SENEGAL: HAITIAN STUDENTS BATTLE CAMPUS BLUES
(Africe Review) - By Tamba Jean-Matthew
In October 2010, some 163 Haitian students touched down in Dakar aboard a Senegalese-government chartered flight to much fanfare. Nine months earlier, their country had been devastated by a terrible earthquake that killed over 300,000 and decimated learning institutions.
....Students and professors around the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince were reported dead in its immediate aftermath and was one of the horror stories, as whole schools were wiped out.
In a gesture of brotherhood with Haiti, the first black republic, then Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade even offered land for Haitians to resettle, and stumped up $1 million in aid, shortly after signing a memorandum of cooperation with the devastated country.
Eighteen months later, most of the students would be forgiven for being seriously pining for home.
Many are looking to new President Macky Sall to intervene, in what they say is a dire situation. Among the difficulties they have had to grapple with are culture shock, hostility from Senegalese students, and being broke.
The main campus of the Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar has been the setting. "In the beginning we thought the others would not keep their distance since at the time of our arrival some of the students were on vacation," a female Haitian student told the Africa Review on condition of anonymity.
"But not until the vacation was over and everyone back on campus did we begin to experience the very antagonistic and xenophobic nature of our colleagues," she said.
Part of the rancour was that university authorities had earmarked the 'Pavilion C' building for the Haitian students, but the occupants had not been adequately prepared in time to vacate.
Several strikes were planned with some carried through as the local students resisted attempts to dislodge them from the building. The two groups of students were finally constrained to settle and live together.
Female students grappled with the same resistance but had markedly less confrontations and friction with their colleagues at the university's Aline Sitoe Diatta hostels.
"We are really the ones to take the initiative to integrate, but they (Senegalese) should extend a hand to us as well," a local newspaper quoted a female Haitian student as saying.
Senegalese gastronomy was not friendly either. One of Senegal's main exports is fish, and so rice and fish, or "Thiepe diene" is the country's national dish, regularly eaten with grounded sour leaves and lime, as well as spices.
Diametrically opposed in the two countries menus is pig meat, popular in Haiti, a majority Christian country. The majority of Senegalese are Muslims and abhor even goat meat.
There was also the problem of sanitation, a persistent problem at the university as infrastructure creaks under a runaway student population. In 1990 there were 40,000 students at the institution, by 2011 this had risen to 55,000.
"In the beginning we thought we were just being lodged temporarily at the Cheikh Anta Diop University for onward relocation to a place far better than what we lived during the first month or so," said the Haitian student.
But the main problem has been their welfare.
At arrival, the students were all symbolically taken to Gorée, the slave island near Dakar where their ancestors were finally forced through the little "door of no return" into slavery in the Caribbean Islands and elsewhere.
They were subsequently introduced to the small Haitian community in Senegal and enrolled into different departments at Cheikh Anta Diop and provided with a mobile phone and about $100 worth of air time.
Stipend not enough
They were also provided with the books and stationery needed in the various departments and a badge that allowed them to freely access restaurants at campus, but they had to foot their bills during holidays when the eateries were also closed.
But they quickly found that a monthly stipend of 36,000 cfa francs (about $87) given to them at the beginning of the semester to support them for three months, lasted barely two weeks.
Jamra, a social welfare institution run by Muslims charged with the responsibility of managing their insertion into Senegalese society also discovered this was leading to unexpected outcomes.
Many of the female students were being lured into indecent living, including sexual promiscuity, by "irresponsible men in our society ,including highly placed government officials,” Jamra in a report to President Wade said.
Jamra termed the sum inadequate and recommended its increase and that it be paid to them at the beginning of every month.
"All that could be true, but we would choose to stay and continue our studies if the new regime would come to our aid and try to improve our [living] conditions,” the anonymous female Haitian student said.