El Hadji Gorgui Wade Ndoye, or Gorgui as he is affectionately known to fellow journalists, has been cutting an elegant figure in Geneva's marbled halls for 13 years, as he covers international events for African media.
His joyful laugh is infectious and loud – you can often hear Gorgui coming before you actually see him.
He was the first journalist to represent the Senegalese press at the United Nations in Geneva, which gave him a unique position to comment on how Africa sees Switzerland…and vice versa.
He was given a religious and political education and draws on both to look at Geneva's institutions with a critical, but hopefully objective eye.
As a student, Gorgui deliberated for a long time over whether to study law or journalism. Plumping eventually for modern history, he researched and wrote a thesis entitled “The Algerian war of liberation and the participation of African countries in it.” This research turned him into something of an expert on the Maghreb and the eastern Arab countries and helped him to “flesh out his knowledge of Senegal and Africa.”
But journalism still attracted him, and he eventually came back to his first love.
A dream come true
His journalistic career came about by chance, in 2000. The Senegalese superstar Youssou N'Dour came to Geneva to celebrate the start of the new century.
“I wrote an article on him for the Senegalese newspaper Sud Quotidien, and it went down very well with the public. The editor asked if I would continue writing for the paper as their Geneva correspondent. So this is how I started work as a 'proper' journalist, starting off with the social summit of 2000, which was held in Geneva, with Kofi Annan.”
Gorgui went on to write for some of Senegal's biggest dailies – Le Soleil du Sénégal as well as Wal Fadjri. And it was his adopted hometown that proved to be his biggest asset. Geneva and Switzerland gave him the chance “to experience international events live, and to easily meet the planet's leaders.”
African through and through
From a family of Muslim dignitaries, Gorgui was nevertheless brought up to view life “in an enlightened way, not at all to see things in terms of destiny that cannot be avoided.”
Thanks to the international nature of his workplace, the 42-year-old has come to have a better understanding of global problems, though he could never forget those of Africa.
“More than 60 per cent of the UN's activities target African countries. But when you hear about this or that country, it's generally in terms of what disease is there and what action it needs. Those are fine sentiments but they don't help Africans sort out their own problems. And most of the information coming out of Geneva is aimed at western audiences, audiences that aren't really familiar with African issues. An African journalist has to provide that missing insight.”
In 2004, Gorgui set up Continent premier with this goal in mind. It's an online monthly magazine to which African students and teachers, as well as journalists in Switzerland contribute. It's a shame that there aren't enough African journalists in Geneva – or for that matter Brussels or Geneva - to improve Africa's image, Gorgui reckons.
Human rights and fiscal flight
How is Switzerland perceived by Africans? “As being the country of human rights, very clean, very rich, with honest citizens,” says Gorgui.
“It's a place where you can study international relations and have access to jobs at the UN. Or at least, that's what many Africans thought in the 1990s and that's an image that persists even today for a fair few. On the other hand, it's also a country that looks after money that was stolen by some African leaders.”
Switzerland has always been ready to help Africa with humanitarian aid, he acknowledges. But he thinks it's a shame that the country sticks to this narrow role, whereas China has taken a punt on investing in Africa.
However, a new worry for Gorgui is what he sees as a rise in hard right-wing politics that could harm Switzerland's reputation in Africa. The journalist himself has been on the receiving end of racism in Switzerland, but has appreciated it when he was involved in an initiative to improve the situation.
“I was invited to give training sessions to the Geneva cantonal police and Swiss journalists, to explain to some how to behave with African citizens. To others, I explained a little about the reality of life in Africa.”
A question of principles
Gorgui's time at the UN has shown him the institution at its best, and its worst.
“The UN has accomplished some excellent things when it comes to human rights. It was carrying out good work up until around mid-way through the last decade. Today that work is being held hostage to geopolitical interests that are difficult to understand,” he thinks.
But Gorgui is not the type to remain a pessimist for long. The UN will be needed, he says, for as long as it sticks to the principles laid out at its inception.
What kind of impression does he have of Switzerland? “Well, it may be a small country, but it is huge if you measure it according to its resources. The country is brimming over with intelligence – a great thing for Switzerland. It's also a country of dialogue, based on strong institutions. All of that makes it a model.”
He adds a final thought. “When it comes to its global image, Switzerland would do well to make more of these qualities, instead of always being on the defensive.”
(Translated by Victoria Morgan)