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  • Writer's pictureMomar Niang

MEMORIES OF MY UNCLE, A LEADER IN THE SENEGALESE COMMUNITY IN NEW YORK

By Momar Niang


Black in complexion and small in size, Uncle Makhtar was not tall, unlike most of his Senegalese compatriots. My uncle was less than 5 feet 6 inches tall.



On the 27th of October in the year 2014, Maktar Seck was placed inside the ground.


More than two hundred people had come to his family home in Guédiawaye, a sprawling suburb of Senegal’s capital city, Dakar, to mourn and celebrate the life of a man who had been so influential in New York where he had lived for nearly 30 years. Celebrities showed up. There was Mbacké Dioum, one of the first Senegalese rappers. He later immigrated to the United States and met my uncle in New York there. There was the influential promoter of lamb (Senegalese wrestling) Pape Abdou Fall, who also lived in New York. The journalist Souleymane Jules Diop who returned to Senegal in 2012 and became chief communication adviser in the newly elected administration was there. He delivered a condolence speech on behalf of Senegal’s President Macky Sall.


“Makhtar never forgot where he came from, he was generous and always ready to help his compatriots as much as he could," Diop said during the funeral.


In addition to neighbors and relatives and friends, people also came from the remote areas of Casamance in southern Senegal. They were beneficiaries of Orphan Children Africa, the nonprofit organization that Uncle Makhar created and devoted much of his time to in his older years.



Orphan Children Africa had donated supplies to schools and health centers to villages in Casamance and had connected children from poor families to some American godparents so that they could stay in school.


“Uncle Makhtar never forgot where he came from….”


And there I was at the funeral, wearing a white caftan and pantsuit of bazin fabric with my little brother next to me. Filled with sadness, I reminisced on memories of Uncle Makhtar.


Throughout my childhood and adolescence, he would appear as a benevolent figure. Whenever he came from to see, he came bearing presents from America. He gifted me and my brother Makhtar, his godson, with blue jeans and T-shirts with logos of NFL and NBA teams etched on them, basketball jerseys and the latest sneakers, especially my favorite, Nike – a must-have in my high school.


Among my classmates, I was among the stars, those who wore baggy denim trousers, Air Jordans, Converse, Reebok sneakers and NBA jerseys. Unlike previous generations, we grew up in the 90s during the rise of satellite television, a medium for the infiltration of American culture, especially hip hop.


He usually came back to Senegal during the festive period of December for his vacation time, which rarely exceeded one month. But that was enough time to bring joy to many. He used to gather children from cash-strapped families and make them smile with Christmas gifts: bikes and little keyboards for the boys, dolls for the girls and clothes for everyone.



During these times, he would often drop by two or three times to visit us, sitting on the floor with us for a meal. I remember him eating thiebu yapp and soupe kandia a lot. I asked him about his life in New York, where after a variety of jobs he'd ended up working in the car industry. He seemed to really enjoy his life in his adopted hometown where he was taking care of family, and sending money to his siblings in Senegal.


Uncle Makhtar was a calm man. He spoke in a hushed tone with captivating diction. The man’s simplicity had always impressed me, along with his kindness and frankness. Unlike many immigrants of his time who had lived in America for years and flaunted luxurious clothing, he was frugal. He measured everything.


My uncle’s funeral lasted about 72 hours, the norm in our Wolof culture. Though he was being buried in his final resting place in the ground, I knew that his legacy as a pioneer in the Senegalese community in New York would live on.


Born in Senegal in a modest family of four siblings of which he was the eldest, Uncle Makhtar lost his father at an early age. He matured in the 70s, a shaky period in our nation’s history.


By that time, many Senegalese people were leaving the country. The happiness we had experienced after gaining our independence from France in 1960 was coming to an end. The land suffered drought. Farmers could not produce. They lost money. So the economy declined. The country’s sons went off looking for greener pastures.


It is true that as French-speaking people, many Senegalese naturally headed to France. There was a sense of cultural affinity to our former colonial ruler. Many went there to advance their education.


But Uncle Makhtar was looking for something else, something new. So he did something rather unusual. He chose New York instead of France.


In the early 80s, a small Senegalese community was taking shape in New York City, made up of resourceful people, mainly workers and tradesmen, eager to have a better life and help their families back home. The men who had left alone would bring their children much later in the 90s and 2000s to join them in New York. The Big Apple, with its unparalleled ethnic diversity and hustle culture seemed the perfect place for this ever-growing community.


“But Uncle Makhtar was looking for something else, something new.

So he did something rather unusual.

He chose New York instead of France.”


As one of the first Senegalese immigrants to arrive there, Uncle Makhtar quickly became famous. Sociable by nature, he never strayed far from his family and often helped new arrivals to find work or give them shelter.


From the Bronx to Little Senegal in Harlem to Harrison in New York’s Westchester County, Makhtar Seck was a household name in the community. In the mid 80s, he and his friends even accommodated Youssou Ndour who later became the international star and iconic figure of mbalakh music.


After years in America, like many in Senegal’s diaspora, Uncle Makhtar desired to give back to his homeland, so he established Orphan Children Africa (OCA) in 1992 while he was still living in New York.


“In the early 80s, a small Senegalese community

was taking shape in New York City…”


During the last 20 years before his death, all his energy was practically devoted to the activities of OCA and its multiple donations throughout the country. The work required him to travel back and forth between New York and Dakar. This charitable activity had for him the value of a priesthood.


“I had sworn that if God gave me more than I needed, I would share the rest with the have-nots,” he said to me one day.


He kept his promise. One cannot count the number of schools, hospitals, orphanages, Koranic schools and associations that have benefited from his donations. The adventure with OCA, often covered by the press, brought him not only some fame but also the jealousy of politicians.


“I refused to compromise with the politicians in power, it is really difficult for them to understand that my action is disinterested,” he also confided to me.


My uncle continued with his humanitarian work all the way from New York. But his refusal to be associated with politics gave rise to petty reprisals. OCA containers from the United States were being blocked at the port of Dakar. What a mean-spirit act! Knowing that these containers and the items inside are saving lives in some hospitals, helps build and equip schools mostly in some remote areas where the government often fails to meet its responsibilities.


Moustapha Cissé, who happened to be a neighbor of mine, told me a story about my uncle. After noticing that children in his village of Maranda in the heart of the southern region of Casamance were dropping out of school because their parents simply could not afford the school supplies, he called Uncle Makhtar, following my recommendation to reach out to him.


“Mr. Seck immediately answered our call and within a week, we had organized a distribution of thousands of notebooks and pens to the learners of the village in the schoolyard,” Cissé told me on the phone.


A man of “energetic generosity,” he says of my uncle.


I had immense respect for his unselfishness. I know he was not rich. He was just fulfilling a promise he had made to himself.


After almost 30 years of living in America, weakened by terminal cancer, Uncle Makhtar said goodbye to New York and took a one-way ticket to Senegal in late 2014. For several days on bed rest in a clinic in Dakar several celebrities, including, Youssou Ndour and members of his band, came to visit him while he was on bed rest at a clinic in Dakar.


My uncle passed away on October the 26th of 2014 at the age of 59 only. I pray that the profound impact he made within the Senegalese community in New York will never be forgotten.




Momar Niang is a journalist based in Dakar, Senegal. He enjoys reading, watching documentaries and traveling.






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Guest
Aug 09, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Yesss he was one true hero of the Senegalese community

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