A close friendship between two universities – one in Portsmouth, and the other in Senegal, Africa – is celebrating the 30th anniversary of changing lives in both countries.
The University of Portsmouth and the University Cheikh Anta Diop, in Dakar became partners in a programme to help UK students in 1986. Thirty years on, the man who started it, Tony Chafer, professor of French and African studies at Portsmouth, has hundreds of stories of UK-based students changing their own lives and the lives of the many they’ve worked with.
The 30th anniversary was marked in the British embassy in Dakar.
British ambassador to Senegal, George Hodgson, said: “I’m really impressed by Professor Tony Chafer’s commitment. 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 of 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. Bravo, Professor Chafer – here’s to the next 30 years!”
Professor Chafer set up the partnership because Portsmouth’s French Studies programmes ‘rested heavily on studying and understanding not only France but the French-speaking world.
He chose Senegal because of its stability, security and proximity to Europe.
He said: “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 Professor Chafer establish contact with the English department at University Cheikh Anta Diop, and a year later, in 1987, an agreement was signed between the two under the auspices of the British Council. The alliance was renewed two years later, but ended in 1991 with UK government cutbacks curtailing British Council funding. This setback failed to end the relationship, however, and Professor Chafer and colleagues continued to arrange educational and work experience exchanges between the two countries.
He said: “Even with these cutbacks we continued to send staff, for three to six months, from University Cheikh Anta Diop 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. 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, he said.
“Nearly everybody taking part had challenges. 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 careers.
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 exchange program with Plan International. As a direct result of her improved French language abilities gained in Senegal, she then studied for her MSc in France.
Katarzyna 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.”
She now works at International HIV/AIDS Alliance in Brighton, UK.
Another student who went to Senegal as part of the programme, Abigail Boyle, is now the deputy head faculty, security defence and intelligence for the Foreign Commonwealth Office in London.
Abigail 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 extensively draw on my experience and in particular my French language skills, in my career to date.”
A third Portsmouth graduate who spent time in Senegal, Jana Konig, is now working in Senegal for a Japanese NGO. She received the job offer in the final weeks of studying for her finals, following a year volunteering in Africa as part of her course.
The Portsmouth/Dakar partnership, which Professor Chafer sees as a natural alliance, will continue.
He said: “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.”