A Geographer’s Field Notes in Senegal

A Geographer’s Field Notes: The CAORC-NEH Senior Fellow Experience in Senegal


En route to plant mangrove seeds with Haidar in Casamance (Photo: Barton)

In this essay, CAORC-NEH Senior Research Fellow Karen Barton discusses her research experience in coastal Senegal, where locals meet large scale environmental changes with resilience and optimism.

The CAORC National Endowment for the Humanities Senior Research Fellowship Program supports advanced research in the humanities for U.S. postdoctoral scholars, and foreign national postdoctoral scholars who have been residents in the U.S. for three or more years.

I first had the honor of traveling to Senegal as part of a Fulbright Hays seminar in 2016. The field program, “Senegal’s Religion and Cultural Diversity,” was led by the West African Research Center in Dakar and Boston University’s African Studies Center and organized on behalf of the U.S. Department of Education. Our four-week itinerary included academic lectures and participation in an international conference, as well as field trips to mosques, churches, and historic sites, cultural performances, and visits to nature and wildlife preserves.

I traveled with WARC and Fulbright colleagues in order to investigate issues surrounding the Great Green Wall of the Sahara and Sahel Initiative, a multi-national project designed to build a wall of trees across the desert in order to combat desertification and outmigration. But my extended time in the coastal wetland and riverine regions of Senegal - including the UNESCO World Heritage site of Saloum - led me to eventually pursue long-term research with CAORC in 2017-2018 focused more directly on the region’s unique maritime geography and history.

My two year project as a Senior Fellow involved a field investigation into the roots of the fisheries crisis and other global forces that impact the livelihoods of Senegal’s coastal and riverine communities. As an environmental geographer I was fascinated by the enormous physical diversity of the country, and the ways in which the semi-arid landscapes of the north were in sharp contrast to the more verdant wetlands of the southern Casamance. Dust storms known as “haboobs” would periodically sweep across the north, including the city of Dakar, signaling a dramatic start to the rainy season. In the southern Casamance, intensive rains would serendipitously strand our team at a compound for the entire afternoon, leading to extended interviews with local families over a plate of yassa jën (the national dish of fish and rice).

Capitaine and rice (yassa jën), a sacred Senegalese dish (Photo: Barton)

The cultural diversity of Senegal was also made real after three summers of fieldwork in the country. The peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Christians in the region is legendary, and my time spent at mosques, Pentecostal churches, and with traditional African healers brought this collaborative history to life. Fishermen and marabouts sat on beaches and explained the power of jinn and gris gris and the everyday strategies employed to keep their pirogues safe while at sea.

Later these same fisherfolk invited me to celebrate special events such as the holy Muslim day of Tabaski, where a sheep is slaughtered as part of a feast to commemorate the strength of Ibrahim’s faith. I planted mangrove seeds in wetlands with the former Ministry of Ecology and Nature Protection Haidar El Ali and his family. His hands-on efforts exemplify the success of grassroots initiatives to combat coastal erosion and climate change. Here, Christians and Muslims work side by side to reforest coastal wetlands in the face of global incursions. Theirs is a world made by hand.

Hand crafted Mahogany pirogue from bow to stern, complete with onboard attaya (tea) station (Photo: Barton)

Everywhere I traveled, locals were anxious to discuss the challenges facing coastal villages and share these narratives in formal or impromptu settings. Artisanal fishermen spoke often of the impacts of illegal, unreported, and unrelated (IUU) fishing and the ways in which such piracy undermined their food security.

Yet coastal dwellers also made clear that while they wished to document the adverse impacts of commercial fishing and climate change, that my work should shed light on rafet njort, a Sufi (the mystic philosophy of Islam) phrase taken to mean great optimism in the face of everyday difficulties. It is no understatement to say that Senegalese communities are overwhelmingly resilient in the face of large scale environmental changes.

Pirogue fishing vessel in Ziguinchor (Photo: Barton)

Participating in the CAORC NEH Senior Research Fellow program enabled me to complete work for my book project on “The Geographical Dimensions of Senegal’s Maritime Spaces”. In terms of instruction, it will afford me the opportunity to bring undergraduate students to Senegal in 2020 on a community engaged mangrove restoration project. I plan to work with my colleagues, Dr. Ousmane Sene and Ms. Mariane Yade of the West African Research Center, to deliver this faculty-led study abroad program, and am energized at the prospect returning to Casamance.

Learn more about CAORC Fellowships.

About the Author

Karen Barton is a Professor of Geography and G.I.S. at the University of Northern Colorado. In 2016 she traveled to Senegal as part of the Fulbright Hays scholar program and was also a 2017–2018 CAORC NEH Senior Research Fellow. Professor Barton’s teaching and research focuses on community resilience, fishing and farming communities, climate change, and geographic education.




The CAORC NEH Senior Research Fellowship is made possible thanks to support from the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Fellowship Programs at Independent Research Institutions (FPIRI) program. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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