For Senegal, Money Earned in New York Helps on Holiday and Every Day

Photo by Yijun He.

Sheep don’t roam Manhattan’s West 116th Street, but they are on Mamadou Doucouré’s mind these days. With the Muslim holiday of Tabaski (Eid-al-Adha) several days away, families throughout francophone West Africa are looking for an animal that will represent Ibrahim’s sacrifice and provide a feast. Many of the sheep will come from Mauritania and Mali. Some of the money to pay for them will come from Harlem and the Bronx.
Doucouré, who works at Banque International du Mali’s New York branch, is watching his office fill with Francophone West Africans as the big celebration approaches. He estimates that a ram will cost roughly 60,000 CFA ($120)–about 10,000 CFA more than in 2011. The Associated Press recently reported that 712,000 rams will be purchased for slaughter in Senegal this Tabaski.
“If you want to please your father or mother, you’re obligated to send more [money] during this period,” said Doucouré in French.
But remittances–money or in-kind goods sent back to an immigrant’s home country–don’t only cross the ocean at holidays. In 2010, Senegalese immigrants sent back the equivalent of $1.4-billion, according to the World Bank. The organization also estimates that remittances accounted for 10 percent of Senegal’s gross domestic product in 2011. Exact numbers are difficult to reach, however, because not all transferring is done through formal channels.
In his 2011 book The Homeland is the Arena, Ousmane Kane calls remittances a “social glue” that bonds migrants to their home country. Kane, currently on sabbatical from Harvard, was not available for interview. Social glue is big business. Western Union reported $1.4-billion in second-quarter earnings this year. Like in other enclaves, Little Senegal’s shops are practically wallpapered with their signs, as well as those of Money Gram and Choice. Customers can order transfers at a number of these local businesses, as well as chain stores like Duane Reade and RiteAid.
Each company offers varying exchange rates and service fees. Western Union, for example, charges $15 to immediately transfer $100 to Senegal via internet, though the sender must pay with a major credit. For a $10 fee, one can send $100 from a personal checking account via three-day service. MoneyGram charges the same fee for three-day delivery of $100, but offers an online transfer at a $14 charge. With the latter, the money is available for pick-up in 10 minutes.
Many immigrants, like Cheikh Fall, who runs a mutual aid group for fellow Senegalese street vendors,  research competing rates and service fees online to see which company currently has the best offer. Fall arrived in New York 20 years ago and has noticed shifts. “In the beginning the service fees were kind of hefty, but now because of the competition things are changing,”  said Fall.
Fall’s family joined him in New York 15 years ago, so now he only makes transfers for emergencies or gifts for holidays like Tabaski. In other families, money earned in cities like New York or Atlanta affects every day life.
“The amount that I send back depends on my family’s needs,” said Moutarou Diallo, who financially supported his 15-member family in Senegal even before moving to the United States to complete his master’s degree.
Though he is not currently working, Diallo still tries to send back $100 to $300 each month, which he is able to do with the help of his wife’s income. The money covers daily expenses like food and cooking oils, as well as school fees for his young siblings and tuition for a brother in university.
In recent years, mounting inflation paired with a weakening U.S. dollar have made it more difficult for Senegalese living in New York City to cover costs. And unlike the Euro, which is pegged to Senegal’s CFA currency, the U.S. dollar’s relative value fluctuates. “My family is always telling me how expensive things are at home,” said Diallo. “They spent the last $160 I sent on cooking gas only.”
To Fall, economic shifts don’t provide an excuse. “If you have your family there [in Senegal], you have to feed them,” he said while surveying his table of knit hats and pashmina scarves in Midtown. “It doesn’t matter if the dollar is strong or not strong. If the dollar is weak it means you have to work overtime.”
Still, Doucouré has noticed that his clients remit less frequently and sometimes in lower sums than in past years. Nonetheless, sending money back to Senegal is non-negotiable. “You can’t turn your back on Africa,” he said.