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Welcome to the family

Last weekend, I was visiting with a friend and his family at their home outside Dakar. After polishing off a platter of yassa chicken, we sat sipping Fanta, watching the pre-match coverage of the day’s wrestling tournament — in Senegal, traditional wrestling is more popular than, ahem, soccer — and looking at family photos.

Moussa and his four younger brothers haven’t seen their father in more than 20 years, since he moved to the U.S. to support them. Their mother joined him in Chicago 15 years ago. The boys are all grown now, and Moussa is married with a son of his own.

This isn’t a bizarre situation in Senegal, or the rest of the developing world for that matter, and remittances from family members abroad constitute a significant part of the country’s economy.

Many see moving abroad as the best way to earn money and give their children a better future. For families left behind, those infusions of cash can mean another child going to private school — or getting to go to school at all — paying the electricity bill or simply having enough money to eat for the week.

That father, sister, or uncle abroad is the family’s ally in the first world, its ace-in-the-hole, its safety net.

We passed around enlarged photos of their parents’ wedding day and various family members now deceased or living in Europe. We laughed over a fuzzy photo of the five gangly boys taken before their father left for the U.S., and they each studied in hushed wonder a photo I took of their father last October in Chicago.

Though they all lovingly refer to their father — that voice on the telephone — as “le vieux” (the old man), they were amused to see his white hair. It was one of the first photos they’d seen of him in two decades.  

More photos circulated: their marabout (religious leader), their cousins, their mother radiant as a young woman, and an 8 x 10 portrait of Barack. Obama, that is. They have three copies, printed on cheap cardstock, of the president next to an American flag. Their father sent them from Chicago.

They marveled at how smart Obama seems, the way he just talks to everyday folks, his energy, his physical fitness: “I mean, have you seen that photo of him with his shirt off?” one son says. The general consensus: He’s really a different kind of American president, maybe a different kind of America all together.   

Moussa placed the Obama photos back with the others, added the shiny, new photo of their father to the pile and neatly put the family “album” away.

Wily Senegalese marketers haven’t missed the Obama boat. Boutiques are named after him in Dakar, there were quite a few variations on “Yes, we can” in March’s local elections, and the president even has his own brand of rice, le riz obama.

But it’s his inclusion in a family photo album that really encapsulated for me the Senegalese perception of the new American president, or Barack, as many here call him. One hundred days in, that's where he lives in Senegalese consciousness.

He’s another distant relative overseas. Sure, he’s far away and has challenges of his own, but he’s on their side. He’s an ace-in-the-hole, a powerful ally in a powerful country who, should the occasion arise, might just throw a little support their way, which is more than many Americans are doing. He's one of them. He's pulling for them. They're on a first-name basis.

One day, Obama will visit Africa, just as one day — insha’allah — their father will come home, Moussa and his brothers say.

Who knows what, if anything, Obama will actually do for Senegal, for Africa, but he’s there and that’s something.