With two ID pictures and his Senegalese passport Ibrahima Sall recently opened a bank account in Senegal from a desk in Harlem.
The desk was setup by the financial branch of the Senegalese Post in Dakar at the Association of the Senegalese in America, a meeting space in New York for the community. Postes Finances provides checking or saving accounts and money transfers.
Every month, Sylla sends more than half of the money he earns as a New York City cab driver to Senegal where his wife and his 2-year-old daughter live.
“Two or three times a month I send about $1,000,” Sylla said. On a good week, he said, he could make up to $700. Back in Dakar, at least 20 people depend on his money.
“I don’t have a choice,” he said. “I am responsible for them and I am the only one to bear the burden.”
Sylla is one of many Senegalese immigrants who send money back home. In 2009, remittances to Senegal amounted to $1,2 million according to the World Bank. It is nine percent of the country’s GDP, almost twice including the informal cash flows.
The Senegalese migrants in the United States contribute almost eight percent of total Senegalese remittances.
For Sylla and many others there is a sense of security in using a familiar bank. The Senegalese Postes Finances launched its campaign in New York on Sept. 9. Aida Diagne – whose laptop is plugged with an American adaptor – came especially from Dakar to promote the service.
“The idea is that, even while you’re abroad, you can control your life back in Senegal,” Diagne explained.
Postes Finances allows the Senegalese to directly pay their water, electricity and telephone bills from the United States. They can also keep money in Senegalese saving accounts; the interest is 3.5 percent.
Sylla subscribed to this last option to be sure he has money on the side when he goes back to Senegal for vacation. Sylla is in his early thirties. Unlike the other Senegalese in the rooms chatting about the upcoming Senegalese elections, Sylla does not wear the traditional “boubou” – a long colorful robe, but blue jeans and a tight with T-shirt.
“ It is very easy to spend money freely here. I’d rather save up in my country,” said Sylla.
Diagne emphasized the importance of visibility for the undocumented migrants, as they hardly ever return to their hometowns.
“We responded to the community’s need for transparency about their money,” she said.
“I have heard the most amazing stories,” Diagne added. “I met a women who had sent money to her relatives in order to have a house built. She regularly received pictures of a house under construction. When she came back to Senegal, she discovered the house in the photos was not hers. And all her money had been spent.”
Among the Senegalese community, Postes Finances is seen as a public service. It is well known, and above all, has the largest presence of any bank in the country.
An American company, Choice Money Transfer, manages the affairs of Postes Finances. Located in the Empire State building, the firm is in charge of transferring the money, just like their main competitor, Western Union.
Bara Fall, who asked that his real name not be used, is originally from Senegal. As the vice president at Choice, he created this partnership.
“Working with Poste Finances is an opportunity for us to develop the loyalty of our
Senegalese customers,” Fall said.
Last month, around 10,000 Senegalese people sent a total of $6.4 million to their country via Choice. Fall said the majority of Senegalese transmit money regardless of the state of the economy.
“People thought that during the financial crisis immigrants would send less money,” observed Fall. “But from what I see on my computer, they didn’t.”
He said the Senegalese would rather sacrifice their own comfort then deprive their relatives of basic services.
To Fall, they are key contributors to the Senegalese economy.
“The money goes to people that wouldn’t survive without it,” he said.
One out of two Senegalese households rely on the diaspora’s money, according to the International Organization for Migration. And it is mainly assigned to daily consumption.
Fall has lived in the United States for 12 years and is now an American citizen. He is married and has two young children born here. In his office, African paintings hang on the wall next to American Baseball calendars. Also an accomplished businessman, he embodies the American dream.
But even if his family is here now, and his parents have died, he sends at the very least $625 a month to his relatives and friends in Senegal.
“We have to do this. As immigrants, it is our duty,” Fall said.