A fascinating site to visit in Senegal is Lac Rose, which is French for “Pink Lake”. Its actual name is Lake Retba, but because of its pink color, it picked up the nickname.
Interestingly, this lake doesn’t always look pink. The color depends on variables such as weather conditions, time of year, and the state of the algae that give the lake its pink appearance. Two weeks before I went to Lac Rose with some of my IBM colleagues, a few other people from our group went. They were disappointed because it wasn’t pink the day they saw it. However, lucky for us, it was pink the day we went!
The conditions required to make the pink color include a combination of dry weather, high salt content in the lake (higher concentration than sea water), warm temperatures, and bright light. This is because the lake acquires its pink color from beta carotene manufactured by a type of microalgae called Dunaliella salina, and these weather conditions help the algae to thrive. One of our local friends also told us that the pink color is more apparent when there’s a bit of wind to cause ripples in the lake’s surface. Weather can vary, so that’s why some visitors see the pink color and others do not.
At times, the lake can look orange, again because of the beta carotene. It seemed as though the shallow water near the shore was more likely to look orange, whereas the deeper water out in the lake looked pink.
The day we went, temperatures had recently been in the 90’s (Fahrenheit) or low 30’s (Celsius). There had been several days in a row of bright sunlight, and dry weather. There was a breeze stirring the surface of the water a bit.
As part of IBM’s Corporate Service Corps, we try to arrange at least one “community service” activity. Our local facilitator, Tidiane Gueye, offered us a couple of options, and we decided to do BOTH. The first one that we did was a visit to L’Empire des Enfants.
About L’Empire des Enfants
L’Empire des Enfants is a rehabilitation and transition center in Dakar, Senegal for boys ages 6-14 who have been street children. The primary goal is to reunite these children with their parents, while providing them with a safe place to live until that can happen. There are various reasons these boys end up on the streets. The most common is that a devious adult visits a village and persuades the parents to send their child to the big city of Dakar with him. Sometimes the promise is that the child will be taken to a madrasa (Quranic school) to be educated, other times the promise is that the child will be taught a trade and become wealthy in the big city. Either way, these are lies. Once the child arrives in Dakar, he is sent out on the streets to beg for money. If he fails to bring in enough on a given day, he is beaten.
L’Empire des Enfants accepts children who come to their door 24×7. If the child is a boy in the age groups that L’Empire is equipped to work with, they’ll take him in. If it’s a girl, or if it’s a boy outside their age ranges, they do what they can to find help for the child elsewhere.
At first when children arrive at L’Empire des Enfants, they are suspicious of the adults because of the bad treatment they have already received from adults in their young lives. For that reason, the boys who already live at L’Empire take charge of teaching the newcomers how things work there and how to fit in. By mentoring newcomers, the boys learn how to take on leadership roles, and how to guide other people.
When a child arrives at L’Empire, he receives food, clothing, and shelter. There are certain rules, such as “you must attend the classes”. The boys learn these rules from their peers, and their peers are the ones who urge them to comply.
The boys are taught to read and write (if they don’t already know how). They also attend classes in life skills such as Tae Kwon Do. The aim is to teach them to take care of themselves, so that when they return to their families they can help make a living and help take care of the rest of the family.
Often, boys who come to L’Empire are unwilling at first to provide information about who their parents are, or where they come from. The adults who manage the facility realize that it can take time to build trust, and they exercise the necessary patience. Eventually, when a child is willing to open up, they’ll work with him to learn who his family is. They try to discern through the interviews whether returning to the family would be a safe thing for the boy to do. They won’t knowingly send him back to a situation where he’d be abused.
About 90% of the boys are eventually reunited with their families. Very few of those return to the streets or to L’Empire des Enfants. If they do return, L’Empire recognizes that it may have missed something important about their home situation in the interview process, and will allow them to stay.
L’Empire can accommodate up to 60 boys. The day we visited, there were about 30. It changes from day to day. They hope to build a new, larger facility in the not-so-distant future that will allow them to help more children, including girls.
About Our Visit
The primary purpose of our visit was to provide the boys with exposure to foreigners. There were 14 of us representing 7 different countries – Brazil, Mexico, India, Japan, China, the U.S., and Canada. My colleague Gopal from India brought his guitar, and my colleague Marcel from Brazil brought his soccer ball.
Tidiane timed our visit to have us arrive in the afternoon at the time the children were praying, so we could see them do that. Afterward, it was time to eat, and we were served supper after the children received theirs. We ate the same thing as the children, and it was a nutritious meal. We provided the funding for the meal – not only for what we ourselves ate, but also for the children’s food. While the children ate, the director gave us a talk about the facility and the work they do there.
After that, it was time for us to interact with the children. Our Brazilian and Mexican team members, Mauricio, Mario, and Marcel, organized a football (soccer) game.
After that, Gopal played some Bollywood songs that involved yodeling – I had no idea that there was an Indian artist who yodeled! While he played, some members of our group encouraged the children to start dancing. There was much laughter and smiles all around. We had an opportunity to tour the place and see the classrooms.
After a couple of hours, it was time for us to head out. Those who wished to donate additional funds to the operation beyond what we had given for the meal gave them to Tidiane, who consolidated all the donations and give the lump sum to L’Empire’s director.
I was glad to see the work that L’Empire was doing to offer boys hope for a better life, and I hope they’ll achieve their dream of building a new, bigger place that can help more children.
One of the more spectacular landmarks in Dakar, Senegal is the African Renaissance Monument, known in French as Le Monument de la Renaissance Africaine. It shows a man, woman, and child emerging from a volcano. It sits high on a hill overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. At 160 feet (45 meters) tall, it’s the tallest statue in Africa, making it taller than the Statue of Liberty.
At the time this status was unveiled in 2010, marking 50 years of independence from France, Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade said, “It brings to life our common destiny. Africa has arrived in the 21st century standing tall and more ready than ever to take its destiny into its hands”. The event featured hundreds of drummers and dancers. I would have loved to have seen that!
Many people in Senegal were not supportive of the statue, criticizing it for various reasons. For example:
Local Senegalese artists criticized the fact that the contract to design it was awarded to a Romanian architect and the contract to build it was awarded to a North Korean company. Why not use local talent?
Some have pointed out that the facial features don’t look particularly African.
It cost $27 million dollars, which was a big concern in a country where many live below the poverty line.
The skimpy clothing of the family does not represent the more modest preferences of the country’s Muslim majority. (95% of Senegalese people are Muslim.)
We had a chance to see this statue up close during our city tour on October 7, 2017, which is when I took this photo. At night, lighting effects give it a beautiful glow.
It’s possible to pay an entrance fee and go inside it. I did not do this during my visit. There are stairs you can take to the top, and look out of windows in the man’s crown.
Many people have asked me questions about my trip to Senegal – why I went, what I did there, etc. Here are my answers to those frequently-asked questions!
I work for IBM, which sponsors a program called the Corporate Service Corps (CSC). It’s a corporate responsibility initiative, in which IBM sends teams of its employees on 4-week assignments to perform pro bono (no-charge) consulting engagements. Every spring, IBM invites its employees to submit applications to be part of such a team. Those chosen take a 4-week hiatus from their “real” jobs to do one of these assignments. Upon completion of the assignment, we return to our normal jobs.
Q: How many people are chosen to participate in CSC?
A: Each year, about 5,000 people apply, and about 1,500 are selected. Each year IBM deploys a total of about 100 teams, each consisting of 12-15 people. I applied in May 2016, and received my acceptance notice in July 2016. However, I did not actually get assigned to a team until October 2017. So there can be a lag between acceptance and deployment.
Q: How does IBM decide whom to accept?
A: There are several criteria. Our managers need to write a recommendation saying they support our candidacy and are willing to let us be away from our jobs for 4 weeks. We need to show a history of favorable performance evaluations. We need to have been employed by IBM at least 2 years. The application process requires us to respond to several essay questions. Our volunteerism in our local communities is also considered. IBM welcomes applications from all over the world, but all participants must be fluent enough with English to use it in performing the assignment.
Q: Did your husband go with you?
A: No, this is not a vacation. It is a business trip. We are expected to leave our families at home, to avoid being distracted by their presence.
Of course, if we use vacation time at the end of our engagement to do some touring, the families could come for that. But during the 4-week assignment, IBM expects us to stay focused on completing our assigned projects.
Q: How many people did IBM send to Senegal?
A: I was part of a team of 14 IBM employees, from 7 different countries. Our group included people from Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Japan, China, India, and the U.S. We were the 4th team to be assigned to an engagement in Senegal; others had been there in previous years.
Q: Where is Senegal?
A: Senegal lies at the westernmost tip of Africa. See the map at the top of this page. I went to its capital city of Dakar.
Q: What did you do there?
A: We were divided into 4 smaller sub-teams. Two of those consisted of three people each, and the other two consisted of 4 people each. Each of us was assigned our own project. In addition, we were encouraged to assist each other with advice/input as needed. Our groups’ assignments included:
A non-governmental organization called African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF) that was looking for technology solutions to use in training midwives.
A non-governmental organization called Plan International which was seeking assistance in using technology to help youth groups throughout the country share ideas, best practices, and schedules with one another.
Centre de Suivi Ecologique (CSE), which was needing assistance with collecting environmental data from many diverse sources and gathering it all into a format that could be used for analysis.
A team that worked with a Senegal government agency to help with a project to build a technology park. This is the team I was assigned to.
Q: How did you know what to do when you got there?
A: For each country where CSC is doing a project, IBM works with a non-governmental organization to identify appropriate clients for our team to work with, and to coordinate all the logistics. The one that our team worked with in Senegal was PYXERA Global. I found the PYXERA team to be very professional, a real pleasure to work with.
Each of our four sub-groups was given a draft statement of work a week or so before we left our home countries. Then, once we arrived in Senegal, we worked with our local sponsoring organizations to interview stakeholders, refine our understanding of the needs, and revise the document to create a final version that both parties agreed on. We then spent the balance of our engagements doing the work. We often worked evenings and weekends. With only 4 weeks to complete a project, it was important to stay focused.
Q: Where Can I Learn More About IBM’s Corporate Service Corps?
A: Here are some interesting links with more information:
The Mosque of Divinity is a beautiful structure located in Dakar, Senegal. Its members personally built it, entirely on a volunteer work. No money was paid to anybody involved in constructing it. All work was done by hand, without the help of cranes or other construction equipment. The project took 5 1/2 years to complete, from Spring of 1992 to October of 1997.
We visited it because Tidiane Gueye, our local contact for our stay in Senegal, was a member of the mosque and wanted to share this part of his life with us. It was a landmark near our hotel, which we drove past every day, and it was great to learn something of the history, as well as feel the personal connection to it.
The day I visited this mosque, October 7, the congregation was gearing up to celebrate the 20th anniversary of completing construction. The women had set up a fire with a cooking kettle to cook the meal they intended to serve for the celebration.
Behind the Mosque of Divinity is a beach that lies on the Atlantic Ocean. There are fishing boats parked along this beach, that people take out on the water to fish.
This beach is also a place where young people enjoy playing football (soccer).
I felt so inspired, visiting the Mosque of Divinity, because it clearly was a place created from the love that the members of the community feel for not only their faith, but also their relationship with each other.