Lessons from Senegal – Part.1

Recently a group of us from India made a trip to Senegal, in Francophone West Africa and we made a lot of observations about the society that we thought useful to record. Few people in India know much about this small African state of 12 million people. It is a coastal country on the most western peninsula of Africa (closest point to the Americas) and has a vibrant tourism industry still dominated by the French seekers of sun and beach life. It is one of those countries that has two or more large port cities doing commerce on behalf of the many other land-locked inland African states primarily linking them with trading partners in countries of the Middle East, China, and France.
On first glimpse in Dakar, the capital city, one cannot ignore the height of the people. The average height is about 5 foot and ten inches. People are very physically conscious, whether in terms of women and their colourful array of clothing or the visible sportsmanship of the male population. Football seems to be the main preoccupation of the youth and like cricket fields in India you see football fields in many localities. This shows the immense energy of the youth that if used constructively is a powerful force for building society.
A second interesting observation is the deep sense of family-based culture particularly around eating. All members eat from one plate. There is no hierarchy in so far as who gets the food first. Men, women and children eat together. It is basically a rice and fish eating society, at least for the communities along the seacoast. The fish is cooked in a stew and then the rice is cooked in the same broth. This was a little challenging for the vegetarians among us from India as the rice and fish which is often cooked with vegetables and tubers like cassava are then heaped onto a large tray and put on a table around which each family member sits and uses their hands to pry out their portion of the food from a common plate. What is noteworthy, there is a kind of equality around eating that is practiced in Senegal.
A third observation was the muted piety in the society. The fact that a large portion of the male population prays five times a day and the soft Moslem traditions are found in the home and the society may have been a reason why alcohol and smoking are almost non-existent. This was a very heartening discovery for those of us from India. The lesson from Senegal is that community development does not have to be derailed by liquor merchants and governments seeking tax collection from liquor sales, and it is more likely that the community stays together where there is no alcohol.
Dakar has also has the infamous Gorée Island –just off its coast—on which there was a holding center for people who in a short period of time went from farmers or hunters to slaves in the Americas. This three-century long slave trade between the 16th to the 19th centuries carried out the sale of more than 15 million African people who were sold as slaves (not to forget the 6 million others who died en route) and many passed through this maritime station of Gore Island. As one walked around the island seeing the pretty batik paintings and ebony statues, one could not help but feel a deep sense of cries coming from the places that were marked by various monuments and memorabilia. This was a genocide of another kind.
Although one can say coming from India that this was the doings of the colonial European powers in their avarice to make money; one would have to add that it was vitiated by the tribal chiefs who sold their own people. In effect like other mass genocides and forms of slavery, it is a blot on the whole of the human race.
Our hosts in Senegal were by in large working to save the rights of people over their community land.
Senegal like many other countries in Africa has eighty percent community land holdings, something we have lost in India –except in a few places. In other words if you want a piece of land, you simply ask for it. You can use it and give it to your children and you have the land rights over the property but you cannot sell it. It is also possible for the government to appropriate it back for “public purpose” and for the community to ask for it back. In return for sale, the community or government gives you an indemnity worth the cost of your house and investment in moveable property and not for the land.
This is what is at the base of the present controversy. The pressure from private businesses to get long-term land leases is forcing the government to find all sorts of legal and illegal methods to get land plots. Various communities are reacting. One of the biggest groups of private investors vying for land is in bio-fuel producers. As Senegal is a semi-arid area, it does not have the capacity to grow fruit and plantation crops except in the southern belt of Casamance. It has a lot of land that has been used traditionally by cattle herders, and the growing of traditional food crops like maize and millets; and now this land is being staked out for growing fuel crops. With the high price of oil, this has indeed become a lucrative business. In one of the cases explored by the group was in the Senegal river basin, and this was an Italian venture along with a Senegalese partner has created a company which has amassed land for fuel plantations. There is a question of land transfers in terms of how legal loopholes are being used, in this case “land being appropriated for public utilities” when in fact the government is releasing it to private parties for biofuels.
In another case of Bambylore in the suburbs of Dakar, it was clear that the pressure on these peri-urban areas are being used for real estate and the compulsion to create housing has been pushing the Executive to set up legal entities to justify land transfer. The result however is that there is housing colony being created for army personal.
As a foreign team of eleven made up of friends from India, Nepal, France, Colombia, Nigeria and Burkina Faso, we were able to hear the local Senegalese grievances from the communities in advance of their National Land Commission that is being set up to look at the legal conflicts between state and community land laws. Within this body, there is a strong group wanting market-led land reform and the CSOs are pressing equally hard for community-based land reform. The foreign group clarified some of the issues of community-based land reform based on their own country experiences.
From an Indian perspective, community-based land reform has been weak because of the gradual privatisation of land resources, and the increasing use of land for industry and infrastructure. Being in a country like Senegal with so much community land was an interesting case to study. There are ongoing efforts in India about the role of the village governments in the survey and settlement of land and distribution. This aims at giving people greater local control over their water, forest and land so that they can build up local livelihoods and are able to hold onto their resources in the face of increasing privatisation. Although the land is individually owned for the most part, at least the local community and institutions are to play a bigger role. In contrast the Senegal situation provided many lessons on community institutions and gave many insights into how to advance the community-based land reform agenda.