story and photos by Briee Della Rocca
“When he comes into the yellow dining room, nodding hello before joining his friends at a nearby lunch table, the students I eat with huddle forward and turn into myth-makers, wild-eyed informants. “Did you know he was on a first name basis with Nelson Mandela?” one of them asks me. “He turned down Harvard to come to Bennington,” another one exclaims. “I heard he was a political prisoner.” My favorite rumor was announced loud and clear at an intern meeting several years ago, hours after the intern came off of one of those late night, meandering heart-to-heart marathons with him. “He. Is. Superman.”
Before Ousseynou Diome '14 graduated in June and headed off to the Stanford Graduate School of Business, I interviewed him. And what I really wanted to know was what was real and what was legend. We started at the very bottom of the grapevine, Superman, and climbed our way to Mandela. Has he actually met Nelson Mandela? "No. No, that's not a true story, I can confirm that," he says. "I have never met him in person."
Ousseynou traces the rumor back to where it began: at the prestigious African Leadership Academy in South Africa, where he was one of only 100 African scholars chosen to be part of the Academy's inaugural class after leaders scoured the continent and the world to find Africa's best and brightest. These were students who were not only gifted achievers, they were predicted to become the next generation of African leaders. It was at the Academy's grand opening that Ousseynou met the keynote speaker, Graca Machel Mandela. "So I met his wife in person, not Nelson Mandela."
There were other big introductions at the African Leadership Academy. It was at the Leadership Academy that he would connect with his mentor, one of the country's leading business investors, and it was a the Leadership Academy that he would hear about Bennington College. Already applying to Harvard, George Washington University, and the University of Pennsylvania, Ousseynou decided to apply to Bennington at the encouragement of one of the organization's founders who told him that Bennington was an innovative institution. So it was true that he got into Harvard and came to Bennington? He smiles. "Yes, that is true." True for two reasons: the generous financial aid package he received and the opportunities he was confident Field Work Term would provide.
So was it also true that he was an activist? He doesn't giggle. He doesn't smile. He doesn't humbly dismiss the characterization. He hesitates. "Yes, that's right."
To explain he takes me back to the capital city of Senegal, Dakar, where he was supposed to go to school at age six but played soccer on the beach instead. "My mother was very frustrated. She knew I needed an education to survive. She didn't really know what to do, so she decided to send me to my grandmother's village to live with my grandmother and my uncle. She thought that the traditional values would give me no choice but to go to school and do what I was told. That is exactly what happened."
The difference between the city and the village was striking. "You see, the village was very poor. There was no clean water, no electricity, no health care. People work very, very hard but they mostly survive through agriculture and subsistence farming. In the end they don't have even enough to feed themselves. And that was a very interesting experience to go from living in the comfortable conditions for the first six years of my life to living in my grandmother's village for the next six years of my life. It opened my eyes."
When Ousseynou was 12 he had to leave the village to continue his education in a nearby town where there was a middle school. There was also clean water, electricity, and health care. Conditions that should have made life easier only disturbed him. Town boys harassed Ousseynou as well as other children who came from rural, poor villages. "So what happened is that you live in terrible conditions and you see something better. When you get there people do not treat you as a human being. You become frustrated twice. First because the people that you love are still living in terrible conditions. Then because when you get to a better place you are told you are not allowed to be there, that where you came from is what you deserve."
He responded by organizing a group of boys from rural villages, gathering them to discuss their similar experiences. "I asked why were people always focusing on us when all we were focused on was our education? Why were they bothering us when we were doing much better academically than anyone at the school? Why did people hate us so much?"
It was those questions that led to a bigger conversation. "After a while we were no longer interested in what was happening at school. We started to talk about the conditions our parents were living in. We started to say, this is not normal that people don't have clean water. This is not normal that a woman has to wake up at 5 am to fetch water four miles away and then have to come back and prepare a meal for the family. This is not normal to watch your parents and friend's parents die in the process of giving birth because there is no hospital. So we stopped and asked ourselves what are we going to do about it?"
For Ousseynou the plan was simple. "Let's go to the streets and march!" He bursts into laughter remembering the charge. "I mean it was crazy because I was like fourteen. My friends were fourteen, and they were like, Yeah, let's go to the streets and march!"
One hundred and seventeen students started to march. Within an hour the crowd grew to hundreds and overwhelmed the streets. The police arrived and instructed everyone to go home, but no one left. They wanted to know who their leader was. A lanky, 14-year-old Ousseynou raised his hand. They chuckled. "End the march," they ordered. "Send everyone home." Ousseynou refused and met their demands with his own. "I want to speak with the mayor." It was an outlandish request, especially coming from a 14-year-old village boy. "Young man, are you crazy? We don't even have the opportunity to speak with the mayor." But Ousseynou didn't budge.
"So they did what they do in situations like those; they arrested me and tried to correct me." Correction meant beatings, an awful torture that could have ended if Ousseynou gave up and went home quietly. "But again," Ousseynou says, "that was never going to work." Sure he would die, hoping for it even, Ousseynou insisted that the choice was theirs: "You've hurt me so much that I think I might die. You can let me talk to the mayor or you can beat me to death."
It was only when Ousseynou was on the brink of death that they decided to call the mayor's office. Brought to the hospital in a shocking condition, one horrified doctor did more more than save his life, he called the press. "The next morning the story was all over the news. And that is when everything changed."
First, every officer who brutalized him was fired. Then the mayor came with gifts: official non-governmental organization recognition of Ousseynou's group and a lot of money. Thousands of dollars, money that could easily change lives, money that Ousseynou took. "He thought I would keep it and shut up. He thought that I would do what he wanted me to do." He shakes his head. "But he was very stupid."
"When I came home everyone was so happy. I had all of this money. My friends thought we could share it around with our families and that everything would be better for us, but I would not let that happen. I told everyone that the mayor knew about us and it was time for the president to hear from us too."
He laid out another plan. "We needed to hold our next march in the capital, which was three hours away. The key was transportation. To get everyone to Dakar we needed busses. So that is what we did with the money, we got a bunch of busses to transport all of the villagers and supporters into the city. We knew once we got a big crowd there people would naturally join us."
They arrived in Dakar and began their march to the president's house. Within minutes security forces surrounded the group. Ousseynou and the others knew what was coming next, but this time it wasn't town police with batons, it was the most severe Senegalese authorities who unleashed violence that, when broadcasted live, ignited widespread outrage. Thousands came to the streets. Backed into a corner, the president sent one of his commanders to end the public attacks and fetch the group's leader. "Come with me," he was ordered. "The president wants you to speak with someone."
When the official wouldn't disclose who the unexpected 14-year-old leader would speak with or where he was going, the crowd rioted. But Ousseynou knew he was safe. And if he wasn't? "What was the worst thing that could have happened? There was nothing worse than what happened to me in town. The only thing that could have been worse was death," he stops and grins. "And I was fine with that. If they killed me it would have made more of an impact, then the president would have the whole country screaming at him."
Escorted to the Office of the Minister of Women and Family Services, the conversation started where all the conversations before this one had, with the same questions: What the hell are you doing? Who do you think you are? What is all this about? "No one ever took me seriously because I was just this young boy, but I was very clear. I told her about the conditions in the village. I told her we were not going to accept those conditions anymore. I explained that we were marching to demand a better life for the people in our villages. That is what it was all about. That is what the hell we were doing."
After that conversation the group forged a partnership with the government, and worked together to meet the demands Ousseynou laid out. "Before I left for school in South Africa there was clean, running water throughout the entire village. There were two new schools built in the village." He exclaims, "Now villagers don't have to leave to go to middle school anymore. Everybody in the village goes to school now. All of the children."
As a result of their work the childhood literacy rate in the village has soared from 66 percent to nearly 100 percent. And the organization itself has grown to an operation that is fully staffed, four of whom were professionals sent from the United Nations to oversee the work while Ousseynou attends college.
"So," he says, "that is what people are talking about when they say that I am an activist, but I don't really like that term." Why not? "I don't think of myself that way. I see how activism is portrayed on the media. I know people who call themselves activists. They join a cause and do what you are supposed to do, but when a good job comes along with good money they leave their efforts and their values behind. That's not what I was doing. I wanted something to happen. I wanted people's lives to get better. Nothing was going to stop me. You couldn't pay me a billion dollars to walk away. I was ready to die to make that happen."
It is a the end of our interview that Ousseynou tells me about his second year Field Work Term--one in which he had the chance to speak with the first female president of Ireland, Mary Robinson. She saw her younger self in Ousseynou---enthusiastic, ambitious, determined to make a difference. "But then, she told me, she got older and realized the limits of what she could do," he says with reverence and skepticism. "She also told me about a certain West African leader who was enthusiastic and excited about making a difference when he was my age. But when he came into power, when he had the opportunity to make a real difference, he was totally corrupted. He became one of the worst leaders the African continent has ever seen. So that is what I have been thinking about. What changed?"
Maybe, when faced with the same limits Mary Robinson and Ousseynou confronted, they defaulted on the promise of good, when good had limits, when it required more from them than they were willing to invest. "Yes, maybe," Ousseynou said. "That's an interesting thought. The founders of the African Leadership Academy believe it's a matter of ethics."
Ousseynou looks out and considers the question quietly, not as a scholar, or a philosopher--his gaze has a longer throw in time. It is as if he is looking directly at his future. When he first came to Bennington, I asked Ousseynou about his plans. He spoke about social entrepreneurship, about disrupting agricultural industries and distribution systems, he spoke about using business to redistribute wealth throughout Africa. Four years later, he still touches on those same plans but now they seem like an incomplete view of what will come. I ask him if he will ever run fro president of Senegal. "Not now," he says. "When I'm 40 and old enough to be taken seriously."