By Moussoukoro Diop
My phone is my best friend. Thanks to social media, it is possible to remain connected to family and friends at home even when living far from home.
When I heard about the first case of COVID-19 in Senegal, my first thought went to my mum, who lives in Dakar. She is my everyday motivation, being both mom and dad since my dad passed away one year ago. When I call her, I listen carefully to the sound of her voice and start by inquiring about her health, and make sure that she and the family respect all the health measures. She has been quarantined at home since mid-March.
While I worry for her, she worries for me, too. "Don't go outside," she keeps repeating. She is concerned about me living alone in the United States, which has more than 1 million cases and 75,000 deaths, compared to Senegal with about 1,709 reported cases and 19 deaths.
Even though I am 4,000 miles from home, I can be back in Senegal through my phone. I not only stay connected to my mum and friends, but I also learn about the efforts of my fellow Senegalese to protect each other. COVID-19 has helped me re-learn, or repurpose, the power of social media channels.
The Power of Unity
In my country, I am what we in the social media industry call an “influencer,” with nearly 24,000 Twitter followers. My reach goes not only to my followers, but the followers of those people–it means that messages I send to my network have the potential to reach hundreds of thousands of Senegalese. My WhatsApp statuses–stories that last 24 hours–follow each other like a special COVID-19 thread.
So, I’ve been putting my influence to use. And I encourage those close to me–many of them private sector entrepreneurs, small business owners, and artists–to do the same.
We are first concerned about staying safe, and we’re secondarily concerned with keeping businesses and jobs alive. More than ever, timeliness matters when sharing information related to COVID-19.
People reach out to me to pass on these messages, including the Ministry of Health, the Senegal Bloggers Network, and some of Senegal’s best-known musicians. Together, we’re giving our fellow Senegalese people the same messages, day in, day out. These are some of our messages to Senegal.
"We are always in a dynamic of anticipation with a flexible strategy. Together we will defeat COVID-19 in Senegal,” said Abdoulaye Diouf Sarr, Minister of Health of Senegal.
Abdoulaye Diouf Sarr, Minister of Health, Senegal. Photo courtesy: Ministry of Health of Senegal.
Artists, Innovators Call to Action
Youssou N’Dour, the successful entrepreneur, Senegalese singer, and Grammy Award winner who launched the #DaanCorona (Fight Corona) initiative, told me: “The days pass and are not alike. The future will be different because this pandemic shows us that we must learn to live differently, and this is a strong signal for everyone to build a more equitable world.”
N’Dour said he was particularly concerned with the business start-ups in Senegal and throughout Africa. “To the young African entrepreneurs: You have to adapt quickly and efficiently and if necessary, reinvent yourself to continue to exist in this world.” On many nights Youssou Ndour has performed for Senegalese fans from his house, trying to encourage them to stay at home.
Small businesses are facing disruption and uncertainty. To support young entrepreneurs, Jeader, a Senegalese association, launched weekly webinars with experts to answer the questions that they have around the impact of the coronavirus. One great response came from students of the renowned Ecole Superieure Polytechnique, my former university. Systems engineer Mouhamadou Lamine Kebe and team programmed Dr Car, a robot to deliver meals and medicine into patients' rooms in hospitals.
My friend Docta–he goes by one name–is a graffiti artist, and he uses his art to raise awareness. A recent mural depicts steps people can take to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as images of handwashing, sanitizer use, and coughing into your arm. For him, graffiti is a strong visual to communicate with passers-by.
Docta, whose real name is Amadou Lamine Ngom, has been called the "pioneer of graffiti art" in Senegal. Photo courtesy: Atougou/Nomad Pasteef.
Language is also vital to communicate. The African League of Bloggers for Health, Population and Development (LAB SANTE), with more than 300 digital volunteers, has produced audio tapes in 20 local languages conveyed via social media. "Digital health represents an extraordinary opportunity for Africa," said Cheikh Bamba Ndao, President of LAB SANTE.
Women Leading the Response
In Senegal, women are at the forefront in the fight against COVID-19. According to the results of the general census of enterprises carried out by ANSD (National Agency for Statistics and Demography) in 2016, women create 32 percent of enterprises.
Jointly, FAO, UN Women, and UNFPA have launched “The Household Food Basket” initiative, providing the Government of Senegal with funding and technical expertise to procure local rice, cereals, and vegetables from women and young farmers. The supplies will be included in the food staples to be distributed to vulnerable families.
"We want to ensure that women farmers are not left behind during this crisis,” said Oulimata Sarr, Regional Director of UN Women's office for West and Central Africa.
Coumba Sow, resilience coordinator for FAO West Africa and Sahel, told me that this initiative will be implemented using a digital platform started two years ago and now has the potential to reach 100,000 farmers.
And in a country where not everyone can afford the luxury of staying at home, the government has mandated that everyone needs to wear a mask while venturing outside their homes.
The stylist Bijou Sy (a.k.a Touty), a dynamic Senegalese woman entrepreneur, had the wonderful idea to launch the citizen initiative "1 Senegalese, 1 Mask" with the collective of designers Atelier 221 in collaboration with the association Racines de l’Espoir. The group is distributing free washable and reusable cloth masks made by 1,000 volunteer tailors across the country.
"We wish to bring a social response against the pandemic of COVID-19 and highlight the know-how of Senegal craftsmen. We appeal to all African designers,” Bijou told me.
In Wolof, a local language spoken by most Senegalese, we have a saying: "Mbolo moy dolé!" It means, unity is strength. Through social media, through the innovative ideas of entrepreneurs and many others, I strongly believe that our unity in the face of COVID-19 is bringing us light during these dark times.
Moussoukoro Diop is an IFC Communication officer who grew up in Dakar, Senegal
Published in May 2020