"I don't drink. I don't even smoke," said 21-year-old Abdulsow Laoubé when I explained that in the U.S. turning 21 means you can legally buy alcoholic beverages. Instead he is focused on earning money to help his parents and younger sister.
Everyday he comes to the city center to sell goods on the street. He is a very good salesman -- persistent but gracious and quick to read a prospective client’s needs. Indeed, young Abdulsow comes from a family of merchants who sell all kinds of goods. Two of the statues he offered me evince the grace of the African woman as celebrated in Senghor’s poem, “Femme nue, femme noire.”
Another is a re-interpretation of Rodin’s thinker while the last one represents a woman in a traditional dance posture.
There was also a fine black mask with a comical mien, but having arrived in Senegal with over 100 pounds of electronics, clothes, and organic provisions, I was reluctant to add any more weight to my bags. I thought about all the boxes and bins I put in storage before I left and decided to pay for a few minutes of Abdulsow’s time instead. He told me his goal is to work in France or the United States one day so that he can send money home to his family.
Abdulsow clearly has a strong Senegalese identity. A native of Dakar, he roots for the soccer team in the Dar es Salaam neighborhood where he lives. When I asked him about his favorite music artists, he did not mention any American hip hop stars. Instead he named Youssou N’Dour. N’Dour, born October 1, 1959 would be closer to his father’s generation, but Abdulsow appreciates N’Dour’s mbalax style. He also admires Bala Gaye, king of the Senegalese wrestlers yet his dream would be to facilitate arrangements for les zembés (sons of Senegal) to work abroad.
In 2005, the World Bank reported that about 4% of the Senegalese population was living abroad. Remittances to Senegal from expatriates may increase per capita income by almost 60% as compared to households that do not have a member working abroad. So with the overall unemployment rate standing at about 48%, to young Senegalese like Abdulsow emigration seems like the main chance. Yet the financial crisis of recent years has thrown many Senegalese living abroad out of work and tightened borders against new immigrants.
Although thousands of Africans have drowned trying to reach Spain or Italy in small fishing boats over the last two decades, most of the young people I have encountered share the dream of seeking their fortune abroad. Young Senegalese regard the U.S. as an El Dorado, yet data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics released in November 2013 indicate that one in every four African American youth aged 16-25 is unemployed. Indeed youth unemployment has reached crisis proportions worldwide. Market forces alone will not maximize the potential of youth as contributors to economic development, but by investing in infrastructure improvements that create public works jobs, offering training and apprenticeship programs, reforming education so that students emerge with marketable skills, and facilitating access to capital and mentoring for young entrepreneurs, government policies could ensure that youth with their eye on the main chance can realize their dreams.