This American Life (in Dakar)

This week began with a wee hours Super Bowl party and is ending with a Presidents Weekend softball tournament at Ebbets Field, with a class trip to the U.S. Embassy’s American Information Center (AIC) and a Fulbrighters’ Game Night chez nous sandwiched in between.  Life in Dakar never felt so American.

Official team portrait, Sand Sharks 2009-10.

Our softball team, the Sand Sharks, played well, earning a respectable 3 – 1 record in the preliminary rounds.  We lost our first game to the team that is playing in the finals (as I write).  The scene around us was wild.  The West African Invitational Softball Tournament (WAIST) (or WASTE, as it has been nicknamed) brings in Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) from all over West Africa – some 500 or so, it’s been said.

Sand Sharks, the unofficial portrait; training for the "social" league.

Host families provide free lodging, the Club Atlantique provides the central meeting point, and the embassy and U.S. mission volunteers organize a field-plex of games and concessions at Ebbets, ISD (Matthew’s school), and Suffolk University/ENEA. Hot dogs and pulled pork, Coke and plentiful beer, Doritos and potato chips, and Snickers, Chips-Ahoy, and Sweet Tarts round it (and us) all out.  We’re not in Dakar anymore, Dorothy.

Matthew at second base, ready to run.

Matthew also played on a team, composed of ISD students, which was organized at the last minute.  ESPN highlights moments for him were a diving catch at short to end their first win of the day and an over-the-wall home run in their second win.  A kindly fellow ball player searched the underbrush for the ball and presented him with it.  Overall the team went 2 & 2.  A terrific showing, for most of his teammates have never played baseball or softball before, hailing from the Netherlands, Sweden, Burundi, Portugal, France, Belgium, Germany, Lebanon, Japan, Eritrea, and, of course, Senegal.

A good time was had by all, especially the PCVs.  The contingent from southern Senegal (Tabacounda and Kedigu) assumed a caveman motif, while those from Kaolack were lumberjacks.

Lumberjacks cheering on their team.

Our last game, against Pebbles and crew, had us sharing our gloves with them and them sharing their club/bat with us.  They began the game by forfeiting, then saying “let’s have fun.”  Watching these young Americans, who spend two years living in the bush, in villages and small towns without running water and electricity, learning local languages and eating local food, and becoming an integral part of their communities, is inspiring.  Whether playing ball, drinking beer, or just fooling around, you can’t match their intensity.

Well, save for Senegalese law students who have beaten the odds to make it to the masters 2 research program in which I currently teach.  In the law faculty, the typical first year class numbers 7000-9000.  By the second year, they’re down to 4000 and by the third year license degree, the numbers have sugared off to the mid-hundreds.  To be promoted from license to masters 1, and then again to master 2, takes an effort.  Classes are often cancelled because professors aren’t available.  Library resources are thin.  Electricity outages interrupt the schedule (as they did for me back in October).  Strikes shut the university down completely.

Listening to Monsieur Sene at the AIC.

My current students, who are in the M2 recherche droit de l’environnement et de la santé, will finish their degrees with a memoire or master’s essay.  They are currently working under a deadline to finalize their topics.  They also have a written take-home exam for my seminar, Les aspects juridiques des changements climatiques, as well as an oral presentation.  So when I learned that the AIC has a small legal collection in hard copy and on-line access to legal journals, all free and open to the public 5 days per week, I organized a field trip.

M. Sene was popular, and the big guy behind him was too.

About 20 students attended, which surprised me. The U.S. is not always looked upon so favorably, despite the high esteem President Obama is held in.  And the embassy, with its many security guards posted at concrete barriers closing off several streets in the vicinity, doesn’t look like such a welcoming place.  Fortunately, my students passed through security with relative ease and filled up the entire library and computer lab, which had been reserved just for them.  AIC director Stephen Mallinger and assistant director, Demba Sene, introduced my students to the collection, reviewed research techniques, and then let them loose in the facility, to look through books and take turns on the computers doing on-line searching in a proprietary legal periodical database that the AIC subscribes to.

Although I teach class in French and students are more comfortable speaking, reading, and writing in French, they did their best to follow the segments taught in English and to practice speaking.  Plus the AIC’s translator software, which enables easy conversion of HTML documents from English to French, made this transition a bit easier.  AND it’s a great place to be photographed with President Obama.  On the left, you see class responsables or student leaders Badji and Pascal, striking the pose adopted by most of the rest of their colleagues at the close of our research class.  (See the photo gallery on the right for the rest of these photos).

Word on the street the next day at la fac was that the U.S. embassy library is very welcoming and good place to work.   Score one for another great American: free public libraries.

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