Each time I visited Matam, one of Senegal’s rural regions, it was instantly recognizable. Year after year, very little to no changes were made to the villages or farms, and construction projects were rare. In Dakar, the capital, however, construction is ongoing, even in poorer neighborhoods. In Dakar’s central district, it is easy to see how things have changed and been renovated on a weekly basis, with large projects in collaboration with foreign governments being taken on regularly. This is just a glimpse into my experience living in both rural and urban Senegal, yet it is illustrative of a larger issue: rural isolation. Rural isolation refers to the disconnection of rural communities from central cities, which act as hubs for commerce, international relations, and government. Beyond Senegal’s capital, there is a vast rural population that seems to be living in an entirely different scene. Unlike life in Dakar, day-to-day life in rural Senegal largely involves tending to agriculture. 70 percent of rural households depend on agriculture to live. However, all of Senegal is impacted by issues relating to this sector of the economy, since agriculture dominates Senegalese export revenues as well. Though rural isolation may appear to only affect rural communities, Senegal as a whole cannot truly develop without addressing issues affecting its village regions.
With climate change, Senegal has seen additional irregularities in rainfall and extreme weather events. These irregularities are a great cause for concern, especially since Senegal’s agriculturally-focused infrastructure is particularly vulnerable to extreme weather patterns. Though investments and risk management plans are being implemented to combat issues relating to the agricultural sector, rural Senegal still suffers from a lack of development and integration into the wider economy, especially in comparison to the development occurring in the wealthiest parts of Dakar. Potential solutions to Senegal’s rural isolation include improving routes from Dakar to rural regions and creating a more structured public schooling system throughout Senegal that integrates multiple ethnic languages (thus encouraging interaction between ethnic groups). It is important to strongly consider and enact solutions to rural isolation, because this issue only serves to widen the already large income gap between urban and rural Senegal, and contributes to stagnant development in Senegal’s village regions. The Senegalese government needs to make more efforts to integrate rural Senegal into the nation’s wider economic and legislative policies. Reducing rural isolation is critical to mitigate both the economic effects of weather irregularities and the social divide that is heightened by concentrated urban development and lingual divisions.
Along with city-centered development, Senegal’s ethnic diversity can make integrating rural and urban regions more difficult. Wolof is Dakar’s predominant ethnic group, making up 43 percent of the population. The Wolof language is also the most widely spoken language in Senegal, despite French being the official national language. Rural Senegal’s population, unlike the population in major urban areas like Dakar, mainly consists of ethnic minorities, including the Pulaar and Serer. This creates an issue of lingual inclusivity, since information relating to the government or news from Dakar is often in French and/or Wolof. For ethnic minorities that are not fluent in Wolof, becoming involved in or aware of developments in rural or urban Senegal can become impossible. Though some ethnic minorities have adapted to Wolof’s linguistic dominance, there are a number of ethnic minority groups in rural areas that are opposed to the dominance of the Wolof language.
These linguistic barriers to accessing information contribute to rural isolation by reducing the focus on certain sectors, like agriculture, that are not as present in the city, and by socially isolating ethnic groups that primarily reside in rural Senegal. Ethnic minorities do not have many outlets to express their opinions and/or address their needs as people working in agriculture. Without an established or consistent community council that is inclusive of all voices in Senegal’s rural population, it is difficult for residents to bring attention to agricultural issues or propose solutions they may think are effective. The observances from individuals in Senegal’s rural population should be taken seriously, regardless of their native tongue or ethnic group, since they directly live with the impacts of climate change on their food sources. An established communication pipeline to Dakar is critical, since there is a more established and well-resourced infrastructure in Senegal’s capital. Agricultural development is not as rapid or apparent as the development of infrastructure in Dakar, and part of this lack of focus on agriculture can be attributed to the communication barrier that heightens rural isolation.
Tackling the overarching issue of rural isolation requires some focus on reducing certain factors that play a role in isolating portions of Senegal’s population.
Concentrated efforts in protecting agricultural lands and diversifying crops can help increase agricultural income, thus reducing the wide income gap between urban and rural Senegal. By increasing agricultural income and reducing wealth disparities between rural and urban Senegal, the government can provide more resources to rural regions to advance development and fund infrastructure and education initiatives that can foster countrywide development, rather than urban-centric development. Improving agricultural outcomes alone will help reduce income inequality. Dr. David Wells Roland-Holst et al. from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nation (FAO) states, “The livestock sector is considered to have significant potential to contribute to poverty reduction in Senegal…livestock production remains one of the major activities of rural populations, which suggests that improvements in the sector can truly boost the incomes of rural poor majorities.”
The government’s efforts in creating long-term sustainable development strategies and new committees in different regions to monitor climate change are positive. However, these efforts have been modest compared to development in Senegal’s cities; more vigorous and comprehensive policies in rural regions regarding climate change would allow for faster growth in rural Senegal and benefit the nation’s overall economy. These improved policies would mitigate the stunted development of rural Senegal and alleviate one of the primary consequences of rural isolation.
Moreover, promoting collaboration among ethnic groups can serve to reduce rural isolation. Making government and policy information available in all ethnic languages (in written and oral form) would reduce linguistic barriers and foster inclusivity. Doing this could bring more attention to the economic and agricultural hardships in rural regions and stimulate conversation that could lead to more concentrated rural development. A more long-term solution could include reforming Senegal’s educational infrastructure in rural and urban areas to be more consistent. Literacy rates across rural Senegal are low: Children coming from the lowest-income urban families are more likely to have attended school than rural Senegalese children. However, many children grow up learning two or three different ethnic tongues, which proves to be helpful if they migrate to other regions in Senegal. Expanding this type of learning to all regions in Senegal and improving literacy across all sectors would strengthen communication and thus allow for greater intermingling among Senegal’s diverse ethnic identities. With more communication and integration between rural and urban communities, Senegal can reduce and eventually end rural isolation.
Ultimately, rural isolation in Senegal negatively impacts the nation as a whole. As members of one of Senegal’s smallest ethnic groups, Sonnike, some of my family members and I have experienced judgment and exclusion from discussions and information relayed in more commonly spoken Senegalese languages. More sustained efforts to reduce contributing factors to rural isolation, like implementing more rigorous ethnic language curriculums in all regions, should be implemented to not only lessen the substantial income gap, but to also encourage less ethnic division and protect the agricultural sector that largely impacts Senegalese people’s livelihoods.
Image: Flickr (Weldon Kennedy)