigeria, Somalia and Southern Sudan, which are troubled by civil unrest. Not all of the African countries are as disrupted as these, but even in the more stable countries conditions are difficult for many. As result of an unexpected relationship, I have developed a perspective on the conditions in one of Africa’s more stable countries.


Senegal is a francophone country on Africa’s west coast, about the geographic size of South Dakota and with a population about the size of Pennsylvania. The country’s capital, Dakar, is located on the Atlantic Coast, at the country’s westernmost point. Dakar has a population of about 1 million people. In the capital city’s outskirts, there is a high school with a 50 year-old English teacher: an educated, articulate man with a sharp eye and a hard-earned sense of cynicism. Through his words I have been given a glimpse of the very different world in which he lives.


I was first introduced to Mamoun Bey (not his real name) four years ago through my eldest daughter, who works for a nonprofit healthcare book publisher. Mr. Bey is effectively his school’s health care officer, and for years he has relied on a medical handbook the nonprofit publishes to provide medical care to the school’s students and their families. He wrote to the nonprofit to ask for a new copy of the book because the one he had was falling apart. Upon request from my daughter, I provided the funding for the organization to supply Mr. Bey several new books. Somehow, Mr. Bey found out about my involvement and he wrote me a long, interesting letter. We have been regular correspondents ever since. Each one of Mr. Bey’s letters provides a window into a world that is even further from my own than geographic distance alone would suggest.


In his first letter, written after receiving the new medical guides, Mr. Bey explained to me the health care issues facing his school community.  He began with an explanation of “the African way of life.” In the densely populated cities “we share so many things together.” In Senegal in particular there is “an exaggerated tradition of shaking hands with everyone, even with unknown persons (strangers)” which “unfortunately accounts for the high rate of transmission of diseases.” In Africa, the population is threatened with many infectious diseases and with “endemic fatal diseases, like malaria, typhoid and cholera.” The transmission of rabies from dog bites is also a problem as “hordes of dogs roam about with no owner to claim them.”


Poor environmental conditions “explain the endemic character of many infectious diseases.” During the rainy season, “pools of water and mud stagnate in most African cities.” In the absence of access to clean drinking water, people drink contaminated well water. A better storm water runoff and sewage system would alleviate many of these conditions, but those improvements would be possible only “if we had responsible and honest statesmen across the continent.”


The curse of corrupt politicians is something of a running theme for Mr. Bey. The poor storm water drainage and poor transport systems are “due to the unscrupulous politicians who choose to enrich themselves to the detriment of their respective countries.” The “paradox” is that so many African counties are “rich in natural resources.” However, it is “mostly foreign companies, hitherto mostly Europeans, today Chinese, that exploit them with the complicity of the politicians in power.”  As a result, “little goes to the development of our countries.”


The storm water runoff problems present a particularly harsh example of the corrosive effects of corruption.  During the rainy season, many of Dakar’s residential areas flood. Those with money “hire trucks full of sand or soil that they dump in front of their houses thus deflecting the flood water to their neighbors opposite!” The prior national government had started a program to try to relocate people who had built houses in swampy areas during drought years but “much of the funds were embezzled” and less than a thousand of the planned twenty thousand residential units were actually built.


While there are many difficulties in living in Dakar, Mr. Bey does have a surprising level of access to the outside world and to technology. He has Internet access at his school and he has an email account, but we both prefer to communicate by regular mail rather than over the Internet. He also has a television and a cell phone.  He follows U.S. and European politics by listening to the BBC. During the 2012 U.S. Presidential elections, he commented to me that he had heard that Ohio was a critical swing state. When he was describing a particular feature of his country to me, he suggested I could learn more about it by looking it up on Google.


Mr. Bey, who is University educated, strongly believes in the value of education. His older children are enrolled at the University but he is disappointed that his youngest son “couldn’t cope with studies.” His son now spends his time tending animals and more recently “he has been spending a lot of time in his friend’s home operating computer games.” Mr. Bey says, “I am not happy about this.”


Mr. Bey’s letters have told me a great deal about day to day life and important events in Dakar. His second letter to me included a detailed account of the political crisis the country faced when the then-President tried to run for a third term in office, in defiance of a constitutional provision limiting the President to two terms. The crisis led to street protest and ultimately to an internationally monitored election in which the former President was voted out of office. Senegal, for all of its struggles, has functioning democratic institutions, in contrast to so many other African counties.


Mr. Bey also told me about a religious festival of the local Mourid community. The festival, held each December and called the Magal de Touba, is a “big gathering of disciples, sympathizers and curious visitors” to commemorate the return of their leader, Cheikh Amadou Bamba, from exile in Gabon where he had fled from the French colonial administration. Many “exploits” are attributed to this leader and he has attracted a following of “fanatics.” The disciples “travel from all parts of the country in huge convoys,” while others come from abroad. For Mr. Bey, who is always concerned about health and safety issues, the burdens this human influx puts on the local transportation create very dangerous conditions. He notes that “there are often severe accidents with heavy casualties,” and this year more than 30 people died during the festival. Many of the accidents are the result of simple mechanical failure, but “most cases are due to human recklessness and greediness.” In order to complete as many trips as possible, the drivers don’t rest sufficiently and their fatigue causes them to lose control of their vehicles, as happened in connection with one particularly horrible head on collision that resulted in 18 deaths.


Through our correspondence we are both learning about each other’s cultures; I think I have been able to show Mr. Bey a little bit about our culture in the U.S. For instance, I told him about the annual gathering in my neighborhood to watch the Super Bowl, which he found interesting. He said, “Here, people believe that you there live highly individualized lives like in Europe with little or no contacts with neighbors. At least your Super Bowl account gives a different image. Here, people are very gregarious to the point that they almost step on your feet. There is too much wagging and less productivity, save for craftsmen and farmers.”  Mr. Bey was also surprised to learn that my mother-in-law lives in our home. He said that he had heard that in Europe and America, older folks are “put in institutions” where they live alone.


Health-related topics are a recurring theme in Mr. Bey’s letters and often a jumping off point for comparisons between African and American cultures. In discussing the rising incidence of cancer in Africa, Mr. Bey first noted that until recently “cancer was little known in Africa.” Things have changed. He lost the mother of his oldest son to breast cancer. He also described in moving detail the recent death of a neighbor and close friend from cancer. Mr. Bey said “when I went to see my friend in his last days, I could only lay my right hand on his forearm and recite some prayer verses that I know.” As for why there has been a change, “some say it’s due to our countries’ copying the American and European way of life: eating less and less natural food, living in a more and more polluted environment, inhaling cigarette and engine smoke, paint and chemicals.”


Not all of Mr. Bey’s observations relate to health and safety concerns.  For example, Mr. Bey provided an interesting description of the Barack Obama’s June 2013 visit to Senegal, as well as an interesting perspective on U.S. relations with Africa:


Your President, Barack Obama, spent three days here with his wife, two daughters, mother-in-law, and a very huge delegation made up mainly of businessmen officials and security personnel. Some main roads of Dakar were closed to the public and taken over by the U.S. security forces to avert any attempt by violent gangs in Libya and Mali to infiltrate the joyful welcoming. The most moving moment of his visit was to Gorée Island, a small island close to Dakar from where thousands of slaves were said to have been exported in inhuman conditions to America during the slave trade. Visitors are shown the famous door of no return. … People are very happy and proud to welcome such guests. They do help financially the country. George Bush junior is the most outstanding in giving aid to African countries: He created the Millennium Challenge account award which undertook a lot of road and bridge construction and financed agriculture in a selected number of African countries to encourage them to more democracy. …The enlightened citizens will forever remember his legacy in Africa as John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps initiative is still remembered today.  


Mr. Bey’s life is difficult and full of challenges, many of which are so different than the kinds of things that I have to deal with on a day to day basis. But we also share many concerns. He worries about his children and their futures. He wants to see his country run well and he aspires to a time when the government can properly address the challenges his country faces.


I feel very grateful to have gotten to know Mr. Bey through his letters. It is not just that the many challenges that Mr. Bey faces helps me to appreciate the many benefits that I enjoy, often without sufficient awareness. It is that through the words of this articulate, observant man I have come to appreciate the common humanity we all share with people living in a very different culture and under very different conditions.  His comments about and gratitude for the efforts of several American presidents to help his country made me feel proud, and helped me to appreciate that our prosperous country can help others to try to prosper and succeed.


I feel very fortunate to be able to call Mr. Bey my friend.