Hometown Hero | Mbacké Seck, Hann Baykeeper - Waterkeeper

Hometown Hero | Mbacké Seck, Hann Baykeeper

By: Ellen Simon

All Mbacké Seck wanted was a clean beach; in the process, he wound up saving his community and leading his country toward a sustainable future.

Hann Baykeeper Mbacke Seck on Hann Bay
“Everywhere we went in Senegal, whether it was Hann Village, or the capital of Dakar, or a beachside village an hour away, everyone knew Mbacké.”
By Ellen Simon.
Photos by ©Jane Hahn, courtesy of Culture Trip.

Mbacké’s home beach in Senegal, Hann Bay, about eight miles from Dakar, used to win comparisons to Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana. When Mbacké was growing up in the 1970s, Hann beach had glistening white sand and ocean waves perfect for swimming. The waters were rich with fish; a fisherman courting a local girl traditionally would bring his largest catch to her house to win over her mother.

Then Hann Bay, with its three-mile-long stretch of beach, became the center of Senegal’s industry. By the beginning of the 21st century, there were more than 70 factories discharging industrial waste along its shore. Dakar’s population grew five times over, while the city continued to depend on one overloaded sewage treatment plant. The beach turned into a trash heap, the bay into a sewer. Fishermen had to go farther out to catch anything at all. The big fish became a memory.

Mbacké didn’t intend to make cleaning Hann Bay his life’s work. He didn’t know the work would take him from his home in Hann Village (also called Yarakh) to dozens of countries as an emissary of Waterkeeper Alliance and an internationally recognized environmental leader. He didn’t know that speaking out would cost him three jobs.

But he probably would have plowed ahead anyway. It’s who he is.

When he was told recently that a young Ugandan Waterkeeper wants to be like him, he said, “They say, if the big elephant opens the way, it’s not for himself, it’s for his son; it’s for the baby elephants.” He’s been the big elephant — and he’s suffered for it.

GOOD TROUBLE

Mbacké, now 56, has a habit of finding trouble — the kind of trouble where he’s put himself at risk to preserve something he loves.

He started cleaning the stretch of Hann Beach that fronted his village in 1988, working with a student crew and rudimentary tools. At the time, he was the leader of one of his village’s “futbol” clubs, ASC Yarakh. In a five-kilometer-long beach (about three miles), his crew worked to make sure the five meters they cared for were clean.

“All the rest of Hann Bay, the sand was black and dirty,” Mbacké says. “Just in our five meters, the sand was clean and white and people could play on the beach.”

That act of stewardship helped raise Mbacké to the status of a village leader.

In spite of that, when he was 25, the village elders decided the soccer field, which was one of the community’s vital centers, would be developed, turned into houses and a market. And when Mbacke spoke out, organized, and made powerful people angry, he faced more trouble. “The authorities put me in jail for one week,” he says.

He’d grown up in a small, crowded home, one of 11 children. His father was a plumber in a sugar factory, his mother was a fish seller. His parents were hard-working, and his mother, especially, was tough-minded. She was unruffled when Mbacké was arrested and jailed.

“My sister was crying, all the other mothers were crying,” he remembers. “But my mother wasn’t. She said, ‘You’re helping the community, it’s O.K.’”

Hann Baykeeper Mbacke Seck on Hann Bay
When Mbacké started organizing cleanups, Hann Bay’s nickname was “trash bay.” but his persistence convinced the government of Senegal, the French Development Agency, and the European Investment Bank to commit $68 million to fund a cleanup of the bay.

The soccer field was saved thanks to Mbacke’s leadership. He would continue to play on it — and organize from it — for decades to come.

THE INTRODUCTION

Another, more sinister kind of trouble was also available to Mbacké.

There were eight houses on the street where he was born. Gross national income when he was 10, in 1974, was $450 a person, according to the World Bank. In that sea of poverty, his street stood out as the most dangerous in the village. “Almost every house had a drug seller,” he says. Violence was rampant. One of the young men on his street killed his own nephew.

But that was never Mbacké’s path. From leader of his local soccer club, he rose to become the president of the National Youth Council of Senegal, which connects the country’s 2,500 youth organizations.

During the six years he spent as president of the council, he met people from every part of Senegal. All the while, he continued to play soccer and work with his club to clean up Hann Bay.

But a youth leader who doesn’t have money for college has to find another way to live. He found work as a dockhand, playing soccer with a team from the neighborhood in his spare time.

A member of an opposing team, upon hearing Mbacké speak, asked, “What are you doing?” “I’m a docker in the port,” Mbacké replied. “A docker doesn’t have French like you,” the man said. “You have to go to school.”

While French is Senegal’s official language, many people are much more fluent in one of the local languages, including Mbacké’s native language, Wolof. Elementary education isn’t universal in Senegal. When Mbacké was ten, only 40 percent of children were enrolled in primary school, according to the World Bank.

But Mbacké’s soccer opponent wouldn’t take no for an answer. Mbacké had married when he was 30; at one point, the man from the opposing team took Mbacké’s wife to a social work class at Université Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar. She announced that she would be bringing her husband there soon. And when she returned home, she told Mbacké, “You’re going to go to school, you’re going to go to school, you’re going to go to school.”

So Mbacké did. After earning a degree, he found a job locally as a social worker in a government agency, helping people get job training and pay their hospital bills.

But the fortunes of his home community continued to decline. By the early 2000s, Hann Village was home to 40,000 people, with no sanitation service. Many of them were suffering from illnesses related to the toxicity of the water – skin and respiratory diseases and diarrhea. At one end of the bay, rather than going to a municipal treatment-plant that was operating under capacity, raw sewage from Dakar wound slowly down an open canal, Canal 6, which passed by villagers’ homes and the local fish market, then dumped straight into Hann Bay.

When it rained, Canal 6, which had come to be called “the plague of Hann Bay,” would discharge thousands of tons of garbage, plastics and oily sludge onto the beach and into the bay. At several other locations, industrial waste emptied additional poisons into the waters. A Libyan oil refinery one kilometer away regularly discharged toxic chemicals into the water from a pipe that ran directly under the village chief ’s home. A fat-rendering plant and a food-dyeing facility contributed their own filthy liquids.

One of Mbacké’s friends from Hann Bay, Malick Sene, returned from Canada, where he had re-located, with news of a water-advocacy organization in New Brunswick, Petitcodiac Riverkeeper, that was having remarkable results restoring the Petitcodiac River. Malick had befriended the Waterkeeper and learned about the larger Waterkeeper movement. He reached out to the Alliance, with the hope that it might offer a means to help reverse Hann Bay’s decline and restore it to health. In 2006, he invited Waterkeeper staff to visit Senegal.

Marc Yaggi, now Waterkeeper Alliance’s executive director, was on that trip. He was struck by the optimism and enthusiasm of the people, but even more so by Mbacké’s energy and magnetism.

“In Senegal, being a part of the Waterkeeper movement helped me become more credible,” Mbacké says. “I learned so many skills from other Waterkeepers and staff at Waterkeeper Alliance.”

“Everywhere we went in Senegal, whether it was Hann Village, or the capital of Dakar, or a beachside village an hour away, everyone knew Mbacké. They were waving at him, calling him into their shops.”

Mbacké was interested in becoming a Waterkeeper, but the difficulties were immediately clear: Mbacké didn’t speak English and no one at Waterkeeper Alliance at that time spoke French or Wolof. That didn’t deter Mbacké.

He joined the movement by force of will, teaching himself English by watching “The Fast and the Furious” street racing movies with French subtitles, then translating in his head. While he was still learning the new language, he became Africa’s first Waterkeeper.

A few months after Marc Yaggi’s visit, Mbacké attended his first Waterkeeper Alliance conference.

“When I participated in my first Waterkeeper conference in San Francisco,” he recalls now, “I said, ‘In my mind, San Francisco is a place where cars in movies jump the hills; now it’s the beginning of a new experience of cleaning my bay.’”

“In Senegal, being a part of the Waterkeeper movement helped me become more credible,” Mbacké says. “I learned so many skills from other Waterkeepers and staff at Waterkeeper Alliance.”

Among those skills: How to use social media, how to plan activities, how to mount an advocacy campaign, how to build a network of supporters.

When Mbacké started organizing cleanups, Hann Bay’s nickname was “Trash Bay.”

But Mbacké’s persistence convinced the government of Senegal, the French Development Agency, and the European Investment Bank to commit $68 million in 2013 to fund a cleanup of the bay.

Part of the plan is to build seven pumping stations and 45 kilometers of sewage pipes, with 10,000 residential sewage connections. The plan also calls for building a treated-wastewater discharge point three kilometers offshore, and for the closure of the infamous Canal 6, the main channel carrying municipal waste into the bay.

The work is going slowly, Mbacké says, but it is underway.

The plan has two phases, the first is to rebuild Hann Village.

“When you go into the village today, the face of the village is changing,” he says. “They’ve built a big street, a network for sewage. Trucks pick up rubbish. The government built new infrastructure, which collects all the dirty water from houses and factories. The sewage is no longer going into the sea. It’s starting.

“I’m 56 years old, born in the village. Today, I go in the village, and I don’t know where I am. When I go to my father’s house and I park my car on the paved road, when I see my son riding his bike on a real street, I am so proud. No more smoke, no more dust.”

In 2015, through his work with Waterkeeper Alliance’s international team of coal campaigners, Mbacké started mobilizing people to fight three coal plants planned for Senegal. “We recruited the young people, women, teachers,” he says. “We worked with these communities so they knew how to get the attention of the local media and say no to coal plants in Senegal.”

And ultimately, he planted the seeds for other Waterkeeper organizations in Africa, including Bargny Coast Waterkeeper, some 20 miles from Mbacké’s village. Together, the groups organized a 2,000-person protest in 2015 to fight the three planned coal plants. But in spite of all Mbacke’s work, one was built in Bargny, an event Mbacké views as one of his greatest defeats. The campaign did, however, succeed in stopping the other two, and in September 2019 the African Development Bank announced that it would no longer finance coal plants.

“Thanks to Waterkeeper Alliance,” Mbacké says, “my voice now carries across my country.” In 2016, Mbacke was awarded Senegal’s top environmental prize, the Green Trophy, for his leadership nationally in advocating for a sustainable future for Senegal. In his acceptance speech, he said, “Victories are temporary, but defeats are also temporary.”

THE COST

But Mbacké’s achievements have not come without a price. As a result of his activism and his outspokenness about environmental and social conditions, Mbacké has had to endure more than one stretch of unemployment.

At one point, he didn’t have money to pay for his children’s school, and, ultimately, the financial stress cost him his first marriage. He left Senegal and found work for five months pumping gas.

His first wife never understood what kept him coming back to his work as an environmental activist. “She said, ‘You have no money, you are broken.’ I said, ‘I’m rich to my community. I’m a resource for my community.’”

And that has always been more than enough for Mbacké. Besides being known throughout Senegal, he’s also something of a legend on his childhood street, where there was once a drug dealer behind almost every door.

“The mothers say about those old drug dealers, ‘If you want to finish in a cemetery or jail, you have this guy,’” Mbacké says. “‘If you want to finish university or travel around the world, you have Mbacké.’

“The boys of the street, they go to university now,” he says. “This area is quiet. We changed the life for many young boys in our village. They don’t smoke; they don’t go to jail.”

Hann Bay hasn’t yet been returned to its pristine state, but the work is well along, thanks to Mbacké.

The bay will be cleaner when the children in Hann Village grow up because of what Mbacké has accomplished, so much of it through sheer force of will, clearing the way, not for himself, but for his sons, and for the baby elephants.

Ellen Simon is Waterkeeper Alliance’s Advocacy Writer and a Contributing Editor to Waterkeeper Magazine.

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