I happened to personally know this author. We met through an acquaintance here in Montreal.

Saer is from Senegal and this is his first novel. This novel is a fiction based on reality. The characters are fictions but the events and places are very much real. Saer studied law at University Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar, Senegal and is currently studying at University of Quebec in Montreal. He is currently working on his second novel.

If you are from Senegal, then you now all about the place university students called in French “Le Couloir de la mort” or “The death row” in English. It’s a small alley next to the main campus. Why is it name as such? I am not really sure, the only explanation I can think of is that this is the place where students run to when the police are chasing them to disperse a strike. And unfortunately, people get killed in this alley. African Universities are characterized by their frequent strikes. Students regularly go on strike so that the administration can notice their sufferings. Well, they hope that would be the case. But as we all know, the suffering get noticed  but promises are never fulfilled. The only alternative for students is to get out of the country. But that is another story, we will discuss in the blog.

The novel is about the college life of four students: two boys (Maktar and Elhadji Beye) and two girls (Aya and Mousli). They are young, from different backgrounds, from different parts of the country and from different classes. University threw them together. Now, this is not your usual campus life, the context is really vibrant. The themes in this novel are friendship, politics, elections in Africa, student issues and struggles, campus prostitution, poverty, love, sexually transmitted disease, pregnancies and social pressure.

This novel delved right into the problems our generation. Our universities are underfunded. Students live a daily struggle for everything ranging from food to lodging to their studies. As a consequence, some girls go into prostitution (they have sex with older and richer man for money); others just give up and return home or get married and abandoned their studies. For a developing country, this is a disaster.  As you need the youth of your country to be educated so that they can contribute to the  effort of nation-building. On that context, one would think that university funding would be a priority on the government agenda. Sadly, that is not the case. Great effort has been put on education in recent years, but it is more on the primary and secondary level side. For more information on education’s public policy  in Africa, read Poor Economics by Esther Duflo and Abhijeet Barnejee of the MIT (See section Non African books).

For someone who went abroad for her university, it was quite a discovery and an emotional read. Everybody in the country knows that Dakar’s university is hard. Only those who do not have the choice attend it.  I probably wouldn’t have had the same issues than the characters, if I had attended it. Firstly, my home is in the city so my parents would have been very close . And secondly, I wouldn’t be struggling for food or lodging or money. However, the same cannot be said about my studies. The state of the libraries and classrooms is not really  helping people succeed. I would not help but compare my university here in Canada to the university in Dakar. One should not compare an egg and an apple. But it was hard to resist. I won’t tell you the result of my analysis, though.

This book is an eye opener because I taught I know what was going on in that university. But after reading this novel, I am not so sure. Students are always on strike or so we, outsiders, love to think. We are always angry that the peace and the traffic is disturbed by a handful of lunatics from the university. But, after reading this book, let me tell you that I know understand what is this all about. To be able to study and have good grades, one should eat well, sleep well and concentrate on ones studies. Well, this book tells us that is not the case in that particular university. Now, in recent years, a handful of private universities have mushroomed all over the city. This illustrated my previous point about choice to attend a public or a private university. If you parents can afford a private university, then you are very fortunate. But I must point out that the University  Cheikh Anta Diop is well-known for it faculty of medicine, one of the best in West Africa. If only they could have more funding, that would be really helpful for the university and the country.

On the background of stories happening in the university, politicians are always meddling in student’s affairs. They used the student’s grievance for their own political benefits. Or they bribed some of the leaders to gain control of the movements.

This book is beautifully written. The problems are really well exposed and nuanced.  I struggle a little bit on the beginning, the style of writing is different from what I am used to read. But I am happy I read this one. My only regret is that two of the main characters died in the end.

I recommend you this book, if you can find in English. I read it in French. But was really worth my time. I might read a second time on of these days.

Did you read this book? Let us know your opinion by email  at utneemtree@gmail.com or by commenting under this post.