SINCE arriving in Dakar slightly more than two weeks ago, I have come to realise a number of things. The first, and primary among all other things, is that we should never underestimate the beauty of this earth of ours. Secondly, but no less important, is that we should never underestimate the adaptability of human beings to their surroundings, and the strength of their spirit to flourish.
Dakar, Senegal, is not one of the choice places for Malaysians to visit. In fact, very few Malaysians have been to Senegal. It’s not just the distance. It’s the language, the fear of the unknown, and the idea that there’s nothing to see in Africa. How wrong this last is.
First, the beauty of Africa, and particularly of Dakar. It’s true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but how one can fail to be impressed by the breathtaking view of Dakar’s coastline is simply beyond me.
There are very few beaches in Dakar — instead, what you would find are rugged coastlines interspersed with areas where only cliffs greet the incoming Atlantic Ocean. Needless to say, seafood, caught fresh, is the norm as you watch the sun go down on the horizon. It never fails to move me — that wonderful view of the Dakar coastline — as I make my way to the office.
Of all the places that I have been, this is perhaps one of the most prolific and scenic places on earth.
Dakar’s population of two million often seem too many for one city to accommodate. For many, peddling wares on the street is a way of putting food on the table. If you are ever caught in a traffic jam, you can feast your eyes on the array of items sold from car to car, from bedding to peanuts, and from prepaid telephone cards to fruits. It’s something that we Malaysians don’t see on our streets; peddlers braving oncoming traffic for a chance at a few cents. It’s a sight that makes you thankful to live in prosperous Malaysia.
Yet, these very same people who try to sell you everything but the kitchen sink are as easy-going as people could be. They are not bitter with their lot in life, and they have learned to adapt to the mostly dusty, barren land to which they have been born. The Senegalese are a happy lot. Yes, they worry about the Sahel (an area that separates the Sahara sands from agriculture land) annually “eating” into their agricultural land, they worry about the coastal erosion that brings in seawater to otherwise arable land, and they worry that this year’s World Cup team won’t reach the quarterfinals like the last team did.
But, all those are mere murmurs. Talking to them, you would never guess that they have pressing life problems, problems that we Malaysians rarely have to deal with, yet we go around with less of a smile on our face.
Last year, Senegal’s economy grew by 6.5 per cent, but it still lags behind in terms of overall global economic growth. Its ease of doing business stands at 140, well below Malaysia’s rank of 24th globally. Malaysia’s standing in Senegal is strong. Only last week, the National Council of Employers held an international conference, and at the opening ceremony, Malaysia was one of only five countries in the world whose economy was touted as the council’s benchmark.
The prospects for Senegal’s future look good. There’s a place less than 40km outside of Dakar that is being touted as the “new” planned area for commercial activity. The area, Diamniado (pronounced, as only the Senegalese can pronounce it, as “Jiam-nya- joe), already has a massive convention centre, and plans for an equally massive industrial park are underway.
These are projects that will change the Senegal economy. Currently grounded in agricultural products and the production of some natural resources, Senegal now wants to attract the attention of investors and businesses, particularly those who are looking to invest in Africa like China is.
In early February, Diamniado was the centre of attention when it hosted the Global Partnership for Education, which was co-hosted by Senegal President Macky Sall and French President Emmanuel Macron.
The latter’s visit to Senegal, the first since assuming the presidency nine months ago, not only boosted Senegal-France relations, but also sent a resounding message across the West African continent that Diamniado had “arrived”.
More publicity-worthy though, than even the French president’s attendance at the event, was that of songstress Rihanna, who is the Global Partnership’s goodwill ambassador. Her presence at Diamniado gave it the glamour and seal of approval that even the seven African heads of state who were there, could not muster.
As more and more projects are developed in and around Diamniado, it will be interesting to see if this stable and progressive West African nation can transform itself into a global powerhouse.
The writer is a foreign service officer and an honorary research fellow of the University of Sheffield. She writes on international affairs, with particular emphasis on Africa