Molly McCluskey is a freelance journalist covering inequality, immigration, and foreign affairs. She is the editor of CityLab’s series on raising small kids, Room to Grow.
An advocate and mom in Dakar, Senegal, talks about elevating a child-focused policy agenda, in a city that’s still struggling with basic infrastructure.
As part of its recent series, Room to Grow, CityLab has covered a number of city governments, departments, and officials that are making policy tailored specifically to the needs of young kids. For most officials in Dakar, Senegal, consideration of children is not yet a part of the governing mentality, according to advocates.
ImagiNation Afrika, a non-profit organization based in Dakar, is trying to change that. The organization is focused on early education, and promotes play-based learning as a means for developing more creativity in kids. That work has intersected with another issue that is a top concern for parents of young kids living in cities: Public transportation.
The organization is running an ad campaign on the backs of informal buses popular in the city to promote the benefits of play. CityLab’s editor for the Room to Grow project, Molly McCluskey, spoke with Chakera McIntosh, a communications consultant with ImagiNation Afrika and mother of two young kids in the city, about the challenges of getting around Senegal with children, the cultural shift required for communities to become more child-friendly, and the new bus campaign. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
What are some of the greatest challenges in riding transit with children in Dakar?
We have different kinds of challenges than places in Europe and North America because we’re starting with a lack of infrastructure. So to speak about the challenges parents are facing with regards to transportation, we’re first just trying to get buses that are not overcrowded or good enough quality to be on the road, buses that have brakes, that are following the rules of the road.
We’re still at that stage where the thinking generally among local municipalities or even the advocacy that you would need among groups is not there yet, for parents to have better amenities and better ways of transporting themselves and their children. And it’s a part of our challenge here, and part of our mission, to get the wider community to think about children in their conceptualization of these things, especially as you have this rapidly urbanizing city.
There isn’t a lot of effort around that because there isn’t really a lot of thinking and movement when it comes to children. What exists now is buses designed without any particular thought for children.
When I was last in Dakar, we walked everywhere. Can you tell me, generally speaking, what is the transit system like?
We have a three-tiered system, if you like. We have the formal buses like you would find in any major city. That is part of the network that is financed by the government, and it’s a little bit more expensive. So that’s in the main city, among major arteries.
And we have some of the second level that’s run by private companies, and they are more hop-on/hop-off. Now they’re trying to put in place specific bus stops for them so that they use the same bus stops as the formal network, they’re a little bit cheaper, a bit more crowded, but again, a bit more formalized because you have to get a license from a private operator, and they go to more populous areas where the national, city-wide buses don’t necessarily go, like the suburbs, while the government buses tend to stay in the city of Dakar.
Then you have the third level, which is really hop-on/hop-off. They’re not necessarily safe, there are questions about how many of them actually have brakes, they’re really, really old, small minivans, and they tend to go shorter distances. These tend to be the cheapest forms of transportation.
ImagiNation Afrika recently ran a campaign on the more informal buses about the benefits of play. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
We really started to think about how to get the messages out there about the development of the whole child and the best practices around development of children, because we have a center here in Dakar where we have children coming regularly. We go out into the community, as well, and do these pop-up play spaces.
Our general observations from doing that work over the past couple of years were that we didn’t have enough public spaces for children to play and help in their development, we didn’t necessarily have enough teachers who were trained in using play for learning, and we didn’t have enough ideas in the community, or media, or just general cultural and social mores, about supporting the healthy development of children.
So we asked: What are the ways that we can touch upon these core areas and also get the message across that children learn and develop through play? And we had this fantastic opportunity through a private company that has advertising spaces on the backs of buses to partner with them and to get some of the key messaging out on the buses.
We jumped on it and developed six key messages with photos of children playing, about what play does for children’s development. You know, physical, emotional, cognitive. [For example], it helps them become more sociable. We are really targeting the wider public, to foster that belief in the general community about who children are and what they are capable of and how they can develop.
You mentioned you have two children, ages eight and six. How do you get around with them?
We walk a lot, or we drive, or we take taxis. A lot of people, if they have the means, tend to take taxis when they’re with their children in Dakar. In other places, you have to take public transportation.
They also have cars here that are not official taxis, they’re informal taxis, we call them “clandos,” short for clandestine. They’re shared taxis, so they’re not as crowded as the buses, but they’re not as expensive as a taxi you would take on your own, and they’re ok for short journeys with children.
Do you have any advice for other cities about how they can advocate for child-friendly policies, as ImagiNation Afrika has done?
As much as possible, involve the local government authorities. Because for there to be any substantial change, if it’s an environment like the one we’re in—an emerging economy—the local municipalities have quite a role to play in accepting any advocacy that will come from parents or other groups of people who are asking for better services for children.
And take an ecosystem approach. You really have to think of it as a building a whole environment around the child.
Funding was provided by the Bernard van Leer Foundation to support our project, “Room to Grow,” about raising tiny humans in the city.