Last spring I had the pleasure of introducing Michael Strong to my home, my origin, my Thiossane. He wrote this, which expresses beautifully how I feel about my country: FLOW Vision News - May 2009
Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.
Shuffling through the ankle deep sand of the narrow paths that pass for streets in a traditional Senegalese neighborhood at 2 a.m., guided by a Sufi mystic who has been having visions since the age of 13, we come across a crowd watching a wrestling match behind a makeshift canvas enclosure. Peaking through the holes in the canvas, along with the street urchins who cannot afford the 10 cents admissions fee, by flaming torchfire we see a pair of incredibly powerful men wrestling shoulder to shoulder, dripping with sweat and dust, wearing only a simple loincloth as they throw each other to the ground with great fierceness. We then walk along the beach in the dark, past a graveyard of holy men, with the huge waves crashing and crabs running in the moonlight. And amidst all of this indigenous, exotic romanticism, the marabout wants me to help modernize Senegal.
There is a breed of Westerner who hates our civilization, and wants to return to a more indigenous way of life. But most people who do not have our way of life, long for it. I am reminded of climbing a local promontory in Alaska with an orange-robed Tibetan priest and a group of local hippies, who had asked him to bless the mountain for them. In the blessing ceremony that he was performing, he quite innocently and honestly prayed for them that they would find oil under their land, assuming, as do most people from poor countries, that these people would be delighted to have the gift of sudden wealth. Little did he know that this particular group of people would find the thought of discovering oil beneath their land to be a curse rather than a blessing. Their sudden expressions of repugnance were unimaginable to him.
That said, it is also true that many people from other cultures fear the erosion of their own cultures, even as they long for the comfort, convenience, pleasure, and respect that comes from living the life we enjoy in the "developed" world. A majority of people living on less than $1 dollar per day listen to radio, and a majority of those living on less than $2 per day watch television. They are all watching, at least part of the time, American programs which often show the most tawdry aspects of our culture, unbelievable shamelessness and vulgarity along with unbelievable material wealth.
Senegalese culture is an especially warm, kind, and respectful culture for those who experience it from the inside (for a sense of the warmth and diversity of the music, see here, here, and here). Casual tourists are harassed by beggars and street vendors, so if one does not have personal relationships with individual Senegalese one might not experience the real Senegal. But for those who have the opportunity to develop real relationships here, one can feel a culture that is relatively free from anger, hatred, ego, and vanity. There are, of course, good people and bad people everywhere. But the social norms here are, on balance, more modest than in the U.S. One of the projects I am working on here is the SEEDS Academy, a basketball academy founded by Amadou Gallo Fall, the VP for International Relations for the Dallas Mavericks. Although the Senegalese tend to be very tall and exceptionally athletic, one of the concerns at the academy is to train the players to be aggressive rather than respectful so that they can compete in the NCAA and NBA. To take a different kind of example, in watching a video of a Senegalese concert, most of which was the singing of religious songs, the young people at the concert were as enthusiastic as any American concert crowd. But when a Congolese band came on that, instead of religious songs, sang songs with sexually explicit lyrics and quasi-pornographic dancing, the Senegalese young people became suddenly quiet and visibly embarrassed, en masse. This was a spontaneous response and it was not a behavior that one would see in the U.S., where highly sexualized performances at rock concerts are well received.
So the problem that I am currently working on is how to help a country become wealthy while preserving, as much as possible, its cultural integrity. On the wealthy side, the good news is that Senegal is ready to take off and join the world economy as soon as Americans are ready to invest in and purchase from Senegal. I may be exaggerating slightly by putting the burden largely on Americans, but many Senegalese are frustrated with having France as their primary trading partner, because of the various ways in which they EU economy is formally closed and, even more so, because of the ways in which the Europeans are not as culturally adventurous, open, and welcoming as are the Americans. Plus, relative to the French, the Americans have money and spend it. The Senegalese want to do business with Americans.
Unfortunately, many Americans are burdened with an enormous set of prejudices regarding Africa. Our image of Africa is that it is a land of poverty, violence, corruption, and disease. While there are many Americans who are eager to pity Africa and send money, fewer Americans are ready to recognize Africa as a legitimate place to vacation, do business, and build friendships. And with leaders such as Robert Mugabe in place and the Congo civil wars periodically re-erupting, unfortunately many of the negative perceptions of Africa have a basis in reality.
But most of those generalizations do not apply to Senegal. Senegal has been a stable, functioning democracy since independence. Although one should take malaria pills here, especially in the rainy season, there are no unusual health risks here; even the AIDS rate in Senegal is comparable to that in the U.S. The climate along the gorgeous coast is more moderate than is that of Texas; typical Dakar daytime temperatures range from cool and breezy 70s in the dry season to the high 80s in the brief rainy season.
After forty years of socialism, President Wade of Senegal has, since his election in 2000, put in place a thoroughly pro-market agenda: he has created a one-stop shop business registration service that makes opening up a business in Senegal straightforward for both foreigners and natives, and he has an entire office devoted to setting up industrial parks and free zones, with a determination to attract American investment in the free zones. Senegal has secure property rights and a strong tradition of rule of law and contract enforcement; thus businesses that invest here need not worry about many of the legitimate fears that prevent them from investing in many developing world nations. Only seven hours away via a direct flight from NYC, D.C. and Atlanta, Senegal is, in effect, open for business.
Poverty is the worst problem facing Senegal, and it is clearly the legacy of forty years of socialism. When Senegal achieved independence in 1960, it had one of the strongest manufacturing sectors of any African nation. Leopold Senghor, the first leader of independent Senegal, was educated by French socialists and therefore believed that government control of the economy was superior to capitalistic competition. Until 1986, a hundred and sixty-one different manufactured items essentially had government-granted monopolies due to the misguided belief that competition was harmful to economic progress. The impact was exactly the reverse; sixteen years of government-enforced monopolies resulted in a shrunken manufacturing sector with poor quality standards that prevented Senegalese industry from competing in the global market. A series of reforms starting in 1986 began to open up the economy, but just as the transition economies of eastern Europe struggled when initially faced with global competition, so too did Senegal's economy. Moreover, the combination of ongoing socialism with more open trade resulted in the collapse of the Senegalese manufacturing sector.
The dominant cultural and religious force in Senegal is Sufi Muslim, with more than 95% of Senegalese being followers. Among the Sufi brotherhoods, the most powerful one is the Mourides, founded by Cheikh Amadou Bamba, a charismatic mystic who is beloved for resisting the French colonial powers in the late 19th and early 20th century. Bamba preached a principled non-violence, decades before Ghandi, and hard work as the path to holiness, and one of his first disciples was a highly successful entrepreneur who added entrepreneurship as one of the paths through which work became holy. As a consequence, the Mourides diaspora around the world tend to be successful entrepreneurs wherever they go. Moreover, because Mouridism is ethical first and foremost, Bamba, in his own way, launched the first generation of Conscious Capitalists(R). Thus in a world in which a common prejudice towards Muslims is the belief that they are terrorists, and a common prejudice towards Africans is that they are lazy, passive, and unethical the Mourides are globally distinguished for being especially peaceful Muslims and especially hard working, ethical, entrepreneurial Africans. I don't want to exaggerate; decades of dependence on NGOs and government have undermined the work ethic in Senegal. But if Wade is able to complete his project of releasing his people from decades of socialism, the future looks bright for Senegal.
Unlike many African leaders, Wade is moving in the right direction. But always and everywhere, economic freedom only results in economic growth if entrepreneurs build successful companies, and African entrepreneurs can only build successful companies if they receive investment capital and if consumers purchase their products and services. But if Senegal's beautiful beaches are over-run by the drunken spring break party crowd from the U.S., and if all of the investment comes from the most short-sighted and calloused businessmen from France, the U.S., China, and the Arab world, Senegal may become wealthier but a land destroyed by drunkenness, corruption, pollution, and prostitution. But if the best and most caring people come to Senegal as tourists and investors, and learn to love and respect the music, the people, and the culture, then perhaps Senegal can develop as the first wealthy nation in black sub-Saharan Africa while also providing a model of how to modernize in a culturally respectful manner.
Michael Strong CEO & Chief Visionary Officer FLOW
P.S.: Be the Solution!