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The Power of Circularity: Sustainability Lessons from Senegal

sand dune circle

Serendipitous meeting with a circle on the sand dunes at Lac Rose, Senegal. Photo by the author.

In this essay, Christine Farias, a 2019 participant in CAORC’s faculty development seminar to Senegal, discusses the theme of “circularity” in Senegalese daily life and how it provides a useful lens for studying issues of inclusivity and sustainability.

Senegal’s strength is in its social and cultural diversity and religious tolerance. However, it has opened its economy to international programs and economic activity, and tensions arising from urbanization and development are evident.

Throughout the CAORC-WARC faculty development seminar, my focus was to experience these tensions firsthand. As an economist wearing a sustainability lens, I was looking for the answer to a key question: How can Senegal overcome this sustainability dilemma while maintaining its social and cultural diversity, inclusion and religious tolerance? In order to better understand how these changes are taking place, I wanted the opportunity to experience the unchanged landscape, the culture, and way of life of the local people and ways of doing business in the urban and rural marchès (markets) in Senegal.

So many of my experiences in Senegal converged on a common theme—circularity—which seems to govern the Senegalese way of life. There seemed to be a deep understanding of the interconnectedness and interdependence among humanity, the earth, and plant and animal life that results in values of community, caring, and mutual respect, thereby revealing a way to resolve the tensions between traditional knowledge and the so-called “modernity” reflected in development. This concept of circularity manifested itself in simple and profound ways throughout our journey of learning in Senegal.

On our first day, WARC organized a welcome reception that began with a musical performance. The traditional West African instrumental and vocal musicians told stories about the people, their culture, the climate, the rich soil, the importance of community, and much more.

It was during this performance that I got my first lesson on the calabash and its uses. The calabash gourd is an essential ingredient in the Senegalese way of life and, in many ways, a symbol of the country’s philosophy of community-oriented thinking. Professor Ousmane Sène, the Director of WARC, taught us that the calabash is a fruit that has multiple uses, and it grows in many different sizes and colors. The inside of the gourd provides daily sustenance as a rich source of protein and nutrients. The empty shell is then dried and used as a bowl for eating or storage. It is also used to make different types of musical instruments. Nothing is wasted! For example, the kora—a melodious 12-lute bridge-harp (also called the Mandinka harp)—is handmade from a calabash gourd that is cut in half. The inside flesh of the gourd is cooked as food, and the empty shell is then dried and the gourd is covered with cow skin to give it the resonance that it needs. When turned over, the gourd becomes a drum.

different types of koras handmade from calabash gourds

Different types of koras handmade from calabash gourds used in worship at the Catholic Monastery Abbaye de Keur Moussa in Keur Moussa, Senegal. Photo by the author.

This short yet powerful lesson on the story of the circular calabash gourd got me thinking about circularity and its connection to sustainability. Similarly, our ecosystem is circular and interconnected. There is circularity and interdependence between nature and humans: we are all part of the circle of life. Like our ecosystem, a circle has no beginning and no end. I began to see a greater purpose in the circularity concept as I travelled through Dakar, Touba, Toubacouta, and Saint-Louis—all the places we visited on the seminar that became outdoor experiential classrooms.

Teranga is the Wolof word for hospitality and perfectly describes Senegal, a country where all are welcome. Teranga is the way you treat the person who is not you, the place that is not yours, and the object that does not belong to you. Treat people with respect, offer what you have to your guest, and invite others to share at your table. Senegalese religious tolerance, culture, and beliefs reflect a deep-rooted understanding that the other person—the guest—brings blessings, and when you share the food on your plate, your plate will always have plenty.

a plate of thiebou jenn

A plate of Thiebou Jenn, shared for lunch with fellow seminar participants. Photo by the author.

Rather than eating from individual plates, my colleagues and I had many opportunities to share from one big plate, sitting together and eating Thiebou Jenn, the national dish consisting of fish (or chicken) and rice cooked very slowly in tomatoes, along with a variety of vegetables like yuca, carrots, eggplant, sweet potatoes, and okra.

Thiebou Jenn is traditionally eaten every day for lunch, bringing Senegalese family and friends together. Everyone sits on the floor, eating from the same plate, using their hand as a spoon, respecting each other’s space, eating as much or as little as they wish, making sure there is enough for everyone, and communicating with each other during the whole process. No one goes without and each one respects the other’s space on the plate, making sure not to mix what has already been touched.

While I was in a marchè in Dakar, I saw a group of around 20 workers seated outside their store around a huge plate eating Thiebou Jenn during their lunch hour. To me, this was a powerful experience that brought together many aspects of sustainability—collaboration, understanding, respect, and inclusion. This is Teranga. The wealth of a person is not determined by how much they have, but by how much they share and give. What would this world be like if we all adopted this circularity and the simple philosophy of Teranga?

Another example of circularity is in Saint-Louis, where the traditional fishing industry thrives. Every evening, several pirogues (small colorful handmade boats), each loaded with about a dozen fishermen and their nets, line up at the mouth of the Senegal River and, one after another, sail out towards the Atlantic Ocean. As they are sailing out, one can see another fleet of pirogues returning with their catch. The fishermen wave and call out to each other, greeting those returning and wishing well those who are on their way out to fish. This process forms a continuous circle of economic activity and continues day after day. The fishermen collaborate in order to sustain themselves and their livelihoods while contributing to the economy.

colorful pirogues

One of dozens of colorful pirogues waiting to head out to sea along the shore of Saint-Louis. Photo courtesy Mbye Cham.

Bringing this way of thinking (and being) to my students has made for a much richer learning experience at my home institution. These experiences with circularity have provided me with powerful real-life examples to bring into my classrooms for my students to consider and discuss. While neoclassical economics is governed by the foundational assumption of self-interest and individualism, the notion of circularity provides a language to talk about the principles and values of collaboration, community, caring, responsibility, and mutual-interest, as well as their importance in developing a sustainable world that is inclusive and focused on well-being for all.

CAORC’s 2019 faculty development seminar to Senegal was organized with the West African Research Center in Dakar, Senegal, and supported by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the following U.S. National Resource Centers in African Studies: Boston University, Howard University, Indiana University, Michigan State University, University of California, Berkeley, University of Kansas, and University of Wisconsin, Madison.


About the Author

Christine Farias

Christine Farias is an Assistant Professor who teaches Economics in the Department of Social Sciences, Human Services, and Criminal Justice at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York. She was one of 17 participants in the CAORC-WARC Faculty Development Seminar on Diversity, Religion and Migration in West Africa, January 6–23, 2019.

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