Friday, December 7, 2007

NABJ In Senegal: Day Seven

Calm In the Storm
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
Travers Johnson
The Maroon Tiger, Morehouse College

RUFISQUE, SENEGAL---I didn’t think a cemetery could be any more depressing. On Tuesday we visited the Thiawlene (pronounced Chow-len) neighborhood of Rufisque where on July 4, 2007 a terrible storm hit the fisherman’s village of 100,000 people. Not only did the storm produce 15-foot waves that flooded the homes of the villagers (homes that were as close as 150 feet from the sea), but it completely washed away a large part of the cemetery that has served as the final resting place for generations of Thiawlene residents.

United Nations Director of the Office of Sport for Development and Peace Djibril Diallo explained that in the midst of a great natural disaster, many African cultures worry less about themselves and their own homes, and more about the remains of their dead. Saliou Ndoye, a 67-year-old fisherman and resident of Thiawlene, confirmed this sentiment when he said, “The worst thing that could happen to our culture is to see the bones of our dead being washed away.” So to stand in the middle of the storm-ravaged cemetery—shattered concrete storm wall, broken tombstones, and barely-there gravesites everywhere—I instantly felt their sense of loss.

There had been no casualties in the storm, but I could see how watching their ancestors drift out to the ocean would be equally painful. Land that just 6 months ago had been filled with rows of tombstones was now a clear pathway. The mainstream media’s portrayal of Africa as a land of disaster, despair, and hopelessness was about to be confirmed—but then I was introduced to Saliou Ba.

I had observed Saliou earlier in the day when the fellows interviewed an elderly fisherman and his family whose home had been severely flooded by the waters. Saliou quietly stood to the side as we questioned the other villagers. He was about 5’10, thin (almost gaunt), dark brown skin, and had large, protruding ears that were disproportionate to his tiny head. He looked much younger than his 25 years and wore a dark denim jacket and blue sweat pants.

With his shoulders slightly slumped over, his posture was less than perfect, but his deep eyes revealed an unshakable confidence and his charm was in his smile. Even amidst the destruction caused by the storm, his presence was a calming force.

Saliou has been a fisherman since the age of 15 and currently serves as the Secretary General of the “Union Fishermen of Rufisque,” an organization that he founded 3 years ago. Under his leadership, the union has grown to over 100 members and has successfully lobbied local government officials for 500 lifesaving jackets.

Unlike other promising young Senegalese men and women whose idea of success means leaving their homeland for opportunity in Europe and the United States, Saliou has decided to make a difference by providing leadership in his own country. Like a seasoned politician he said, “We make our living in an honest manner through fishing…we need to build on those gains of the union to encourage youth to live here and make a decent living off of fishing.”

Many times Africans are looked upon as beggars with their hands permanently extended, looking for handouts; it was both enlightening and inspiring to see someone attempting to help themselves and their community. Saliou Ba is a young African leader who is not waiting on outside help to be the change that he wishes to see.

As our delegation walked across the cemetery on the way back to the bus, a burial service was coming to a close. Just as I felt myself getting a little anxious, I looked at Saliou and my anxiety seemed to trickle away. After posing for a photo with him, Kafia showed Saliou the image on her digital camera. Marveling at the photo (and undoubtedly Kafia’s beauty, as well), Saliou said, in his soft, yet authoritative voice, “very nice.”

And I thought, “very nice, indeed.”

1 comment:

roamingknowmad said...

It's been so interesting to read about all of your travels. I can't wait to see the articles and broadcast features that come out of the trip - when will the first ones start appearing and where?