After 10 years of extensive research in Dakar, Senegal, Suzanne Scheld, assistant professor of anthropology, has seen it all. From poverty and corruption to hope and perseverance.
Scheld recently won the Jerome Richfield Scholar Award at CSUN for her research. She has also published a book titled “Rethinking Urban Parks.” The book discusses the use of public parks as a place for people of all classes to intermingle and its cultural effects.
She became interested in Africa after teaching English as a Second Language classes in New York. Her students guided her and gave her numbers and addresses of their families in their home countries. Scheld recalled that in her first visit to Africa she stayed with the wife of one of her students. She fell in love with Africa and the culture and traveled to many countries on the continent. Dakar, however, had something special that caught Scheld’s attention. She said she believes it was the richness and complexity of the city.
Scheld has been documenting the effects of globalization on young people in Dakar. One of her initial focuses was fashion and cultural identity, among other things.
“The complexity of Dakar is what makes this city fascinating,” Scheld said.
She pointed out the mixture of modern architecture, Western ideas and French colonialism.
Scheld said that in Dakar you can find the most amazing people. They are very warm and helpful. However, Dakar is a city full of “contrast” and you could also find people who would resort to any means of corruption and exploitation to get ahead, Scheld said.
Dakar is a global city and due to its location many businesses are situated there, Scheld said. The middle class is disappearing, however, and it is very hard to graduate from school since teachers and students are always on strike. Most of the money comes in from transnational remittances of relatives who had migrated to France, Spain and the U.S, she said.
“The city has changed so rapidly that it is almost impossible to map out the change,” Scheld said.
One change she noted was how the removal of all colonial figures affected the population in a negative way. She recalls while doing her research walking with a senior trying to remember what was in the street before, and the memories the senior had about the place. She said that the senior seemed bothered about the removal of a statue of a colonial figure.
“He said, ‘Don’t get me wrong, I hated the French, but that statue brought me memories of my friends and girlfriend.'” Scheld said.
Another emphasis of Scheld’s studies is fashion.
“African fashion is a very complicated system,” she said.
It ranges from the traditional African dress used in formal events to casual clothes like jeans and shirts. The traditional dresses are called the African robe or “Mbubb.” Scheld said that most of their casual clothing is surplus clothing from the United States. She explained that the Salvation Army takes donations from people and what doesn’t make it to retail is sold to the people in Africa.
“The poor people in Africa are paying for the poor people in the U.S.,” she said, while pointing to a girl in a picture dressed in jeans and a T-shirt.
Another change in fashion is the use of bin-bin, or beads, over the clothes instead of under. Scheld explains that in the past women wore the beads under the clothes and its sound would be a part of a seduction ritual where you could only hear them and not see them. Another change that Scheld attributes, partially to TV and pop culture, is the amount of layers in the skirts.
“Nowadays you can see one-layered skirts and more translucent materials,” Scheld said.
Another interesting aspect of globalization with a rather positive impact on the people in Dakar is Tyson, an African wrestler. Scheld explained that traditional wrestling was almost disappearing and Tyson brought it back with a more in-depth moral meaning.
“He encourages young people to fight for their independence and perseverance,” Scheld said. She explained that the wrestler adopted the name and also dresses with the American flag because of the freedom and independence it represents. It was controversial, but accepted. Before Sept. 11, people in Dakar were not bothered by this adaptation of Americanism. Some people even said they would have preferred to be colonized by the U.S. than by France, she said. However, after the war in Afghanistan and Iraq this attitude toward Americans has changed.
In her last visit to Dakar, Scheld discovered that more young people were migrating to Spain through the Canary Islands. The “Barca mba Barza” or “to Barcelona or Paradise” is a form of clandestine migration. The trip covers approximately 15,000 km and many die during the move. Scheld said the fishing boats they are traveling on are not equipped for high seas, which makes it a dangerous trip. People from all over West Africa up to Morocco are taking these little boats, which are called pirogues.
The United Nations reported that, so far in 2006 approximately 20,000 people have arrived in the Canary Island. The number of drowning victims is unknown but the Spanish Red Cross estimates in a report to the U.N. that 1,000 people have drowned so far.
Scheld recalls a story where some people were told they had already made it to Spain and were being forced out of the boat while still on African territory.
Scheld has heard stories very similar of Mexicans trying to cross the U.S. border and getting tricked by coyotes.
Professor Eduardo Barros-Grela, assistant professor of Spanish, lived in Spain for 24 years. He explains that the Spanish government wants to avoid the deaths of Africans by implementing an immigration agreement with several African countries that will benefit both parties.
“Spain benefits in many aspects from the emigration of Africans,” Barros-Grela said. Some cities in Spain are starting to look like ghost towns since there is a decrease in the population. He also explained that the majority of well-educated Spaniards support the idea of the immigration of Africans.
“There is still some Xenophobia, like in any other country,” he said. He recalls the story of a southern Mediterranean town where a South African man was a victim of racism. He explains that this is the result of ignorance.
“Some people don’t understand the contributions of immigrants,” Barros-Grela said.
“This country was built by Africans,” Scheld said. She pointed out that people need to remember that strong tie. Also, wrong assumptions about Africa only create prejudice and racism and these practices need to stop.
“We need to question our assumptions,” Scheld said. “Immigrants can revitalize cities.”
She gives the example of Little Africa in New York, where immigration had created new businesses and jobs that essentially have helped the economy.
Scheld plans to write a manuscript on African youth and globalization and continue her research in Africa.
Scheld is married and has a 3-year-old son. Coincidentally, Scheld met her husband, who happens to be from Dakar, while living in New York.
“He has been very supportive of all my research,” she said.
Antonio Gilman, chairman of the anthropology department, congratulates Scheld’s achievements.
“I am very proud of her her accomplishments,” Gilman said.
He also described Scheld as having a very promising carrier and being a hard-working professor.
Scheld goes back to Dakar at least once a year and will continue to document the effect of globalization in the youth.
“Dakar is like a home away from home,” Scheld said.