Amy Sall is not a hired travel photographer, nor is she a photojournalist on assignment. Yet, her images of her recent trip to Senegal are far more moving, far more real, far richer and possess more authenticity than any embedded journalist could ever attempt to capture. The difference between Amy Sall and other photo amateurs or professionals? Her attachment to Senegal is personal. She’s a first-generation American, born and bred, but culturally, Senegal has never been far away. Additionally, she’s unburdened with the need or pressure to tell a specific kind of story. The narrative was a story to be told along the way, along her path of self-discovery.
For these reasons, and more, I fell in love with her posts on instagram as she visually documented her emotional visit to a place that isn’t quite home, but isn’t a foreign country as well. Through the story she creates with her images, Amy’s photo-documentation illustrates the need for Africans to tell their own stories through any and whatever medium is at their disposal.
Here’s my interview with Amy Sall as we discussed the emotional journey of her multicultural upbringing:
In about five sentences or less, briefly tell us a little about yourself. Who is Amy Sall? How would you introduce and define yourself to those who don’t know you?
I am a 23-year old, first generation Senegalese-American, born and bred in New York City, trying to navigate my life with my best foot forward, while staying true to my values. I think in all aspects of my life, there’s the inherent nexus of integrity, selflessness, and grit. What I do and who I am are intrinsically linked. Currently, I’m a Masters Candidate in Human Rights at Columbia University, focusing on children’s rights and youth issues in Sub-Saharan Africa. In the past, I’ve worked within a few sectors of fashion where I’ve had experience at Vogue, written for Lurve Magazine, and worked for Rick Owens to name a few.
You’re first generation Senegalese-American, born and raised in the US. What was your experience growing up being a part of two very distinct cultures?
It was interesting, but not easy, growing up between two cultures. It’s not the easiest experience to sift through because it’s quite layered and muddled with all sorts of intricacies. I can say that there were times where my “Africaness” and my “Americaness” had points of contention. I was born only a year after my parents came to the states, so I grew up in a very culturally Senegalese home. Everything in our home was inherently Senegalese, from the food, to the music, to how daily life was constructed.
However, once I stepped outside my home, I was confronted, daily, with the fact that even though I am, in the literal sense of the word, African-American, I did not fit in with the African-American kids. They saw me as other. They saw me as African. They saw me as a dark African. So, it was difficult to reconcile that tension between two cultures as a child. My being rejected by my classmates (and when you are a child, the approval of your peers means everything) led to the resentment and disavowal of my culture and dark skin.
My childhood in that regard was tricky, and it unfortunately caused some damage during my transition into adolescence. There eventually came a point when I just didn’t care about what people thought, and my parents had a heavy had in getting me to that point. Straddling the line between two cultures became easier, and eventually something I thought less about. The biggest relief was ridding the shame I felt toward my “Africanness” as a child. Being African is absolutely the most beautiful thing to me.
On your blog, you mention that you hadn’t been back to Senegal in ten years. What prompted your visit back home? What was the experience like?
What prompted me to go to Senegal was simply realizing that I no longer had the excuse not to go. The last time I was there, I was 13 or 14. The fact that I was approaching the ten-year mark of not being in Senegal was incredibly important and symbolic to me. I decided that I wouldn’t let another year pass without going to Senegal. The possibility of my grandmother’s dying without a chance to see them again started to weigh heavily on me.
Both my grandfathers died when I was younger. One of them I’ve only seen once, the other I’ve seen twice. I regret that I wasn’t able to get to know my grandfathers. The reasons for the 10- year gap vary, but I will attribute them to the unfortunate ills of migration. It wasn’t always easy for my parents to take my siblings and I to Senegal often. Those opportunities did not always present themselves. It’s a sad realization to know that you can’t go home and see your family as often as you would like to, for reasons beyond your control.
So I decided, now that I’m older, nothing was to stop me from going back home and seeing my family. I wanted to get closer to my family, especially with my grandmothers, and develop a real relationship. I wanted to deepen my sense of self and rediscover my roots. It was also important for me to make this trip so that I could see the socio-economic issues of the country with my own eyes, especially as they pertain to children and youth. Much of my graduate research is centered particularly on Senegal, so being on the ground was necessary for the work I’m doing academically, and aim to do professionally.
During your trip back to Senegal you visually documented your stay there by taking and sharing photos on instagram. Was this something you decided before travelling, or was it done on more of a whim?
I definitely knew I wanted many photos to have as keepsakes, but there were many times where I didn’t bring a camera with me because I just wanted to truly feel Senegal and be immersed in it. When I did have my camera, all I was trying to do was simply capture the country in the truest way possible. I did not want to glamorize or romanticize Senegal. It is an incredibly beautiful, rich and vibrant country, with beautiful people, however there are very real problems that I felt were not to be excluded. I wanted to share a holistic view of Senegal, from the colors of Gorée to the talibés begging in the streets.
You’ve been blogging for quite some time now so you’re no stranger to sharing bits and pieces of your life online, something I enjoy doing myself. How important was it for you to share this part of your personal life online? How has the response been?
I like the idea that with the Internet, I can carve a space for myself, curate it however I please, engage in a dialogue, and maybe even teach someone something new. I had no expectations when I posted my photos on social media. I was surprised that they garnered the response that they did. People really took a liking to them. I know absolutely nothing about photography. A country as beautiful as Senegal makes it quite easy to photograph. It made me happy that people were appreciating and enjoying my journey, and were able to take part in it. They were discovering Senegal as I was rediscovering it, so it became this shared experience.
Would you ever consider compiling and publishing your photographs and experience into a photo-book of some sort?
Working on it!
That’s fabulous! Can’t wait ‘til it’s published. Lastly, what are three words you’d use to describe Senegal?
My professor and former U.S. Ambassador to Sierra Leone, John Hirsch, participating in the discussion on children and armed conflict. (at International Peace Institute)
I was invited to attend a discussion on children and armed conflict at the International Peace Institute. Among the esteemed panelists and ambassadors who spoke was model/actor/activist Ger Duany, who shared his compelling story as a child of war. (at International Peace Institute)
Seen while traveling between cities. This roadside market was somewhere between Kaolack and Dakar. It was bustling with merchants, farmers, villagers, and travelers from all over making their way to or from another city. These transit, liminal spaces are shared spaces that reveal a lot about the linkages between people. No matter the status, ethnic group, beliefs, political affiliation, we findourselves together on this road .
“…Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories…” ― Amilcar Cabral. || One of Africa’s leaders in thought and politics.
Sadly, Africa’s bulging youth population faces a drought of economic opportunity, and they lack the educational/entrepreneurial skills to create opportunity for themselves. Youth unemployment is one of the biggest problems Africa, and the rest of the world, faces. In Senegal, I saw and spoke with youth who get by on menial jobs or just do nothing, because there is nothing. Mentorship among youth is severely lacking, particularly in spaces where entrepreneurship can be fostered and cultivated. When life gave them lemons, no one taught them how to make lemonade. How high can Africa really rise if its young people can’t lift themselves up?
South Sudan: Families Who Fled Conflict Now Return To Devastated Homes
The crisis in South Sudan has forced more than 700,000 people to flee their homes in search of safety. The UN World Food Programme has so far provided food assistance for around 250,000 displaced people, and is working to extend more assistance to people we can reach outside UN peacekeeping bases, including those who are returning to devastated towns like Bentiu in Unity State.
According to the World Bank report, “Women and Trade in Africa: Realizing the Potential”, eliminating gender-specific barriers can help boost trade and increase productivity in Africa. Behind the research for this report were women who shared their personal stories of how they overcame gender discrimination at work in order to realize their potential.
After being thrown out of her house, Mary from Tanzania started her own company and now has over 300 clients internationally. Mary employs hundreds of women and is planning to start a training institution designed specifically for women.
Charity from Kenya secretly applied for college – against her family’s wishes – to pursue a degree in Tourism. Tourism in Kenya brings in over $1 billion annually, directly provides over 300,000 jobs and accounts for 12.5% of the country’s GDP. Despite the pressure to do otherwise, Charity took advantage of the opportunity to benefit from the sector and is now a park ranger.
This short film, Mind the Gap: Gender Equality and Trade in Africa, follows these women as they share their experiences taking advantage of trade opportunities and tapping into foreign markets.
Photo taken by the United Nations Association at the annual UN-UNA meeting (at United Nations)
The Implications of Immigration: One Senegalese Street Vendor’s Story of Life on the New York City Streets
TALIBES IN DAKAR, SENEGAL
These photos were taken by me during my trip to Senegal. I’ve recently written on the subject of the talibés. Here is an excerpt from my paper:
In Dakar, Senegal’s capital, there are thousands of destitute children who litter the streets in tattered clothing. They walk in groups holding large red, tin cans, begging for money and food to any one who passes by. These children, mainly boys aged 4 to 15, have been given the reputation as a nuisance, due to their incessant soliciting, but what many in the international arena fail to realize is that their lives depend on what they collect. To the foreigner or the layman, they are known and viewed simply as “street kids.” However, to Senegalese people, and those familiar with the Senegalese culture, the children that amass the Dakar streets are known as the Talibés – students of the Koran. They are children who are entrusted to Koranic teachers, to learn the Koran in its entirety. Many talibés do not succeed in mastering the Koran, because they are forced by their teachers to beg for hours on the streets. Through this practice of forced begging, talibés risk their health and safety, and survive only on a portion of what they are able to collect. Usually it is a few sugar cubes, some rice, and if they are lucky, a few CFA francs (which equals to a few cents in US currency).
The existence and influx of these children, particularly in urban spaces, was something that spurred and evolved from a cultural-religious tradition that dates back centuries to pre-colonial Senegal. What started as an inherently religious ideal is seen today as a lethal, abusive practice, where children have and continue to die and suffer in the hands of corrupt Koranic teachers. The health of the talibés is at stake during their every waking hour. The actual begging on streets is just one of the dangers they face. Many of Senegal’s children and youth who are in the clutches of such a practice, are subjected to human rights violations, particularly rights concerning health. They suffer physical and psychological abuse, sexual abuse, sickness and disease, and death. The Koranic teachers that these children are entrusted to are the main perpetrators.
Senegal succeeds in political affairs, but is weak on the social front because it does not protect the human rights of the talibés, by continuing to allow Koranic teachers to prey on and exploit their vulnerability. The exploitative acts of these men, who are actually religious leaders and are considered to be pillars of Senegalese society, has yielded a myriad of health issues, abuses, and risks for these young children. The need to preserve Senegalese tradition and Muslim identity has blinded many people of the Senegalese community to the abuse and human rights violations that are involved in the talibé practice. Even with reported deaths of talibés, severe injuries, and contractions of diseases, not enough of a response has been made to eradicate the practice, or at the very least regulate it. The Senegalese people cannot seem to reconcile their religious and cultural identities, whilst protecting their children. It is a culture that is “stuck in their ways” in the sense that this has been a tradition that has been engrained in the country’s DNA for many years. So much so, that the country cannot seem to move forward with a progressive, humane form of religious education, that disavows the abuse and neglect of children.
Senegal’s talibé issue is delicate and sensitive, being that it deals with religion. When approaching and dealing with the talibé phenomenon, one must teeter cautiously across religious and cultural lines. However, what is at stake should make civil society, government officials, and the international community look this issue directly in the face. The lives and health of Senegalese children are being sacrificed at the expense of carrying on a tradition that has been skewed and corrupted. Arguably today, religion is an excuse for the practice to go on. It is more about increasing personal, economic gain for these Koranic teachers, rather than learning the word of Allah. It is this corrupt motivation, the abuse of tradition and the government’s condoning of the practice, that so many talibés suffer severe violations to their heath. Not only do the talibés endure pain and health problems, but they do not have access to health care because their marabouts prevent them from being treated, and the talibés are simply left out of the healthcare system.
Happy to be at the launch of the UN’s World Youth Report. Youth and children’s rights are what I am passionate about. It is important to recognize young people as stakeholders in their own society and individuals with rights and agency.