On the Road Again

By Brenna Walsh

One of the most interesting things about having this position at l’institute africain de gestion urbaine (IAGU) has certainly been the opportunity to see the country. I have been involved in a project in which IAGU, the Senegal-Luxemburg Cooperative and Unité de coordination de la gestion des déchets solides -the national body who oversees waste management in Senegal- are working together to implement waste management systems in six different communities in northeastern Senegal. I actually happen to be about to head out on my second (and potentially not my last, even though I have a little less than five weeks left in Senegal) driving tour of northeastern Senegal tomorrow. The communities are fairly widely spread, and as I drive out tomorrow I will certainly be thinking a lot about how the six very different meetings we had in the six different communities when we visited in December. This really drove home my boss’ (frequent) insistence that to implement an effective and sustainable waste management system it is most important to consider the specific needs of the community in question.


Driving tour of northeastern Senegal from December 2016, week 1 in blue and week 2 in red! 

To give a bit of background on the project, the six communities are having landfills and transfer centers built to support door-to-door household waste collection programs. The primary purpose of our last trip was to collect information on the current waste management strategy in the communities which will be used to help build the community specific management plans for the new system. The communities involved in the project have populations from just under 15 000 to just over 100 000 inhabitants. The smallest of the communities actually has had the most success with waste management using initiatives such as incentives and recognition within the community to have the cleanest street and neighbourhood.


One of the landfills which was built previously by our partners but never used, which will be fixed up and integrated into the new system in 2017.

It was interesting to see the contrast in issues in smaller communities vs. larger communities as well. In one of the smaller communities in particular we had a very warm reception and the representatives from the mayor’s office which we spoke with seemed very enthusiastic about making the system work efficiently but they were worried about getting all the big contracts in place for the project as they had not undertaken many projects this complex in the community. In one of the regional capitals on the other hand, they seemed very used to dealing in big contracts, but though they had designated representatives who were heavily involved and dedicated to the waste management system, it seemed as if the job of keeping track of all the different parts of the system was getting to be a bit hard for the those involved. At IAGU, we hope that the management plans which will accompany each of the communities new systems will help pull things together, paint a clear pictures of the system and help keep those who are involved on task.

One aspect which was present in all the communities was the presence of wild dump sites and unregulated landfills. These are places where community members dispose of waste directly or where waste is taken by formal or informal door-to-door collectors. There was however a large contrast between communities as to why these unregulated dumping groups had become so prevalent. In one of the larger communities that does have a designated landfill, the lack of regulation at the site lead to waste collectors who were trying to drop waste at the site becoming impatient while waiting to unload the waste. Instead of dumping waste in the landfill in an orderly fashion, if a truck was already at the site, some collectors began to get as close as they could and just empty their trucks on the side of the road leading to the landfill. As garbage which was dumped started making it harder to get down the road to the landfill, this caused a snowball effect and there are now large piles of garbage on a stretch of road about two kilometers long in the approach to the landfill. As this waste is not being disposed of properly and causes a health hazard if it is left on the side of the road, burning these piles has become a common practice, which has short and long term consequences due to resulting air pollution.


Please back-up to reach landfill! Though the largest wild landfill in this community was recently cleaned up, mismanagement at this approved disposal site has resulted in truck drivers dumping waste along the road, which is burned to make space and to reduce short term health risks such as the presence of disease vectors in raw waste, but which creates dangerous smoke, inhaled by informal collectors and other community members as well as contributing to air pollution.

In another community in which many neighbourhoods are only accessible via dirt roads, the vehicle for pick-up was not chosen keeping the conditions during the rainy season in mind, when these roads get muddy and flooded. As it was too late to re-work the system once the rainy season arrived, the community was unable to continue collection in these neighbourhoods and informal collectors stepped in. As they do not have formal agreements bound by health and safety practices with the community, it is much more likely that informal collectors will create wild dump sites rather than take waste to the area designated for disposal by the community for reasons of convenience and proximity to pick-up locations. One of the things that IAGU is focusing on in the community specific manuals is plans for pickup broken down neighbourhood by neighbourhood using specific vehicles, whether motorized or pulled by a horse or donkey depending on which will suit the needs of the neighbourhood during both the dry and rainy season. It has been interesting to get a view of all the different aspects which come into play when planning a community wide system, and getting to hear the past experiences from these communities makes it easy to understand why the new system must be built keeping the existing system and limitations for each community in mind.

In terms of getting to see the country, traveling to these towns was a fairly neat opportunities as they are not in what you would typically classify as tourist locations and I probably would not have gone to these areas if not for this project. I got to peer across the Senegal River over the northern and eastern boarders (in Podor and Matam respectfully) at Mauritania. I took in the big sugar factory in Richard Toll which processes all the sugar cane grown in Senegal (the factory employs 300 workers, and the number of seasonal workers who harvest in the surrounding fields is certainly several times this) as well as the brand new solar farm, the largest in West Africa. I also got to see six camels wandering the fields on the side of the road and a cow on top of a bus. I drove through the colonial town and old capital St. Louis, and can understand why the French picked the location as it is where the Senegal River meets the Atlantic as well as drive by –and stop and buy from a couple different vendors really quick- the kilometer long stretch of vendors selling handmade woven baskets along the road in Thies. It isn’t very often that IAGU works on project that are so widely spread in the country, its projects are usually centered in the Dakar region and it was quite lucky that this project was ongoing during my internship. It is always interesting to get out of Dakar and looking forward to seeing some new sights in the coming week, and expand my road side baobab photo collection!


Every baobab is different! I am interested to see the contrast in how these trees, which are found spread across many fields that line the highways in Senegal will look this coming week as we are two months further from the rainy season than my last trip. Plants in Dakar are looking pretty dry, and baobabs shed their leaves when there faced with a shortage of water.


A Visit to a Different World


I have been trying to come up with some coherent thoughts on my visit to the Mbeubeuss landfill in Dakar for the last few weeks. It was quite a shocking experience to get to visit the landfill, but hard to figure out how to describe my lasting impressions in a much more elaborated way than ‘wow that landfill, it was crazy!’ This is mostly because it was crazy and very hard to conceptualize a place like this coming from Canada. I have never visited a landfill at home, and my experience with them doesn’t extend much further than seeing a mound off the side of a highway which is on its way to being covered over with grass and far from houses and neighbourhoods and being told that is or was the communities landfill.

Mbeubeuss is a wild landfill which opened to serve the department of Dakar in the 1960s. It now spans 60 hectares and when you are standing in the active site there are mounds of garbage as far as the eye can see. I took a couple pictures when we were driving back from the far edge of the landfill, and if you don’t look too closely, it seems like you are looking at hills in the distance but they are actually the mounds of trash that rise up several stories high. It is quite difficult to conceptualize 50 + years of trash coming to this site.

This being a wild landfill means that there are few regulations and little in terms of health and safety precautions. Typically in the ‘best practice’ recommendations I have read for landfilling once a large portion of a landfill is full to its capacity, a rehabilitation plan is put in place and vegetation is planted to both keep the garbage and other contaminants contained to start some environmental remediation of the site and to prevent further disposal. As little of this is done at Mbeubeuss, when driving through the landfill, you can see smoke from fires burning in the garbage.


The smoke is visible above the piles of garbage, but it is really hard to estimate how big a fire is as they burn under the surface and can spread quickly with access to oxygen pockets due to improperly compacted waste. This also makes a garbage fire at a landfill hard to control once it has started, as you can’t estimate from the surface how far the fire is burning through the pile. 

There are regulations on biomedical waste disposal in the landfill, but the way this is regulated was one of the most disturbing revelations from the visit. When a truck arrives at a site, it is weighed and the driver is given a ticket which specifies how much he will be payed after dumping the garbage which is calculated considering the weight of the truck and the length of his route to the landfill. As disposal of biomedical and other wastes considered hazardous is forbidden (this type of waste is supposed to be incinerated at a controlled facility) as a truck arrives at the active site it is inspected to ensure that it does not contain biomedical or hazardous waste. The part of the explanation that was really surprising was that if biomedical waste is identified by the inspector, the driver is penalized by having his pay slip marked to not be paid for this load. And then the load is dumped at the active site just as any other truck load would be.

We watched as a few trucks approached the active site to unload. As each truck slows down, 100 + informal waste collectors swarm the truck and hop on to try to position themselves to get quick access to the items that they are looking to collect and sell. The informal collectors are a very interesting group at the landfill. As this expansive site has been here for so many years and separation of recyclable and reusable waste is very minimal this landfill has attracted informal collectors for decades. In recent years, an association of informal collectors has been formed which has ~ 2500 members. These people live in the community next to the landfill and their claim, collect, sort and sell a high portion of the waste entering the landfill. These people certainly live a hard life, but work hard and have tried to improve their situations on their own terms by forming the association. They now have a school and health center in their community and have recently received approval to build a new school, which will be able to accommodate more students which will benefit the community in educating more of the youth who with little access to education often become waste pickers at a young age. The association also works to get its members heard on different issues as they have little formal social standing. Their name Bokk Diom signifies the spirit of the group meaning unity, courage working together and sharing the same objective.

The Mbeubeuss landfill site is quite astonishing and it is certain that there are quite a few steps to be taken for improvements in health and safety, environmental regulations, education of the population on benefits of waste collection and separation before being disposed of at a landfill site or otherwise to be taken in Dakar and other areas of Senegal before typical Western standards for waste collection are met. It is also very interesting that when the topic of what area I am working in comes up with Senegalese and expatriates there is one consistent thread, waste disposal needs to get better. People have a variety of reasons, places that they notice could improve or things that shock them most and almost always also say it must be a hard area to work in as it is quite a large problem to tackle. Organizations like the one I am working with in Dakar, l’Institut Africain de Gestion Urbaine are certainly working with various communities within Senegal to start to make these changes, doing lots to divert waste from landfills before it arrives and inform key community members to get the message out when improvements to the system come into play.

However, it does make me see garbage everywhere. Just yesterday I was walking with a friend and almost unconsciously found myself stopping, whipping out my camera and saying ‘just one sec, have to take a picture of garbage’ (this is a real story) and then continuing on with the walk like nothing had happened. However in the last couple weeks, since the visit to the landfill I have been thinking about and spotting in my travels the many ways waste is already valorised here, though there is no formal recycling or waste separation system in place. Water bottles of different sizes are collected, sold (25 CFA for a 10L bottle is the going rate I believe) and used to as pots for plants. This weekend we also stopped on the side of the road to buy vegetables, and the children of the vendors also noticed we had quite a stash of 1.5 L bottles in our car, and started asking us for the emptiest quite excitedly as their families were also selling milk and reused water bottles for local sales.


Water bottle potted plants like this one, can be purchased on the side of the road front plant vendors all over Dakar, as well as from the municipal plant nursery in Patte d’Oie. Smaller plants and seedlings are also started in the bottoms of the 1.5 L bottles

There is also quite a bit of collection that is done to make art from recycled materials. Fabric scraps are also often used to make attractive toppers for jams and chutneys (how could you ever throw out pieces of this sweet wax fabric! Read- I am a sucker for a nicely dressed jelly!).


Pickled cashew apples with a wax fabric hat 

It is quite interesting how at first you really only see the garbage that has been unceremoniously dumped on the side of the road, or in a field. It is absolutely certain that systemic changes are needed to improve waste collection, separation, treatment, to educate people and promote proper disposal of waste. However, it is really interesting to see the innovative ways that people here work within the system that they have and create livelihoods or beautiful and functional items to create value from waste. So in addition to unconsciously snapped pictures of garbage I have seen as I pass through the streets of Dakar, I also hope to feature some of the local innovations in my photo journal on sustainable waste management which I will prepare as part of the Sustainable Cities program at the end of this internship!

Introduction to life in Senegal

By Brenna Walsh

This being my first experience living abroad, I have experienced a lot of new things in this first two weeks of my 5.5 month stay in Dakar, Senegal. I have had quite a few surprises –the exclamation that I made on the way from the airport to the house of the family I am staying with when I saw a large cow grazing on a strip of grass between the two opposing lanes of traffic on a highway in the city was quite loud I think. But I now know that seeing goats, cows, chickens and roosters as well as work horses and stray cats and dogs in the streets of our neighbourhood, Mermoz will be quite a regular occurrence.

This herd of cows is brought to graze in the field behind IAGU every day. Quite a nice distraction!

I am very grateful that I am living with a family so had a ready-made place to stay and will also be living there with an intern from the previous co-hort, Kendra for the first two months. It is really invaluable to have someone to show me around Dakar, introduce me to the work we are doing here and push me to get used to the hustle and bustle (much of the emphasis on hustle really, there are people that really want to sell you things) of the markets, get to know Dakar and learn to navigate the area and speak enough Wolof to take a taxi by myself! The first time I failed at haggling the price, but last night I was apparently more convincing, I was quite happy to be succeeding with this new skill.

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Yellow taxis and a bus in the background are primary forms of transport in Dakar. I am very glad not to have to drive a car, roads are quite hectic in this city!

In addition to getting used to life in Dakar, I have had a really great introduction to two of the project we will be working on with our partner in Dakar, L’intitut Africaine de Gestion Urbaine (IAGU). I have arrived at a really good time to jump into one project in particular, which I am quite excited after piecing together information on the project this week reading the background information and then having a really good meeting with our Kendra and our IAGU colleague.

This project is called Western Africain Biowastes for Energies and Fertilizers (WABEF) and has four main goals

  • To gather information on anaerobic digestion experiences and technologies in different parts of the world,
  • Building two demonstration plants in Mali and Benin
  • To raise awareness for where and by who biogas production by anaerobic digestion can be exploited
  • Project management and consortium coordination

I have come into this project at a time where IAGU, one of six international partners in the project will be playing an important role. As Senegal is one of three countries on which this project is focused, one of the main roles which IAGU will play will be to compile information on how and where biogas reactors are being used in Senegal, and how their use in a semi-industrial or industrial scale can benefit the Senegalese population. One of my favorite lines for our meeting with our co-worker yesterday was one that he repeated quite a few times, Il y a beaucoup de gens au Senegal qui s’interesse du biogas, mais il ne savent pas qu’il s’interesse, meaning There are lots of people in Senegal interested in biogas, but they just don’t know it yet! IAGU’s goal is to transfer knowledge to those who think they may benefit from a biogas reactor but don’t have all the information, and those who are interested, but don’t know it yet!

The first step that we will be taking to achieve this goal will be to interview the existing players in biogas production in Senegal. WABEF is focusing on collecting information on semi-industrial to industrial scale biogas reactors and has established a minimum volume for their study of 20 m3. However, to get a broad picture of biogas production in Senegal, we will also be looking at a national program which installs household scale biogas reactors for processing cow paddies for households with greater than five cows.

There are four semi-industrial or industrial scale biogas projects currently in operation in Senegal. The first in through the Non-Government Organization (NGO) Partenariat who have developed a partnership with SOGAS and produce biogas from slaughterhouse waste in Saint-Louis. Five houses are connected to the biogas line. A similar system exists in the town of Podor. The largest and only industrial scale biogas project ongoing in Senegal is TECHOGAZ, and produces 1500 m3 of biogas daily. The feed source for this reactor is also primarily waste from slaughterhouses from different areas in Dakar. The energy produced controls air temperature in the cold rooms in the slaughter house, is used for lighting and for hot water. The last project is through l’office national de l’assainissement du Sénégal, The Senegalese National Sanitation Office and partners with a waste water treatment facility and uses human waste from the sewer system to produce electricity and reduces energy bills for the purification centre in Camberène.

We will be conducting surveys to gather information about these players’ experiences with biogas. We are looking to collect information to answer questions like where they learned about the technology, pros and cons of their system and do they have advice for those who may be considering the technology? After compiling the results of the survey, IAGU’s role will be to prepare policy briefs to distribute to those considering or those would could benefit from this technology. These will both explain the technology and highlight the multiple benefits-such as reducing waste for disposal while reducing energy bills. This will be an readily available and widely accessible source of information on biogas and a simple way to get this information out to groups that may already be interested in this technology and those who could benefit from it but do not know about it yet.

About 50% of waste in Dakar is collected and treated. Unfortunately a lot of the remaining waste is dumped at sites like this one. What is more unfortunate is what you cannot see in this picture, that this cliff goes down to the ocean.

I am really looking forward to getting this interview process started. The issues which are faced in waste management in Senegal are very different than those in Canada. Even though differences are obvious when walking on the street as being well laid out in reports on the topic, it will be very interesting to hear first-hand experiences of these Senegalese groups with the renewable energy technology, and to learn the impacts it has had on their daily lives and businesses.

Haaave you met M. Bah?

Meet M. Bah

by Kendra Stapleton

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The man himself!

The first time I met M. Mamadu Bah, I immediately forgot his name, but that’s not to say he didn’t make an impression on me. Jessica Steele and I were introduced to him, and the 12 other members of the organic agriculture group Oasis Grow Biointensive, at their composting demonstration site in Dakar. While his name got lost amongst all those that we heard that Saturday morning, his personality definitely did not.
Riding back home after the demonstration, we talked about what we had seen and who we had met, including the effervescent M. Bah, who we referred to as ‘that guy that literally didn’t stop smiling all day.’ While this may not be the catchiest nickname ever earned, I hope it sets the tone for everything that follows.

And so, when I joined OGB for a second weekend workshop (to see first hand how the composting magic happens) I was very glad to find M. Bah in attendance. As it came time to walk from our meeting spot to a fellow OGB member’s house for lunch, well, it was no coincidence that my footsteps fell in time with his.

Now, one thing I would like to note about Senegal is that has a very well-defined tradition of exchanging pleasantries. By this I mean that small talk can go on forever. There are at least five variations in Wolof on the question of ‘How are you doing’ that are used to begin any conversation, be it with your friend, taxi driver, family, hair dresser, fruit vendor, guards, or someone you just met, and those are just the five that I know. It’s impossible to ever walk by someone you (even vaguely) know, without an exchange that goes a little something like this:

Salaam maaleekum! Maaleekum salaam! (Peace be upon you! And also with you!)

Nanga def/noo def? Magni fi! (How are you? I am fine!)

Jaam nga am? Jaam rek! (Are you at peace? I have peace now)

Ana waa keur gi? Nunga fa! (How/where is your family? They are fine!)

Naka ligéey bi? Maangi ci kowam, ndanka. (How is your work? I am working on it, calmly.)

Naka subba si? Subba sangi fi rek! (How is the morning? The morning is fine.)

Not only is this traditional, it’s just downright polite. But when I first got here, coming from a country where people can seem at times chronically adverse to small talk, it was an adjustment. Since most Senegalese tend to closely follow social traditions, it took me a bit by surprise when M. Bah, instead of asking me one of the aforementioned questions, opted instead to start a conversation about languages.

Being raised in London, Ontario, an entirely anglophone city (and region), I am always amazed by those who are fluently bilingual. Despite the fact that much of the world’s population speaks more than one language, it simply isn’t that common in North America, and so to me is always impressive. Senegal is home to a wide variety of local languages, with Wolof being the lingua franca of Dakar, and French being the ‘official’ language despite the fact few Senegalese consider it their mother tongue. So when M. Bah broached the topic of languages, I was quite interested to listen given that his speech is often a rolling mix of French, Wolof, and English, all of which he speaks with fluency. With little preamble, he said to me:

You know, learning a new language is an opportunity. It opens you up to understanding a whole new way of thinking. Language frames how you see the world! You know? The words we have to express ourselves shape us, and larger than us, they shape our communities, and (!)… and our cultures. For example, just take a look at our group here today! There isn’t one person among our marvellous group who is not, at the very least, bilingual – how amazing is that! We have so many words at our disposal, so many words with which to express our ideas! And that’s how the world works, you know, it runs on ideas. We have to keep learning! We have to open our minds, and every time, every single time you learn something new, suddenly it opens up a whole new world. What a miracle! Truly, all you need is an idea and anything is possible. An idea is just like a key in the ignition. Its just siting there, waiting…but you, you just need to turn it, and suddenly so much is in motion. The motor is firing up, and all these processes are taking place under the hood, and you feel it hum to life! And then its running, and you can go anywhere with it! Yes, truly, an idea is just like a key! It always amazes me how far an idea can go. For instance, you know, I’ve had friends tell me that I changed their life, just from one tiny idea! And for me, it was nothing. It was no big deal. Honestly, it was just something I said! It cost me nothing and gave them so much. They took that idea and transformed it, invested in it, and it changed their life. That’s the power of human potential! You know, the best science is the study of other men. Some people forget that. They always forget that, but without that, we have nothing. We have to understand each other in order to work together. It is so important. Do you know what else is important? Eating well! And if you look, we have just arrived at our destination, so up you go, because I’m starving!

Amazing, isn’t it? He had all this to say, all this enthusiasm, and it wasn’t even lunchtime yet! As the group ate lunch in the home of a fellow OBG member, I kept glancing at M. Bah through out the meal. True to form, I never found him without a huge grin, a grin which only grew bigger when he stood up to organize the crowd into two affectionately labeled eating groups: Vorace (for the gluttonous eaters) and Coriace (for the stubborn eaters).

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Delicious thieboudienne eaten together on the floor

Throughout the whole visit, he was always listening, with his phone up in the air, recording the whole thing. After lunch, I took advantage of the shift in positions as everyone moved from the floor back to the couches to ask M. Bah why he was always recording, and he said:

“I’m so glad you asked! Well its simply because I find everything interesting! Everything! You never know where inspiration might come from, or who might be interested in seeing what you saw! You know, for years now I have been writing down, at night, what I have done that day. Who I saw, what we did, anything! I do it everyday. But, for me, the recordings call fill in the spaces. Everyday is so full of great moments, and I love to rewatch them and to share them with others. Say, now, do you remember what I was saying earlier about ideas? We have a few minutes now before tea is ready, and I want to talk to you about some ideas. An intellectual exchange, if you will. You see, I want to talk to you about development, you told me you studied this. Yes? Yes. Because you’re here learning about Senegal, tasting everything it has to offer, and so you’re gradually coming to understand how Senegal. And that’s good, but what is really important, is what you do with everything you’ve learned. Because, you see, I believe the world doesn’t really understand Africa, doesn’t understand Senegal. People always think we just want a hand out, or that we want to move away to other countries. It just isn’t true. We want what everyone wants, access to a good life, and the services that can make that possible. We have an expression, in Wolof, let me translate it for you! Do you know goats…do you see how they grow a beard? Okay, good, the expression says ‘The goat will die there where he grew his beard.’ That means that the goat will be born, will grow up, have children, and die in the place he has always known, in his home. People don’t want to move away, why would they? This is their home! And, you know, your home is as much a part of you as..as your skin! Why, think of your own home right now! Yes, I see you’re smiling, that means you understand! As I was saying, Africans in general, are looking for development models. And, you know, they’re looking at Europe and they’re looking at America. And they keep thinking “Europe, it took you 400 years to do what America did in less than half of that time.’ Now of course, America benefited from not being the first, but still, I think people are seeing these two situations and are starting to think. People are looking for ideas; remember what I said about ideas? That’s what many Africans are looking for, just ideas. As simple as that. But the problem is that some people are afraid of Africa, or worse! Worse because some people don’t even know Senegal exists. That’s really an amazing thought isn’t it? That you can live your whole life, and other people can live their whole lives, and neither of you are aware the country of the other even exists! And so, this is what I want you to do: teach people about Senegal! Go home, and tell them everything you felt, and saw, and thought. Tell them about how beautiful it is here, and all we have, and all that is left to do. We will all be better for the exchange you create. Ah, look, its tea time!”

Phone always at the ready             

Even now, just thinking about the conversation I had with M. Bah, I’m smiling. To me, M. Bah is one of those people you meet in your life that inspires you to live a life with deeper connections to those around you, a life where everything you do is purposefully done. Purposefully done, much like the conversation he had with me. It would be foolish to think that he didn’t have a motivation in sharing his ideas with me, but that doesn’t mean that I cannot also benefit from this opportunity he created. Who knows if we’ll all be better for the exchange I create, as M. Bah believes, but I know I’m the better for having met him. And from the looks of his latest email, it looks like he wants to meet again. Who knows what will be up for discussion this time!

What to Expect When You’re Expecting

By Kendra Stapleton



When I first heard about the blog posts we would be writing for the IYIP program, I was seated with the Spring intern cohort in a conference room in downtown Vancouver. We were comfortably air conditioned, generously fed, and had access to as much caffeine as we could want. We hammered out a schedule of posts, and I was eager to start producing the kind of travel related content I often enjoyed reading.

And, I already had a pretty clear mental image of the articles I would deliver. Witty, informative, and at times humbling and inspiring. I would write about the great things I would be doing in Senegal, relate anecdotes about charming elements of Senegalese culture, and accompany all this with photos I’d carefully arranged to compliment the subject. Sounds like I had it all figured out, right?

At this point, you might be tempted to ask:

“Why Kendra, have you ever been to Dakar?”

– “Well, no”

“How about traveled to Senegal?”

– “Not exactly..”


– “Nope..”

“Okay, well have you travel blogged before?”

– “Ahh…”

Before I’d even left home, or had ever written a blog post on any topic, I already had an expectation of what I would write, and a clear view of the end product. And big surprise to no one (but me), what I expected is not how things are turning out. And so, my first post is all about expectations

Sunsetting on Dakar

I have found that life is generally a reflection of our expectations, and that the happiest people are often those who do not constantly measure outcomes against expectations. However, often our expectations can be so subconscious—so implicit that we might not even notice they exist. If life is like the proverbial box of chocolates, and we never know which flavour to expect, why is it that we expect for there to be chocolates in the box at all?

The current (aka: my) working theory advances the radical and groundbreaking notion that expectations are largely linked to culture, and geography.

In Canada we expect taps to run water, for stores to close around 9 PM, and for the party to start no later than midnight. We want apples to be crunchy, and pears to be soft. When we speak to someone, we expect to be understood, and to understand them. If we buy a prepackaged fruit salad, we expect some sad mix of underripe pineapple, cantaloupe, and honeydew melon. Maybe a squishy grape or two.

There are, as with anything, exceptions to the rule, but I think the majority of Canadians could agree on these expectations. And the choices we make everyday reflect our understanding of this system of collective expectations. For example, restaurants in Canada no longer advertise air conditioning as a service because we expect to be welcomed by a cool blast of air upon entering a building on a balmy summer day.

And so, I signed up for this internship with the explicit desire to leave my daily comforts at home, and understand a new way of thinking. I boarded my flight to Dakar fully expecting that I had no idea what to expect – or so I thought. Expectations can shift slowly over time, or can shift instantly after a hard, squealing slam on the breaks. And I ran into two of the latter changes less than 12 hours off the plane.

The first of these was bucket showers.

As anyone who has taken a long international flight will tell you, there few more pressing priorities after arriving than taking a nice hot shower. Even a cold shower, in a pinch. A bucket shower though? Up for debate.

As I arrived at my host families house, I was shown around and then left to unpack my bags and settle in. First thing on my mind was washing off 22 hours of travel, and as I turned the sink tap in the bathroom, I was more than a little confused why nothing came out. I went to politely inquire the French equivalent of ‘what the heck’, and was handed a 750ml empty yogurt container, and 10 litre plastic jug of water. 18 years of formal education, 4 spent studying international development, and I feel like I learned more about the world in that one moment.

The second expectation I ran into involved something a lot closer to my heart: coffee

In the global divide of coffee lovers and haters, not only do I belong to the former, but if the Holy Coffee Bible is ever written I’ll stand on street corners and hand it out. I would go through a lot of trouble (and money) to get a big mug of rich black coffee. I’m smiling now just thinking about it.

When I learned I would be coming to Senegal, I was immediately curious what the coffee would be like. I’m not sure what lead me to have such high hopes for Senegalese coffee, maybe its proximity to coffee producing West African countries, maybe just my own foolish wishes. But whatever it was, I had it, and I had it bad. Perhaps then, you could imagine my surprise when I awoke the next morning, bucket showered, and headed down for breakfast to find a large thermos of hot water, and individually packaged servings of instant coffee.

My jaw dropped. I stuttered “but..but..I thought..”.

And then I realized: why had I thought that there would be (delicious) brewed coffee?

Sitting there at the table, I realized that I had carried my expectations with me across the Atlantic, I’d tried to import them with me. Once again, what I’d accepted as ‘normal’, and even best, was challenged and forcing me to reexamine my expectations. Everyday since then I’ve had to gently remind myself that I’m here to learn, and the best way to do that is with an open mind.

Attaya tea pouring

And I had been doing a bang-up job for the last few weeks, until last night when my computer ‘crashed’.

I spent a couple fruitless hours trying to get it back up and running again, before going to bed and hoping the situation would look brighter in the morning. As I laid in bed, looking up at the mosquito net veiled ceiling, I questioned why I had signed up for this internship. Gone was the optimism I had felt upon arriving. I remember wanting the hardships, the challenges, the ‘I feel out of place’ moments, but suddenly I saw that I had sought them out from the comfort of my parent’s living room couch, where I sent in my application. I had wanted a bit of suffering, but had agreed to come on the thought that home was never more than a video call away. I belatedly realized that my laptop is not only my workstation, but also my lifeline home, my social planner, and my source of entertainment, all in one 13’ rectangular device. While I’m not one to always be connected, abroad is a totally different story. Having all of these services endangered, I suddenly felt isolated in Senegal for the first time. I realized that I had been holding onto the expectation that whenever I was feeling overwhelmed, home would never be more than a phone call away. This feeling of unease presented me with two ways to react, and rather than wallowing in the temporary loss of my virtual connection, I was suddenly quite free to say “Yes!” to a Senegalese friend inviting me out for a beer. And it gave me the chance to talk with my host family about my computer woes and pick to up some new French vocabulary.

When living abroad, you never know what the world will throw you, but you can expect that I’ll be handling it with a smile, and a mouth full of Thieboudienne.



Working Abroad: Ready to listen, learn and share

By Jessica Steele

For the next 6 months, I will be working as a Sustainable Waste Planning Assistant with l’Institut Africain de Gestion Urbaine (IAGU) (African Institute of Urban Management). Based out of Dakar, Senegal, this international non-governmental organization specialises in urban development research, technical support, training and environmental awareness. They support municipalities around western and central Africa in implementing sustainable waste management strategies that help improve local governance, promote environmental sustainability and alleviate poverty.

Garbage on the side of the road is a common sight in Dakar

There are many reasons why doing an international youth internship with Sustainable Cities International and SFU sounds appealing. The chance to work with organizations and governments that are making a tangible difference. The opportunity to gain practical skills to further career development. The occasion to meet new people and experience a new culture. So far, this experience is encompassing all of those aspects. While I have only been here for two weeks, I have met many new people and had the chance to try a multitude of traditional Senegalese dishes (Lots of rice and fish!). At work, I am already being challenged as I learn about IAGU’s current focus projects.

The first project’s goal is to help 6 cities in central and northern Senegal set up sustainable household waste disposal programs. The proposed projects in the majority of the cities involves door to door collection of waste by horse or donkey-drawn carriages, transfer centres to sort and re-use plastics and other recyclable materials and finally, disposal of waste in controlled landfills with lagoons to treat leachate. The stake-holders in a project like this are extensive including the municipal government, funders, construction companies, management companies, environmental educators and trainers, and of course, the local people. All to say, there is a lot to consider!

The second project is an international project exploring the use and applicability of biogas in western Africa. Biogas, a ‘green’ gas obtained from the breakdown of organic matter in an oxygen-free environment, is a potential solution to energy problems in many rural towns. By using biogas, towns can re-use agricultural waste, stimulate agricultural production using effluent (a nutrient rich substance created during the production of biogas) and solve certain hygiene problems by finding a use for human waste, all while producing a sustainable source of energy. A biologist at heart, I find this project really interesting.

I recently read an article about working abroad that said:
“Don’t go [work abroad] because you’ve fallen in love with solvability. Go because you’ve fallen in love with complexity.
Don’t go because you want to do something virtuous. Go because you want to do something difficult.
Don’t go because you want to talk. Go because you want to listen”  (The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems, C. Martin, 2015).

Baie de Ouakam, Dakar

This internship is going to open my eyes to the complexity of working in international development. I am positive it is going to be difficult. And I know I will have to do a lot of listening. But this is what makes these internships so exciting. While only here for 6 months, we have the chance to work with established, local organizations and governments who are attempting to address complex sustainable community development issues. We get to be challenged both personally and professionally as we share our knowledge and skill set with our host countries. And finally, and arguably most importantly, we get to learn about and try to understand the successes and challenges that other people face around the world. I am very excited for what the next 6 months are going to bring!