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Senegal

The Sufi Muslims in Senegal have a strong belief in the importance of giving alms every day. It doesn’t have to be much, but at least a token offering to someone less well off than you. I have always believed that charity was a fundamental good. However, I know that the one thing that can change lives more than anything else is empowerment through dignified work.

Being here, I began to wonder if I would be a bad Muslim. Would I hand someone 500 CFA just because they ask? No — a banana, orange, or apple maybe, but cash, no. I’ve seen too many examples of how small change can corrupt and create a cycle of poverty that is unbreakable, especially for the children involved. Throughout my own life experience, I have only ever seen a handout (few extreme exceptions aside) disempower. An exchange, on the other hand, I have seen empower beyond measure. An exchange proves to both parties that they have something of worth to offer.

As I get ready to leave Senegal, I think about this as I realize how much I have collected here. My pack is suddenly bursting at the seams, filled with objects that I never knew I wanted. Necklaces and bracelets I will never wear spill out of new batik jewelry bags. Tie-dye fabrics need to be folded and refolded to fit properly into the remaining crevasses. Looking down at all of these items, most of which I know I paid too much for, I realize the joke is one me. Senegal’s sea of endless entrepreneurs has won me over. I didn’t think twice about the 5000 CFA piece of fabric, the 3000 CFA necklace, or a 2000 CFA contribution for a beach mat, because each time I exchanged money for goods, I gained a conversation and the seller gained resources and capacity.

I look down at my bag again, packed and so much heavier than it was when I got here. I take note and think, perhaps, in my own way, I actually have been giving alms all along.

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The Casamance is unique in Senegal for its greenness. While most of the country lies within the arid Sahel region, the Casamance represents the end of the desert and beginning of the rainforest. Getting there requires a 9-hour sept-place ride around or through The Gambia or an overnight ferry ride down the coast. Needless to say, we went for the ferry.

My favorite moments on the ferry came during our ride back up to Dakar. Walking onto the back deck of the ferry, I decided on taking one of the only shady seats in the place. A 20’ by 30’ awning stretched out over the bar and 2 double-sided benches. From here I had the perfect viewing spot over the Ziguinchor port. I watched as goats roamed the pier, as ferry goers who had just passed through 6 armed check points to board the ship passed by a simple wire fence draped with laundry and offering a gaping hole out into the parking lot, and as the green cargo boat moored in front of us off loaded a free standing bath tub.

As the ferry began to fill, the bar under the awning became the place to be. Music played at such a level that ordering a soda resembled an interaction one might have at large nightclub in New York or London. Rain began to fall and the 300 people on the ferry rushed into the small space taking the only cover provided that wasn’t an interior cabin. The sound of the engines floated up adding to the excitement, and suddenly we were off. 300 people, one German ferry boat, and no goats (that I saw at least!) cruising away from the Casamance.

I would have expected a plaque or a statue, or maybe just a big painted sign, something to mark our arrival at the most western point in Africa. Instead, we walked into a string of small grills and lovely ladies in brightly colored batiks. Here the fresh catch of the day is the only special. You want to order it paired with fries or rice and a delicious yassa (spiced onion) sauce. Add a Gazelle and you have all the welcome you need.

Looking out to the west.