Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Running and serving in Senegal (part 1): first days in Dakar

For those following this running blog, first you should already know that I'm going to be blogging from Africa for a few weeks. And, my apologies, I will also include some non-running topics to avoid creating another transient blog for just a few weeks. Indeed, as part of our engagement, IBM invites us to share about our experience and, since running is an integral part of my life, you'll get the two facets, running and work, in the upcoming posts.

For those who are visiting this blog for the first time, welcome, hope you will enjoy!

This is a first post about my IBM Corporate Service Corps assignment in Senegal. This is an amazing program from IBM, providing an opportunity to employees to spend a month in a developing country to assist local organizations with technical and business skills and make an impact through targeted consulting engagements. Since 2008, more than 200 teams have been deployed to 30 countries and the program has received praised for its positive impact around the globe, starting with a case study from the Harvard Business Review. We are the second team in Senegal.

I arrived this past Sunday in Dakar, as scheduled, at 5:30 am. Most of the team flew in on Friday and got a tour of the city and some orientation on Saturday but we already have a great team spirit among the team, every body was very helpful to get me up to speed. As a matter of fact, Sunday was full of team building and additional orientation activities. As soon as I got to the hotel, I went for a run from to discover the neighborhood as the sun was rising. No better treatment against jet lag (7-hour time difference with home) and after a red eye from the US and 5 hours of sleep!
Our hotel is on the Pointe des Almadies, at the most western end of Africa. Literally. It gives quite a feeling to think that this is the closest point to America, yet that we are so far away and there is so much ocean between us. No wonder why this point was chosen as a platform for sending slaves across the Atlantic, specifically from the close by Ile de Gorée which we should visit this coming Saturday.

Pointe des Almadies has been deeply transformed over the past 10 years. From a very poor area, it has become the residence of a few of the country's wealthiest, a few embassies starting with the gigantic US one, the UN local headquarters, several international schools and few high scale condominiums. As a result, the area is rather safe with numerous guards at every building. Mamour, from our local host organization, Pyxera Global (which was still named CDC Solutions 3 weeks ago), was nice enough to drive me around to show me the neighborhood. It turned to be a 3.15-mile loop, close enough to a 5K loop, perfect for some good running. The temperature was already quite high, so I just did two loops. The weather is going to be very predictable with temperatures of 79F/26C at night and 88F/31C during the day, and a humidity between 76 to 90%, definitely on the painful side for running, or even standing outside and in areas without air conditioning.

On Sunday morning, we went to a local beach, not for a swim, but for some cleaning. The project was also meant to get us to meet with kids learning English, but they ended up being off for the upcoming Tabaski religious celebration. We have been quite efficient, collecting 15 large bags of plastic trash. The local fishermen were quite impressed and pledged to continue to keep the beach as clean as we left it. To their defense, it seems that most of the garbage comes from the Ocean and, after three days going back and forth across the capital, there is certainly a lot of trash everywhere. The trace of the Western "developed" civilization...
Monday was our official kick-off hosted by ITA (Institut de Technologie Alimentaire, literally the Food Technology Institute). Our group counts 14 members coming from 7 countries (Japan, China, India, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada and USA), and representing nationalities: Japanese, Swiss, Dutch, Belgian, French, Indian, Chinese, Canadian and American, a perfect illustration of IBM's global aspect.
We are split in 4 teams to address 4 projects and challenges, or opportunities as we say in the US, specific to Senegal. Our team will assist a wonderful and fascinating organization, Coders4Africa, in their local development in Senegal. Here we are, with the manager of our client, Léger and one of his sisters on the left, then Dean, Phil and Tomomi.
By the way, you can get additional and detailed news from our team on these three other blogs: Tomomi's, Dean's and Phill's.

On Tuesday, I woke up early after yet another short night, and was able to run 5 loops before a quick breakfast and driving to our client's office (they provide us with a car and chauffeur which is very convenient). We met several of the "coders" whom we will be working with these 4 weeks and had fascinating discussions about what they managed to achieve during their three month-training, as well as the cultural specificity shaping their projects and development plans.

Wednesday was Tabaski (or Aid al-Adha in Arabic) which is the major Muslim holiday in Senegal, a country which is about 85-90% Muslim, so quite a big deal. The celebration of sacrifice during which each head of families kill a goat and gather/host the extended family. A sort of Thanksgiving which transformed Dakar in a dead city as most of the inhabitants go to their family in the suburbs or native country side. Léger got us to visit 3 families so we can experience this unique and joyful celebration. We ended the afternoon with a tour of the city including the Corniche and the Presidential Palace (see pictures).

After working on my "home" job in the evening, clearing off emails, and in order to catch-up with my blogging, I skipped the night party that our team was invited to, and look forward to hearing about this other experience from the team tomorrow morning.

The Internet bandwidth is quite limited and slow here so I can't include too many pictures in the post, but I invite you to visit my Picasa album to see more of Senegal! And I will "talk" to you in a few days to share more news about this amazing discovery experience.

#ibmcsc senegal

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