Back in January, Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade offered free land to Haitians displaced by their country's disastrous earthquake. The plan was eventually scaled back to free housing and today, the first group of Haitian students took him up on the offer:
The 163 students will also be offered scholarships in a nation where the campus of Senegal's largest university is frequently paralyzed by strikes because scholarships are paid late.
The students were greeted upon arrival in Dakar by dancers and traditional praise singers. Dozens of Senegalese students also held up signs that said: "Welcome to the home of your ancestors." They were led onto tour buses that drove them through the neighborhood of Almadies, the westernmost point of Africa which juts out into the Atlantic.
The bus climbed a hill overlooking the ocean, and let them out at the feet of an enormous statue pointing West in the direction where they had come from.
"Your ancestors left here by physical force," Wade told the students. "You have returned through moral force ... When the slaves embarked on the ships, this is the last piece of African earth they saw ... Dear students, it is on this point of land that sticks out farthest into the Atlantic that we have chosen to receive you," he said. "You are neither strangers nor refugees. You are members of our family."
The project has gotten mixed reviews at home, where university scholarships are often hard to come by and thousands of Senegalese try to immigrate to Europe every year in search of economic opportunity. But there is a strong case to be made that allowing Haitians to migrate, even to a country that's struggling itself, is a more effective way of helping the country than sending aid. The octagenerian Wade's offer may be a vanity project meant to cement his legacy as an international statesman, but it's a more productive one than some his others.