The story of Assan
Meet Assan D., age 35. Perhaps more now.
Assan was born in Bargny, about 30 kilometers away from Dakar, Senegal’s bustling capital city. His father is a former civil servant, long retired, his mother one of two wives, who shares the house chores with her co-spouse and unwed daughters. At a very early age, Assan was given away to his aunt, a well-established primary school teacher in Dakar, so she could raise and better take care of him. The aunt of course had a family of her own, and with times being what they were with the devaluation of the CFA franc, she had increasing difficulties taking care of her own children; but true to the tradition of extended family solidarity, she could not turn kin away. She took Assan in and tried as best as she could to provide him with all the help and steering she could.
Assan thus grew up amidst his cousins and the other children of the populous neighborhood of Yoff, somewhere between the expanse of the Atlantic and the highway leading to the national Leopold Sedar Senghor airport, playing soccer during the rainy season, swimming in the Ocean during the dry season when it was not too cold to take a dip in the ocean’s water. Assan soon realized school was not for him. He knew too many grownups in the neighborhood who had wasted many years of their lives getting diplomas which in the end did them no good—they were just as jobless and broke as he was, even the ones with university degrees in their pocket. There were more graduates than jobs he heard them often complain. Assan vowed never to be one of them: HE was going to take the shortcut to fame and riches, the fast track route to making money.
When his cousins went to school, he learnt how to lay tiles and made it his trade. On his own, with destitute parents to send money back to, he fast became a hussler, and learnt to make money wherever there was economic opportunity.
When I met Assan in the summer of 2003, he worked at a local gymnasium as a personal fitness trainer. That’s one thing he sure did not need to go to school for: he regularly worked out with his friends and had become a jack at the trade. He worked at the gym in the evenings and in the mornings kept a stand at the beach that he assiduously cleaned: picking it up when the tides came high flooding the entire beach area, re-installing his stall when the water subsided, laying rugs on for tourists to sit on in return for CFA 500 ($1).
Thus Assan eked out a living for himself with which he could get one meal a day, buy his kilo of bananas every week, put clothes on his back, and even charge credit on his phone from time to time.
It was during the holiday period however that things became rough. There just never was enough money to send to the relatives in Bargny; during the festive celebration of the Eid (the fiest of the goat) for example, he just could never save enough to be able to afford a ceremonial goat for his family- as is expected of every son who’s emigrated away– or even enough to have a new boubou sewn for himself for the occasion (he simply put on any traditional attire he had from previous years). These were the times when it seemed as if prison bars were closing in on him, and he would aimlessly hound the streets of Dakar like a strayed dog in search of a miracle solution which never came.
Assan never had formal education, or anybody to set boundaries for him in his life. As a result, he’s made bad decisions. One of them: having two children (with two different women, each out of wedlock). The holiday season is also when it hits him like a bullet in the head that he can not provide for them either; thank God their mothers emanate from wealthier families and can care for them on their own.
As Assan ponders on his fate sitting on a bench in front of his aunt’s house in Yoff, he often sees luxurious BMWs and new Hummer trucks speed by in front of him – and his blood boils hot, so hot he has to go by the sea for a breeze. He wonders why them and not him. Why can they live in mansions in the close-by neighborhood of the Almadies, while he ruts in squalor, despair and darkness only a few feet away (literal darkness, due to the power cuts pervasive at night in his Dakar). He’s a God believer, so he knows everyone has their own destiny. But the injustice of it all still confounds him.
God knows he has tried. He has taken all kinds of imaginable odd jobs (from a docker at the seaport downtown to a porter, lumberjack and even turned tourist guide and public entertainer at some point for one of the French-owned hotel resorts up in the Almadies, the Club Med). But nothing seems to work out. Whenever he’s tried to go up the economic ladder, he’s hit a glass ceiling.
This is why he finally settled for this job at the gym: he knows he’s being exploited there by the rich owner. He did the math. The latter pays him and each of the other two trainers who run the fitness centre less than $15 a month (if at all, some months he claims there is not enough money in the cashbox) while he collects $30 from each of the 50+ gym members whom Assan trains everyday, when they come in their fancy business attires and suits and change into their gym clothes to get a workout they lack in their executive 9-5 lives, locked up in their Air conditioned offices. The best time of the day for Assan is when the day is over, then he can finally take a long shower in the clean bathrooms of the gym, even let the water run for a while, then he can let his sore muscles unknot from the day’s toil and breathe for a minute.
His dream is to open a gym center for the youth of his neighborhood—they could join it at discounted prices and hopefully this would get them off the streets and away from all of its temptations. The funding he’d need for this to work out profitably would be 16million CFAs though ($32,000). Just yesterday he received yet another letter in the mail denying his funding request.
All he owns in this life is a suitcase of his clothes and his little stall by the beach. As he looks to the Atlantic Ocean these days, sitting in his stall, he thinks more and more about getting on one of the boats towards Europe. He hears there are people who can get him to the Iberian peninsula for less than 300,000 CFA ($600). If only he could get his hands on that kind of money. One of these days, he just might… then, life could really begin…
Note: Assan is just one among the thousands of urban youth living in the populous neighborhood of Yoff-tonghor, Dakar, Senegal.