Depending on the Kindness of Strangers: Fieldwork in Senegal

Rochelle Terman
April 02, 2014
A Street in Senegal

In Dakar, street addresses are either nonexistent or irrelevant. Directions are given relative to neighborhoods, well-known restaurants, or other landmarks. But you won’t know exactly where some place is until you go there, relying on friendly neighborhood locals to point you the way until you find what you’re looking for.

That’s fieldwork, too. “You just have to go,” a few close friends told me, cutting straight through my indecisiveness. Because I am a political scientist studying international relations and comparative politics, fieldwork is desirable but not completely necessary to my dissertation. I knew I wanted to go, but there never seemed to be a good time. There were conference papers to write and fellowship applications to submit. I didn’t have time to complete all the “pre-fieldwork” planning I assumed was required. Who would take care of my cat?

“Just do it,” advised Townsend Center Associate Director Teresa Stojkov. “You’ll figure it out when you get there.” Hearing this from my boss, I realized I had one less excuse—my employers were actually encouraging me to leave the office. 

The author and one of her roommates,
Edmond, in Dakar.
Photo by Renata Harrison.

I took her advice and booked my ticket to Dakar the next day. After doing that, everything else just fell into place. I got my visa, tied up some loose ends here in Berkeley, and made arrangements for my cat.

I wish I could say I had a straightforward reason for why I chose Senegal to conduct fieldwork. My dissertation is on the dynamics and consequences of transnational women’s rights advocacy in Muslim-majority countries, but does not focus exclusively on Senegal. The truth is, I had never actually been to Senegal and knew embarrassingly little about it. But from what I did know, I thought it would be a good case to compare with other countries I knew more about, such as Iran.

While I had a substantive and theoretical interest in Senegal, what really attracted me to the country as a field site was the fact that I had contacts there. For the last seven years, I’ve been working with a network called Women Living Under Muslim Laws, which brings together women’s human rights defenders working in Muslim contexts from around the world. One of WLUML’s regional offices is in Dakar and, over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know several Senegalese networkers at conferences and over Skype meetings. 

One networker in particular, Ms. Codou Bop,  graciously offered to take care of me during my trip. I use the phrase “take care of me” because there’s no better way to describe what she did. Not only did she find me and my travel companion a place to stay and made sure we had everything we needed, but she also arranged most of my interviews, building off of her own established networks inside the country. Codou and her daughter, herself a talented scholar, taught me about Senegalese history, politics, and culture over home-cooked meals at their home in Dakar.  

Another individual, without whom this trip would have failed miserably, was my travel companion (and best friend since the 8th grade) Renata Harrison. Not only is Renata a talented photographer, providing the images that accompany this essay, but she is also fluent in French and volunteered to be my interpreter.

Renata reminded me how important collaboration is to scholarship, even traditionally solitary activities such as fieldwork. After conducting an interview together, Renata and I would debrief, share our perceptions and interpretations of the interview, and work together to decipher the “meaning” of our informant’s comments. These conversations were crucial, as they helped me make sense of the interviews and provided critical feedback that sharpened interview skills.

Finally, Renata and I were blessed with three warm and generous roommates, Donella and Nathan from Central African Republic and Edmond from Cameroon, who were studying in Dakar and had extra room in their apartment. It is difficult to put into words the degree to which these three benefited our trip and my research. It wasn’t just that they showed us the town and made sure we had fun in between all the work we were doing. They actually did the work with us. That is, at least one of them would accompany us to every interview to make sure we found where we were going, which was especially helpful considering Dakar’s limited address system and our pathetic reliance on Google Maps. Without Donella, Nathan, and Edmond, Renata and I would have been perpetually lost, both geographically and emotionally. No matter how much time you spend reading about the subject matter, there is no replacement for human beings to show you the way, teach you what you never even knew you missed, hold you when the very foundation on which your research depends is shaken under the weight of first-hand experience.

The author with Renata Harrison and two of her three roommates, Donella and
Edmond. Photo by Nathan Vladmir, the roommate not pictured.

I only spent three weeks in Dakar, which is way too short for any in-depth knowledge about a place. But here’s the point: By getting on a plane, I learned things that I simply would not have learned had I spent every moment of those three weeks in Doe Library.

All told, I completed 16 in-depth interviews with women’s rights activists, journalists, scholars, community and religious leaders who drastically altered the way I think about my dissertation and the questions around which it is centered. Plus, I developed skills, particularly interviewing skills, that will help me in future research.

As is the case with any fieldwork experience, it is the unexpected and unplanned-for we will remember most. We attended soirees at both the American and Iranian Embassies. We went to the zoo on Valentine’s Day. We salsa danced on the beach.

One weekend, Renata and I took a break from city life and stayed at a small village outside of Dakar. On our first night there we took a walk on the beach and on our way back, we overshot our house by about 2 kilometers. It was pitch black, there were no taxis, nothing was open, and we were desperately lost. Thankfully we found some friendly locals who showed us the way home. With their help, we eventually found what we were looking for.

Rochelle Terman is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at UC Berkeley and a web consultant for the Townsend Center for the Humanties.