Happy Earth Day, Bonne Journée Mondiale de la Terre 2010

The entrance to the Cultural Center in Thies, adorned with Earth Day posters.

While readers in the United States are still busy doing the millions of activities organized this year to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Earth Day,  I’m just closing up shop on my favorite one to date.  I spent the day in Thies, Senegal’s 2nd largest (but rapidly developing) city, giving a talk about climate change.  The presentation was held in the town’s Cultural Center, one of a series of meeting places maintained by the government in almost all Senegalese towns of a certain size.

U.S. Embassy Cultural Affairs Officer Kristin Stewart celebrates Earth Day 2010 with art, along with its creator, M. Sidibe, at far right.

The Center, a concrete structure located on the outskirts of town, houses a reception area, an exhibition space (where currently a Malian born but Senegalese raised artist, M. Sidibe, is showing his work); a large meeting hall with a raised stage; a library; and a set of Turkish toilets (no working flush or chasse d’eau but low water impact!).  The U.S. Embassy supports a portion of the building, called the American Corner, where it has established a modest library and meeting space and a small internet café.  I was invited to speak by the embassy’s cultural affairs officer, to mark this day established in 1970 to learn more about our environment.

An exterior mural cleverly incorporates the light fixture.

So, some Trivial Pursuit questions Earth Day edition.  I already gave away the starting year, but how many people from how many countries participated?  Answer: 20 million, in the United States only, which came up with the idea (before Congress came up with the idea of passing the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act).  How has Earth Day grown in 40 years?  Today, April 22, 2010, it is estimated that 1 billion people in 190 countries will participate in some environmental activity.

Over a hundred people attended and I likened our late morning/early afternoon together to a teach-in.  Here we were, in a public space, teachers and students, government officials and NGO activists, all assembled to teach one another.

The audience included town and regional officials and politicians, teachers, and students.

Ostensibly I was taking the lead, explaining the dynamics of climate change, legal responses at the international and national levels, and then concluding with what the individual can do in Thies or Dakar or St. Louis.  I showed parts of the film, Home,  which stunningly portrays the “big picture” idea of man’s disproportionate impact on the Earth through Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s compelling aerial photography.  But the terrific questions afterwards showed me how much I had to learn – not only about internal political dynamics in Senegal but also between countries.  If I had a nickel for every time I received a variant of the question “why doesn’t the U.S. take responsibility for its pollution and the impact it has on poor countries like Senegal,” I’d be a wealthy or rather, wealthier, woman.

Sure, the 70k drive took over two hours, given the constant traffic jams around Pikine and Rufisque.  And we started late.  And the computer audio wasn’t great at first.  And the electricity cut out a few minutes later, during the movie.  (Ah, but the generator kicked in not long thereafter!).  And it was hot, making me way too grateful for the air conditioning that enveloped me when returning to Dakar in the U.S. Embassy 4 x 4. But all that pales in comparison when spending a great day, in a great town, with great people.

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