First Week with GRAG

Asalaam Aleekum! Nangeen def, ça va? As I write this, the sounds of the city of Dakar, Senegal drift in through the office window: construction from the housing development across the street, taxis passing through the neighborhood, and some of my co-workers conversing in Wolof infused with French. I have been living in Dakar for the past four months while studying French language and African development as well as attempting to learn the dominant Wolof language and the art of Senegalese cuisine.

A street in the northeastern area of the city.

Dakar has truly been an experience. The capital city of Senegal, it sits on a peninsula on the westernmost point of Africa jutting into the Atlantic. Because of its location in the Sahel region, sand is an omnipresent obstacle here, whether you are walking through it on sidewalks, emptying it from your clothes, or attempting to protect your shoes from the inevitable wear that constant exposure brings about. Gross poverty mixes with excess of wealth on the city streets and people of every nationality and social strata cross paths to work, study, or travel through the region. Experiencing Dakar has complicated my knowledge of West African environmental politics, cross-cultural identity, and, especially, the international aid industry.

The organization I am interning with this summer is Global Research and Advocacy Group (GRAG), a non-profit that works with marginalized communities in Senegal and the greater African continent. I’ve been interested in international development work for a while and knew that this summer would be a great opportunity to experience the industry first-hand. I began my internship search by asking my study abroad program directors and classmates who were interning through the program about their organizations to decide if there were any which aligned with my academic and career interests. I contacted a few companies, sent my resume, and spoke with supervisors about intern responsibilities and planned summer projects. After meeting with the director of GRAG to discuss their goals, I felt that they were the best fit for me. We discussed my qualifications and they offered me an internship position.

Plaque with the GRAG Mission Statement  hanging at the office entrance.
Plaque with the GRAG Mission Statement hanging at the office entrance.

GRAG is a relatively new organization – created just two years ago – and the team is somewhat small, with a staff of about 20 and a few occasional consultants. The size gives the office a more comfortable feel and the attitudes of the team especially contribute to that. Everyone has time to drop into the office I share with another intern for a quick chat that may or may not turn into a Wolof lesson, and I talk to every person here at least once a day because greeting is so important to Senegalese culture. There was an upcoming deadline for a project during the first few days that had everyone harried and feeling rushed, but even that did not stop the flow of conversation and jokes that carries the work along.

GRAG is currently in the midst of a campaign for the abandonment of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting(FGM/C) on the African continent and most of the energy here goes into that initiative. The team is based in a Francophone West-African country but works as part of an international consortium for many projects, so a large part of my job so far has involved French-to-English translation work and general editing. I actually jumped straight into the project even before my first day: my supervisor sent me part of the proposal to translate a few days beforehand and I decided to get a head start. That decision turned out to be the right one because the amount of documents to translate and research projects to complete sent the entire team into a whirl of activity during my first week. My first days here have been a crash-course in formal document translation and crafting international funding proposals, two fields that I am very interested in.

Though we finished the major points during the first three days, everyone is still tying loose ends and adding new ideas to enhance the proposal before the final review in a few weeks.  We are still working towards the final deadline, but if the consortium is accepted, the initiative against FGM/C will be implemented for a preliminary five years before possible extension for five more.

Me and another intern taking a break from translation.
Me and another intern taking a break from translation.

The prevalence of Female Genital Mutilation, or Female Genital Cutting, ranges by ethnic group and region, and is not as much of an issue in Senegal as in other African and Middle-Eastern nations, not to mention the recent increase in Western countries. But the practice has gained the notice of big international organizations like the UN and Tostan that link the larger themes of female empowerment and public health development to the issue. Problems abound in these initiatives, including those of criminalization of ethnic group practices, the battle between tradition and certain kinds of modernity, and a complicated (and oftentimes paternalistic) history between African groups and international aid programs. The consortium proposal attempts to validate these concerns while keeping in mind the risks that the practice poses to young women and their communities.

The FGM initiative is just one being launched by GRAG this summer and I am excited to help with this and others, such as the opening of a learning center for vulnerable populations here in Dakar. In this predominantly Muslim country, that includes sexual minorities like homosexual men and women, but also sex workers and others who do not follow accepted standards of living. In the next two months I hope to learn more about the daily processes of advocacy work and international development, and what projects are being done to help marginalized people in the region achieve their full human rights.

Ba beneen yoon, or until next time!