Interview with PhD. Student in the Joint Doctoral Program for Sustainability Research — Mr. Sene Fafa from Senegal
The “Joint Doctoral Program for Sustainability Research” (JDPSR), jointly offered by Tokyo University of Foreign Studies (TUFS), Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology, and the University of Electro-Communications, is a program established based on the thinking that working towards a resolution for current global issues —particularly those related to development, environment, and peace — is the duty and purpose of sustainability research.
While building on the expertise of the three universities, the program combines the humanities and sciences to transcend existing frameworks of research/education and takes the critical approach to the concepts and perspectives of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
This time, we interviewed Mr. Sene Fafa from Senegal, who is enrolled in this joint program and is conducting sustainability research here in Japan.
Childhood, undergraduate, and postgraduate years
— Thank you for making the time for this interview! First of all, please tell us about your journey before coming to Japan. What were your childhood, undergraduate, and postgraduate years like?
From what I can remember, I enjoyed a normal life as a child. My father was working at the National Tourism Bureau, which was a privilege in our community that meant our family could enjoy a relatively acceptable standard of living. I went to a French public primary school and was always among the students with top marks. My junior secondary school years were memorable in many circumstances. At that time, I was introduced to a high school girl in the final year of high school (“Terminale”, grade 13) who was aiming to go to university, which led me to set myself the goal of pursuing the final stage of higher education on my part: a doctoral program. It was a challenge for me, a young boy who was born and raised in a patriarchal society, to reach and surpass the level of ladies. Thus, I set the objective of reaching the doctoral level which in my mind would compete that high school girl. Don’t blame me, our patriarchal society was programmed like that. After an express passage at high school, I entered the best university in the country (Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar) and began studying in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. There, I had attained a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and a postgraduate degree. I also enrolled in the doctoral program (never completed it) and succeeded in earning the very selective Advanced Teacher-Training Diploma (the highest teaching diploma in Senegal). My dream of getting a Ph.D. was dampened by the (relatively) good teaching salary that allowed me to earn a living. Besides, earning a living on my own was also another goal.
I also completed another master’s degree in Public Administration at South Korea’s Yonsei University after I was awarded a scholarship by the Korean government. One year upon returning home from Korea, I was transferred as a planner to the Senegal Ministry of Local Communities. It is from that position that I landed at TUFS.
— I am surprised that you had already decided to go on to a PhD program when you were in junior secondary school. What research topics did you work on during your undergraduate and master’s programs?
My undergraduate studies were a sort of blend. The research back then revolved around African, British, and American Literature. My master’s program was specifically focused on the literature and civilization of English-speaking countries, particularly British literature. We had to dig deep inside classical and contemporary British writers, which wasn’t an easy task because some of them, like Shakespeare or even Dickens, are difficult to understand. However, my master’s degree in South Korea was about Public Administration, and it was very interesting.
Entrance to the Doctoral Program
— You have a rich background in your research! What made you decide to conduct research in Japan?
When you live in South Korea, Japan is at your doorstep and you can’t help hearing people talk about the Archipelago. During my stay in Korea, some of my classmates would even come here to Japan for vacation and when they came back, they would tell so many interesting stories about Tokyo. I had the possibility to visit Tokyo too, but I was too focused on my master’s at the time. After graduating from Yonsei, a chance was offered to me to pursue a doctoral course there, but my objective was to do it in Japan. The reason is that I’ve heard a lot about the rigor in the Japanese education system and I wanted to test myself.
— Why did you choose this program, the “Joint Doctoral Program for Sustainability Research”?
The magic word is “SUSTAINABILITY.” It is what really stimulated my interest while I was exploring Japanese universities. Sustainability is what is needed in developing countries. We have a lot of resources in our countries, but we can’t conduct programs in a sustainable way. Moreover, as a newly appointed Ministry agent, I wanted to arm myself with undeniable skills from a country known for its inventions and its remarkable history in order to take it as an example. I read the program of JDPSR and I was seduced by its clarity. Also, the short bio-data of the faculty were very telling. I instantly said to myself, “This is the institution you need to go to.” And thank God, I made the right choice.
After entering the doctoral program
— You mentioned that the word “sustainability” was decisive in your choice of university. Now, please tell us about your studies in the doctoral program. Are there any differences in study/research style from the master’s program?
The difference is huge. First of all, the availability of the professors is amazing. Ask any student from Africa, and they will tell you they have difficulties meeting their supervisor, not because professors don’t want to meet students but because there are too few of them for too many students. Second, the doctoral program at TUFS is organized in such a way that you feel you are supported in meeting your objectives. Everything is clearly stated, and you know what to do and when to do it. All you have to do is work hard. Also, the possibilities that are offered to us, in terms of research, are numerous. The library is at your disposal on weekdays and you can check the books that are available from the website. We also have the possibility to order any book we want to possess. We have a common room that is specifically established for doctoral students with computers, an overhead projector, online meeting devices, and everything we might need. We are also encouraged to make presentations and obtain feedback from our three supervisors from the three universities. In other words, we have everything to succeed because we feel extremely well supported by everyone involved in the program.
— What research topics are you currently working on? Please tell us about the charm of your research.
My topic goes like this: “The Contribution of Informal Sector in the Socioeconomic and Cultural Structure of Urban Households: An Empirical Investigation of Dakar Street Vendors.” Anyone in Senegal would tell you this is a good topic for the simple reason that the informal sector is responsible for 97% of employment creation in the country. Our formal sector is collapsing, unemployment has become endemic, and the young graduates have lost hope. The only glimmer of hope left is to start your own business from your savings, your family assets, or the little money you can borrow from your neighbors, and from it you start your individual or family-owned informal production unit (IPU). Street vending, which is a subsector of the informal sector, is the main purveyor of informal workers. Most households in Dakar are maintained by people who work as street vendors. Young people who still live rely on their parents for financial support find the street vending business to be a way to preserve their dignity and seize the opportunity to make their loved and cherished ones proud of them because that is very important in Senegalese society. Street vending is not all about making money. It is a necessity to solve a social issue that is deeper than physical wealth: it’s about preserving your inner-being, your dignity.
— I see. This could be connected to the issue of production and reproduction… Anyway, I think “dignity” is a very important notion in sustainability research. Our next question is, what is your impression of the integration of the humanities and sciences, one of the features of this program?
Interdisciplinary studies allow students to be versatile in many domains. Majoring in the Arts should not condemn any student to only knowing about that discipline. An intellectual should be prepared to express their own views on any topic they are invited to speak on. The humanities are a science that approaches the question of human beings and their cultures from an analytical and critical method of inquiry. Science also studies the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation, so both disciplines employ critical methods in their search. That’s why I believe it was a very wise move for JDPSR to align these two disciplines in order to help doctoral students acquire broader knowledge in different areas. And from what I have seen in presentations, it’s very interesting.
— Please tell us about any episodes in which the integration of the humanities and sciences has been useful to your own research.
For example, one of the JDPSR students is working on the topic of “medical equipment in developing countries.” The health situation is very precarious in Africa due, in great part, to poorly equipped health facilities. Governments usually build beautiful hospitals but with insufficient equipment and skilled doctors. A sustainable way of improving Africans’ health conditions is to not only equip health facilities with appropriate material but also to emulate what is being done in countries like Japan by initiating cooperation in that area where Japanese experts will come to Africa and train hospital staff and technicians in the use of up-to-date medical equipment our communities need. Thus, as a social science major, I am learning a lot from scientific topics that can help communities in developing countries.
— I see that you are stimulated by the research activities of other students. Please let us know any other unique features of this joint program.
The intramural and extramural internships are a very important element of the program. I had the chance to undergo internships in different Japanese organizations, including the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT). Because of these experiences, I was able to understand how the Japanese administration works. As a government agent myself, I was amazed to see how smoothly the Japanese bureaucracy operates. I learned a lot from MLIT agents. I don’t think I would have had the chance to observe something like that without this program. I also had an internship at an IT company that deals with refurbishing desktop computers, printers, and so on.
— Please tell us about your activities outside of research, if any.
When I’m not leaning on my books, I visit places around the Tama area, and sometimes if the means allow, I go on vacation with my family, inside Japan of course. I also like going around Shinjuku for shopping or just walking around with my family. It’s also nice to go out for dinner or meet some Senegalese friends I was acquainted with, around Yokohama.
Recently, I visited the agricultural city of Sakura at the invitation of a rose breeder and expert who was introduced to me by a JDPSR student who is a rose lover. We first went there to visit the popular Rose Garden. I immediately fell in love with the natural environment as I had already visited many market gardens. This gave me the idea of writing a market gardening project for the rural community of Medina Sabakh in Senegal. Agriculture in the Commune of Medina Sabakh is dominated by the monoculture of peanuts which doesn’t feed poor people. I believe market gardening is a sustainable way of helping farmers in rural areas to earn a livelihood by diversifying their farming practices, so I went to Sakura city on a second trip, accompanied this time by my tireless supervisor, Nakayama-sensei. We visited the Inbanuma River and its huge water tank that keeps rice fields around the area wet and productive. We also visited many farms where farmers are experimenting with innovative farming techniques without soil, and others who specialize in soil improvement. The latter is seriously needed in Senegal where soil degradation is causing great harm to agricultural production. We also visited a refurbished tractor workshop to have an idea of how to start the process of mechanizing the Senegalese agricultural system. The trip to Sakura City was very important as it was expected to trigger a new era in agricultural practices in rural Senegal.
About life in Japan
— You have had a variety of experiences, not limited to your research theme. Now, please tell us about your family. As you said earlier, you and your family live together in Japan, right?
Yes, my family lives here with me. My wife and daughter joined me in Tokyo in July 2022. I stayed alone for one year and seven months before they came to Japan. It was such a relief to have them by my side again so that I could focus more on my studies. I really thank JICA and TUFS for facilitating their coming here. Things are not as hard as I thought they would be. I share with them everything I have and from time to time we take some short trips. It’s such a blessing.
— You have been using the on-campus daycare center since it opened last September. Is it easier to conduct research activities when there is an on-campus daycare center? Are there any other advantages?
Besides being accepted into JDPSR, the greatest achievement my wife and I have had is to offer our daughter the immense opportunity to study at PAL International School Daycare. She arrived in Japan just as the daycare opened its doors. With the help of my supervisor, the university promptly facilitated her acceptance into the school. Another advantage is that the daycare has Japanese and English-speaking teachers. After barely six months of schooling, my daughter, who has never been in contact with English (We come from a country where French is the official language.), can now converse in English and sing in Japanese. This is just amazing. Also, the university is financially supporting me with her school fees. This on-campus daycare is the best thing that could happen to my family in Japan.
— You said that the on-campus daycare center has contributed to your daughter’s linguistic experience. Have there been any surprises about raising children in Japan due to differences in lifestyle or culture?
With the daycare, I don’t feel any surprises at all. The staff is very professional and my daughter has never complained about going to the daycare. Beside, anytime we go out, Japanese people adore her so much. People keep cheering her, talking to her, some even offering gifts. I think Japanese people are crazy about children. They are lovely with her.
Career Plans, and Messages..
— If you don’t mind, could I ask about your career plans after completing the doctoral program?
I plan to return home with my family after graduation. I am a government agent and I’m expected to resume my position as a planner at Senegal Ministry of Local Communities, Development, and Land Planning. There are many opportunities in Japan, but I would like to share the knowledge and experience I have achieved here with my people back home. I want Senegal to get inspiration from Japan so that it can develop. The lessons I learned from the JDPSR will serve as a starting point. I also plan to implement an agricultural project and hope that JDPSR professors and members TUFS administration will assist me in helping village people in Senegal achieve sustainable agriculture. Sustainability is what is needed in Senegal.
— Finally, do you have a message for those who are considering entering this “Joint Doctoral Program for Sustainability Research”?
I firmly recommend young intellectuals from Africa, Asia, South America, and even from developed countries try this program, which will certainly change their lives as it has changed mine. The Joint Doctoral Program for Sustainability Research is what you need to have a better vision of what the world should look like. This doctoral program is unique in its design, unique in its approach, unique in its diverse student body, and unique in the quality of the faculties. There are endless opportunities for you and your family as a renowned daycare is nearby to welcome your children. The school yard is green and very spacious with modern facilities. A very welcoming staff is always ready to help. In a word, it is a peaceful learning environment. For learners, this is the place to be.
— Thank you for sharing your research life with us today. We hope that your success here will bear fruit in Senegal.
- Joint Doctoral Program for Sustainability Research (JDPSR）Web Site
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- Joint Doctoral Program for Sustainability Research (JDPSR）YouTube Channel
- Admission Information
- PAL International School at TUFS
- Office of the Joint Doctoral Program for Sustainability Research (JDPSR), Admission Information
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