This month, long time New Paltz resident, master drummer and drum maker, dancer, teacher and occasional house painter Moustapha Diedhiou will depart from JFK airport on a seven-hour flight to Dakar, Africa. Over the next two days he will drive 235 miles south, passing through Gambia, in order to reach his home village of Brikamanding II in the Casamance region of southwestern Senegal, West Africa. There he will spend a month with his family and the roughly 700 members of his rural farming community.
The per capita income of Senegal is $935. Tapha, as he is known to his friends, recalls that as a boy, he and his friends used to walk three-and-a-half miles each morning to the nearest school, which was located in the neighboring village of Diouloulou. “I was lucky, some of them had no shoes,” he told me. He also expressed gratitude for the fact that he was able to eat lunch at the home of a family in Diouloulou, while some of his friends returned to their village at midday and then walked back again for afternoon classes. Walking 14 miles a day in order to attend school was not considered unusual by the parents of the Brikamanding II children. They valued education and knew that it was the key to a better future for their children.
Tapha’s trip this month is not your typical vacation. Over the past 25 years he has returned to Brikamanding II dozens of times, after leaving home for the first time at the age of 18 to look for work in neighboring Gambia. Moustapha is a man on a mission, devoted to helping those who have remained in his home village.
Tapha’s career grew out of his love of music, which was also to play an important role in bringing the first school to Brikamanding II. The musical heritage of Senegal is well known and widely respected throughout Africa. Tapha received his first drum at the age of ten and has been practicing and performing ever since. Through a series of fortuitous events, he received formal training and honed his performance skills as a member of the esteemed Dakar-based Ballet Bougarabou. I think you will be as impressed and entertained as I was by their performance on the following YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ClEtFsfkzUI. The group’s tours took him to Sweden, Spain and Italy, and eventually to the U.S., which is now his home.
On each return visit to his village he brought money he had saved, along with school supplies and clothing, as well as his strong back and arms. Together with fellow villagers and his two brothers, who have remained in Senegal, he worked to clear ground and eventually, in 1992, to erect a mud and palm leaf structure for Brikamanding II’s first school. The Senegal Ministry of Education kept its promise to provide a teacher if the villagers built the school. While on tour with the ballet group, he came to the attention of individuals in several countries who were curious about his roots. One Italian gentlemen, touched by Tapha’s love for his homeland, contributed $200 following a visit of his own to the village. This gift was used in 1995 to provide a metal roof for the school. Since the one-room building was constructed of mud, with a dirt floor and no windows or doors, the roof significantly improved conditions inside the structure. A majority of the residents of Brikamanding II live in similar buildings with no electricity or indoor plumbing.
After returning from performances in Sweden in 1998, Tapha returned once again to the village. During that visit, with financial assistance from other donors he had met while on tour and with additional personal savings, he and his two brothers and the villagers were able to erect a second school, this one made of cement. A second teacher was provided by the Senegalese government.
Tapha’s 90-year-old mother had long served as the village’s only midwife, but her age now made it impossible for her to continue to help the women of her community. That same year he raised funds and was instrumental in bringing about the building of a birthing center so that expectant mothers would not have to make the long journey over dirt roads to the nearest hospital. Few own cars in Brikamanding II and there is no ambulance service.
In the years since, Tapha’s efforts have focused on providing financial support for the schools and for the youth soccer league. On this trip back home he will again take with him clothing and school supplies.
Lest you think his focus is only on the West African village of his birth, you should know that for the past 15 years, since settling in New Paltz and becoming a U.S. citizen, Moustapha’s talents have enriched the lives of hundreds of local school children and college students who have attended his African drumming and dancing performances and taken lessons from this talented, hard working generous man. As I said, a man on a mission. A mission of helping and educating others and doing his part to make the world a better place. Bon voyage, Moustapha.
If you’d like to follow Moustapha’s work during his month in Senegal, he and his wife Kristin will be posting on the “New Paltz to Brikamanding II 2016” Facebook page.