At first glance, Portsmouth in the UK and Dakar in Senegal may not seem to have much in common. But for the last three decades these two cities have been quietly involved in a longstanding study and work partnership that has seen over 120 students voyaging between the English coastal city and West Africa’s land of teranga. On January 20 2017, the University of Portsmouth and its Senegalese partners celebrated their 30 year anniversary at the British embassy in Dakar.
“We had decided, given the importance of the French speaking world to our French Studies programmes, to choose Senegal because of its stability, security and proximity to Europe,” recalls Tony Chafer, Professor of French and African Studies at the University of Portsmouth, who came to Dakar in 1986 to meet with the-then British Council Country Director Jon Tod. “We also started this at a time when English was becoming more important in the world and we wanted to build a bridge between the two countries.”
The British Council helped Chafer establish contact with the English department at the University Cheikh Anta Diop (UCAD) in Dakar and a year later, in 1987, an agreement was signed between the two universities under the auspices of the British Council. This alliance was again renewed two years later, but ended in 1991 with government cutbacks under the UK’s Thatcher government, which affected British Council funding. However, this didn’t put an end to the educational and work experience exchanges between the two countries which then pursued different avenues with a wider variety of partners.
“Even with these cutbacks we continued to send staff, for three to six months, from UCAD with the support of the British Council in Senegal to give training to English teachers in St Louis in the north of Senegal and Dakar,” says Chafer. “We also provided language assistants and teachers to the British Senegalese Institute and have recently started to do the same for the Collège Bilingue in Dakar.”
As with any exchange programme, there can be logistical and personal hurdles to overcome. Working in a foreign environment requires patience and flexibility, which is all the more pronounced in a developing country.
“Nearly everybody taking part had challenges,” admits Chafer. “Many from the UK had never been to Africa, so there was that initial cultural shock to get around, including the vast differences in social relations and professional working practices that are so different and which students must adapt to.”
But along with difficulties, came life-changing experiences that launched many on international career paths. Katarzyna Lalak, 28, a University of Portsmouth student from Poland, studied International Relations and French and then travelled to Dakar for one year in 2010 for a work placement with Plan International.
After improving her French and gaining invaluable professional experience in Dakar, she then went on to pursue a two-year Masters at Sciences Po Bordeaux in international development.
She said: “The Dakar experience was great. Not only had it allowed me to land my feet on African soil for the first time in my life, but it also taught me transferable skills and greatly enriched my CV. Both interning experiences and my year-long stay in Dakar opened my eyes to a diversity of languages, traditions, religions and cultures present in Senegal.”
Lalak now works at International HIV/AIDS Alliance in Brighton, UK.
The UK Embassy in Senegal is a strong supporter of this program and salutes the efforts made by Chafer and his team.
“I’m really impressed by Professor Tony Chafer’s commitment,” said the British ambassador to Senegal, George Hodgson. “For the past 30 years he has built a relationship between the University of Portsmouth and Senegal, sending students to work with a range of institutions in Dakar from the University Cheikh Anta Diop to NGOs like Plan International to the BBC World Service. Thanks to the programme, over 120 young Brits have had a positive impact here in Senegal and Senegal has had, from what I hear from Tony and from some of them, an enormous positive impact on them. Bravo, Professor Chafer – here’s to the next 30 years!”
Another beneficiary of the partnership is Abigail Boyle who came to Dakar for a semester in 1997/98 to study at UCAD and volunteer at two NGOs.
She said: “Choosing a placement in a Francophone country in Africa seemed like an opportunity not to miss. This was my first exposure to extreme poverty and the hardships of life in a developing country, which tested my personal resilience. Living in the community, I developed a good understanding of Senegalese culture, poetry, fashion and music, and the depth of their hospitality known as “teranga”. And I gained a broad understanding of the country, both in terms of society and politics. I continue to draw extensively on my experience and in particular my French language skills, in my career to date.”
Moving forward, plans are for the Portsmouth/Dakar partnership to continue.
Chafer says, “We’d like to maintain and enhance current relations with Dakar. We are both coastal cities, we are both interested in maritime security, Senegal has recently discovered offshore oil and gas and, at our university, we have expertise in the field of maritime resources and coastal management“.
A logical partnership, indeed. And one which can hopefully continue for another 30 years to come.
For more information on the University of Portsmouth – Senegal partnership, please visit: www.port.ac.uk/courses/modern-languages-and-area-studies/ba-hons-french-studies/#facilities