Waaw Open Residency in Ndar: Part. 5 Opening a New Chapter in My Life

When I applied to study BA International Development at university, it was purely out of genuine interest. Profession-wise, I had no idea what I wanted to be or where I wanted to work after finishing the degree, other than do something in the non-profit sector. It wasn’t till my second year of university that I set my eyes firmly on a particular job role/title. While I had been interested in the subject before, taking a research skills module made me realise I would enjoy working on research projects, mainly outside academia. Since then, I have been striving to be a researcher, or/and a project consultant, when I finish my studies.

Though highly idealistic, I don’t want a permanent job in the same organisation and/or setting for a extended period of time: I would rather alternate between different contracts and projects, working as a freelance researcher or independent consultant. Of course, it will take me years and years of effort to potentially reach this goal. To begin with, I almost certainly need to do a masters, and if I want to do some academic research, I probably need a PhD. When comes to work experience, though I have worked and volunteered as a research/project assistant before, my project during my stay at Waaw was my first ever totally self-managed research endeavour. Hence, succeeding at it was very important for me, as it would be a test on whether I would really enjoy this type of career.

As mentioned in a previously in this blog series, I didn’t choose a research aim or research questions before arriving to Ndar, as I wanted to explore the place before choosing a particular issue to focus on. However, I did have some general ideas of topics that would be interesting to investigate. Prior to travelling, I looked for information about Ndar on the internet, and I often found it described as a either a city with a significant ‘glorious’ past due to French colonialism (it used to be the capital of French West Africa) or as region threatened by environmental degradation and climate change (coastal erosion is a serious problem).

Both descriptions of the city intrigued me, and I thought I could potentially focus on either of them for my research, asking myself questions such as ‘Is Ndar more than its ‘great’ colonial past?’ or ‘How are people enduring the effects of coastal erosion and other climate change effects?’. I wasn’t really thinking of doing innovative or ground-breaking research, just looking at something that interested me and that I could study through my academic knowledge. Fortunately, Waaw organised some activities that helped me to understand more about these topics and others, so I had somewhere from where to begin my research.

Firstly, I joined the History and Architecture tour to learn more about the history of the island (during which I took most of the pictures for the ‘vintage/ˈvɪntɪdʒ/’ photoset). The buildings in Ndar tell a lot about the city: many were built during the French colonial era, and rather than changed/modernised, they were preserved and kept in a very similar appearance. This is probably why Ndar is described by its past so much: it still has the ‘colonial look’. Indeed, two key monuments in the island are the Faidherbe bridge (which links the island to mainland Senegal) and the Faidherbe statue. Both are named after Louis Faidherbe, the French colonial governor of Saint-Louis during little more than a decade. Interestingly enough, when I arrived to Ndar, the Faidherbe statue had just been vandalised with white paint an unidentified person. And apparently, that wasn’t a rare occurrence.

Two key places caught my particular attention during the tour: a historic house turned hotel and a small street/alley. When visiting the historic house that was now a hotel, I was particularly struck by a big painting on one of the meeting areas. The artwork (the featured image for the post vintage/ˈvɪntɪdʒ/) depicts the women of Waalo, a precolonial kingdom in Senegal, with Ndaté Yalla Mbodj in the middle, the last Linguere (Queen) of Waalo. Ndaté and her army fought against French colonisation and invasion by the Moors from North Africa, as narrated by our Senegalese tour guide. I was really captivated by the drawing and the story, as precolonial African history is not very acknowledged often. However, it wasn’t the first time I had heard about the word ‘Linguere’. Indeed, one of the restaurants close to the Waaw house is called La Linguere and inside there is also a painting, though smaller, of Ndaté (I didn’t realise of the meaning of the restaurant’s name and of its painting till after the tour).

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The painting

Meanwhile, the small street/alley close to the Waaw house was so compelling because it turned out to be much more than just that: the buildings around it used to be places were thousands of enslaved Africans to be sent to the Americas were once kept. After being told this, it became obvious by how small and narrow the windows on the buildings were. It didn’t surprise me much, as Ndar is a coastal region, however, there is no sign or indication of that place’s history anywhere near it. Knowing about it made me feel very uneasy, as the topic of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade always does: it shows how prevalent, yet easily forgotten, the event was.

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One of the buildings

Though very interesting and useful for basic information, the History and Architecture tour didn’t have as much of an impact on my research (and I) as the following two tours, which were much more educational. One of them was visiting the islet of Guet Ndar, the fishermen’s neighbourhood and the most crowded ward in the city (it is united to the main Ndar island through a medium-sized bridge). In fact, Guet Ndar and its inhabitants were there prior to French colonisation, stayed during it, and remained after it, as explained by our tour guide, who was from the neighbourhood. This was an interesting fact: often, Ndar was described as an uninhabited island discovered by the French when I looked for information about it online, with only a few places mentioning the existence of Guet Ndar and its historical fishermen population. The city of Saint-Louis may have founded by the French, but Ndar as an area was not exactly unexplored and away from human contact prior to French arrival.

What made the tour in Guet Ndar so engaging was that its aim wasn’t mere sightseeing: it was learning more about the cultural and social aspects of the neighbourhood. We walked through it for a bit, just looking around in silence while many children playing on the streets looked at us intrigued, shouting ‘Toubab’ (Senegalese way of saying ‘foreign’) and wanting to touch our hands. Then, we arrived to the beach area, where we saw the damage caused by the sea on buildings facing it. Coastal erosion is a real threat to the ward, which as an islet in front of the main island, protects the later from being inundated. While relocation has been raised as a solution, the inhabitants of the ward are reluctant to leave for two main reasons: because they are a fishermen community who needs to be close to the sea to carry out their activities, and because their ancestors are buried there, which makes them feel protected.

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Our tour guide also told us about how life works in Guet Ndar, where most men are fishermen, while women process and sell the fish caught. The community is very tight, has its own leaders, and there is a high level of trust and close relationships between its members, which has sometimes lead to cases of children being born to related parents. However, unlike in the main island, children don’t beg in Guet Ndar (i.e. there aren’t talibes), since people there are not poor, mainly women who make the most money through selling the processed fish. Another interesting aspect of Guet Ndar are the fishermen boats partially surrounding it, full of colours, symbols and named after people important to its owners. Something I found striking was seeing a boat with the Nazi symbol: the tour guide explained us that people don’t understand its meaning properly and just use it for aesthetic purposes.

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Though the neighbourhood was intriguing, I only visited Guet Ndar once through my whole stay at Waaw, during the aforementioned guided visit, partly because it vwasery crowded and noisy compared to the calmness and silence of the main island. Moreover, my research started to stall at this point due to three reasons: beginning it quite late because I was busy finishing assessments for university, my poor health, and the incident that made me paranoid to leave the Waaw house alone. At some point, I started considering quitting the project and just relax for the rest of the residency, feeling like I wasn’t even really researching anything. I was a bit lost, and it wasn’t till the final tour I partook in when I regained the spirit to carry on. Visiting Doune Baba Dieye, also known as the ‘Sunken Village’, revived the researcher spark inside me.

With the same tour guide as for the Guet Ndar tour, we took a taxi from the Waaw house to Doune Baba Dieye, an islet-village in a rural area close to Ndar, in the Senegal River and Langue of Barbarie area, which is mainly known due to the catastrophic effects of a poorly-planned strategy against extreme weather conditions. In 2003, due to fears of flooding because of heavy rains, the Senegalese authorities decided to open a channel in the mouth of the Senegal river, which then began to widen more severely than expected. Consequently, in 2012, the river-sea swallowed the islet-village of Doune Baba Dieye, between others, forcing its inhabitants to move to the mainland. At present, the breach keeps widening, however, the area is experiencing a ‘rebirth’ (yes, the pictures of the previous blog series post were from this tour): the sunken lands are re-surging and the efforts to rehabilitate them are on-going. The later is what we learnt about during the visit.

Through a short-boat expedition led by one of Doune Baba Dieye’s ex-residents, we were shown the effects of the breach, how they were slowly reversing and how locals were trying to make the area habitable again. When the land started to re-surge, tree-planting became a key activity to prevent further coastal erosion. In addition, by choosing specific plant species to help with issues such as desalination and water filtration, locals have been able to make sustainable organic orchards in the reappearing islets, growing a wide range of vegetables such as cabbage, watermelon and potatoes. ‘Artificial’ islands were also created for birds to get fresh water: prior to the breach disaster, migrating birds used to stop there for rest. Many other species, of both animals and plants, were unable to adapt to the changes too, mainly due to the mix between fresh water and sea water.

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Learning about these efforts and seeing their positive impact re-awoke my genuine interest on the environment and climate change. Indeed, before choosing last-minute to study International Development, I was going to do Zoology or/and Biology at university. Even while studying for my current degree, one of my elective/optional modules is always environment-related. It is an area I wouldn’t mind to specialise in, yet for some time, I had been unhappy with current issues in it, mainly related to dilemmas about climate change adaptation and environmental degradation. Learning about all the international agreements and issues in international institutions related to these areas has made me feel disempowered often: the solutions are there, but making them a reality is nearly impossible due to lack of interest by the main game players (from governments to businesses).

However, watching the rebirth of Doune Baba Dieye made realise that not all hope is lost. That people still care. The rehabilitation efforts in the area weren’t even led by the Senegalese state or by foreign actors: it was by Senegalese people themselves, such as the man who led our tour. He was the one who organised the planting activities, who helped to educate others about environmentally friendly approaches to using nature for their livelihoods, while reducing the damage to it. He even shared the knowledge and practices with outsiders, such as a group of visitors from Netherlands who were suffering from similar issues in their country. The Dutch visitors benefited so much from the advice given that after asking what they could do to give back, they helped to improve drinkable water access in the area.

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All this not only touched my heart, but also re-sparked my latent desire to in the future work in sustainable development or/and environmental anthropology. Knowing that I had learnt so much from just my drive to do research, and a simple boat-tour, reaffirmed my desire to become a researcher, potentially even specialising in the environment. It also motivated me to get on with my research project at Waaw, pushing me to keep investigating while visiting on my own places of interest, such as the Center for Research and Documentation of Senegal (CDRS). I actually spent part of an afternoon in its library, going through books and documents about Ndar. I enjoyed it a lot.

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By the time I finished my residency, I only regretted not starting my research earlier, yet I felt like if I had enough information to do something with it. I will be writing an article about representation(s) of Ndar vs its reality, tying it to dilemmas/controversies in development and anthropology from the perspective of a student. I will keep working on it during the summer, as now I’m busy studying. I will try to get it reviewed by some professors, and then, I will share it in Medium or another open access platform.

Overall, my stay at Waaw could have only been improved with me having better health. Personally, artistically, professionally and academically, it was very life-changing. I learnt more about myself, how I see myself, what I am and what I am not, who I am and who I want to be, what I do and what will I do. I will be forever grateful for the opportunity, I couldn’t have wished for a better introduction to Sub-Saharan Africa, to one of my countries of origin. Leaving, though much desired due to a need to rest, made me feel sad. I still remember trying to collect myself while packing the night before my departure, realising the trip was over, wishing I had the energy to stay for longer.

Nevertheless, I was reassured by knowing I would come back, at least to Senegal in general, in a non-far away future. I still have to see Dakar and other places. I’m also learning Wolof and I want to put into use what I learn. Right now, I’m even thinking of potentially doing my masters dissertation or PhD research in the West African country. I would love to live there for a longer period of time. Visiting Senegal felt like opening a new chapter in my life, after closing a confusing old one. The country is clearly an important part of me now. Subconsciously, it probably always was. I didn’t find my lost Senegalese self in it, but I regained my hopeful and dreamy self.

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