Mamadou Dia
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Mamadou DIA

3052km to Self-Development and How to Build your Own El Dorado

The difference between development and self-development (autoréalisation in French) is that the former includes copy-pasting known formulas and ingredients, whereas the latter completely starts from scratch. This philosophy is at the center of whatever Mamadou Dia undertakes. Because the only way to create actual meaning is to start from what’s already there and to do it yourself. 

Mamadou Dia decided to build his own reality, and you can take that literally. After crossing the ocean, spending years living as an irregular migrant in Spain, writing a book (3052) and publishing it independently, he came to the conclusion that his El Dorado was back home. In Gandiol – a fisher village in the north of Senegal – he started to build the foundations of what is now the epicenter of culture, education and optimism.  


 Mamadou Dia is an extraordinary man. Originally from Gandiol, a fishing village in the north of Senegal, he was once a boat migrant. When he arrived in Spain, he began to describe his experiences in his first book which became an instant success. But he didn’t stop there. Because Mamadou, besides being a writer, is also a builder, a philosopher, a dreamer … but above all, for me, he is a traveler. 

Mamadou Dia: At the age of 15, I was a talibé in Rufisque for two years, a great experience that allowed me to discover life, to discover the street. At the age of 17, my mother thought I should leave the country, and my first trip was to The Gambia with nothing but my backpack. When I returned from The Gambia at the age of 18, she sent me directly – and all these trips, I did them alone – she sent me directly to Mauritania. So, I went to discover Mauritania when I was 18. Spain was not on my mind.

Marianne: For those who do not know, a talibé is a child, often a young boy, who studies the Koran. Talibés live far from their parents, in a big city or even another country, where they join a Koranic school called Daara, run by a Marabout or spiritual guide. The talibés learn to live a very simple life, far from the material things. They sometimes survive by begging and spend much of the day on the street. Yet this experience was very different from life in Europe.

Mamadou Dia: It’s in Spain that I start to experience sleeping on the streets, in “the developed world”. It’s in Spain, in “the developed world” that I first felt hungry. I’ve never been hungry, I’ve never been hungry at home, even if when I was a talibé, I was never hungry. I spoke French, English and Portuguese. Yet, I meet a Spanish man and I try to speak to him in French. He says, “I don’t understand”. I try to speak to him in Portuguese, he says “I don’t understand”. I try to speak to him in English, and he says, “I don’t understand”. So, I’m the poor one? No. I started to demystify there and then what it means to be poor.

Marianne: It was the beginning of another journey, an internal journey, searching himself and his place in the world in which he lives, and even the world to which he belongs.

Mamadou Dia: Our role in society was to sell in the streets or to work in the fields. And I didn’t want to do that. So, many migrants told me: ” you came here to disappoint your family, you came here to work, to help your family. You have to deal with  it” and I said: – “no, I don’t want to accept it…” and I said with humour: – ” Considering how much my mother spent on my education, I don’t want to come and spread it out here by the sea. I can’t do that. I have to …”. My mother used to tell me “Mamadou, you don’t have much strength. You must study because the pen is the lightest work tool, and it is the one that commands the most. So, go to school because you don’t have enough strength.

Mamadou Dia: So I wrote a letter to my friends to say goodbye, because I couldn’t tell them that I was going to take a pirogue. I was stubborn and I had taken this decision to go and travel in a pirogue. There were two only outcomes: either I would come out of this trip alive and I would write a book to tell the story of the riskiest adventure of my life, or Mamadou’s experience would end at sea. So, when I arrived, I started to write this book, and at that time, I calculated the distance between Dakar and Murcia, Dakar from where our pirogue left, and Murcia which is a region in the south of Spain where I lived my first years in Spain. So, it was 3052km, so in fact 3052km chasing a dream.

Marianne: Between dream and reality, obstacles arise. But Mamadou is not ready to give up his dream any time soon. 

Mamadou Dia: I have never studied Spanish and knowing the conditions in which migrants in general live and are treated in Europe, no publisher is willing to put money into publishing your book.

Mamadou Dia: After a while, I started watching videos on YouTube to find out how to self-publish. I went to Barcelona to study design and finally decided to self-publish my book.

Mamadou Dia: I was lucky that it was the first book in Spanish written by someone who had taken a pirogue and very soon the book got very, very, very big publicity and we were able to sell thousands of copies. That changed my life. It changed my life because it allowed me in record time – I think I stopped counting the conferences I gave when I reached 500 – to give more than 500 lectures in many countries, in many cities, in many universities. That helped me to know that we must build Eldorado. And for me, our Eldorado is Gandiol.

Marianne: Thus, the book and journeys that followed marked the beginning of a third journey: a return journey. Through his writings and reflections, Mamadou realizes that his words, his thoughts and his feet are not in the same place.

Mamadou Dia: There is a part in my book called “The letter to my brother Assane”, where I talk to him: “Don’t believe the words of our brothers who go back saying that Europe has made them successful. What they say is different from reality and many people were disappointed, but they can’t go back empty-handed, and they are stuck here. And I said directly to myself: ” you are saying that to your little brother and you are here”, if you believe that the future is there and that we must develop it, you must be there too. So, step by step, I said to myself that I must go back, there is much more to do there than here.

Marianne: Mamadou decided to go back and build his projects. And when I say “build” you can take it literally. Using traditional and adapted techniques, and nothing but local Labour, Mamadou and his team have transformed his village, brick by brick. But then again, even in construction, the destination matters less than the path thereto.

Mamadou Dia: Ha Ha Tay means joy.  Ha Ha Tay is a framework built of only young people. In our organization, the average age is 23 and so it’s a space where young people are free to speak, our method of learning is to learn by doing so that we can learn from our mistakes. For example, in lot of construction projects, when we lift walls, we often realize that the wall is not straight. We knock it down immediately and rebuild it. Whoever we are, we take paths to fulfilment and we can learn on this path to make mistakes, to accept mistakes as an important part of the path to achievement. When we look at our village, we built almost all the projects and infrastructures that have been designed.

Marianne: In our conversations, Mamadou had often spoken to me about the importance of what he calls ‘self-realization’ and I wanted to understand the difference between self-realization and development.

Mamadou Dia: For me, the difference between self-fulfillment and development is that development is designed for us, it pushes us to look at the other and to compare ourselves to other systems. If we compare ourselves to another system, it says that we are ready for that system to correct us, to tell us how to do it. Because if I were to take a path that you have already taken, it is quite possible that I would tell you how to go about it and how to do it  by saying to me: “ah to take that path, you must…”. And self-realization is an internal community project, it’s the community that get together to say where we want to go, what do we have as a project?

Mamadou Dia: Because today, we know that economic growth issues have pushed another world to an extraordinary level of poverty, but if we don’t have this overview of these development projects and we want to have them, it costs us a lot. And often, as you can see, international experts cost us a lot of money. Once they leave, the project collapses because it was a copy and paste. It was not an appropriate project for our community. There are ten thousand projects since our independence until now that have failed.

Marianne: In self-realization, does awareness-raising have its place?

Mamadou Dia: I don’t believe in the idea of raising awareness in the way it’s done today. Raising awareness among young people, organizing caravans, telling them that the sea is dangerous, that you’re going to die, that in Europe there’s nothing… For me, it’s a huge waste of money and energy. I don’t believe in it at all. For me, what’s important is action. I wanted to go back to Gandiol, to be in a small space and try to see if the words could take shape, if there was something to do and how it should be done.

When I returned from Spain, that was my only objective, to build, to build something, to see what building capacity we have. For me, my awareness-raising mission is just that: to show young people that we can build something here.

Marianne: Thank you for listening to this episode of our migr’histoires series. To follow the other episodes of the series, please visit the Yenna channel on the streaming platform of your choice. 

 This podcast is produced by IOM and funded by the UK government.

“The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in these podcasts belong solely to the speaker, and not reflect the view of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), its partners or donors. This podcast is protected under creative commons and can be used by third parties under certain conditions. For more information, contact [email protected].”



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