DAKAR, Senegal — Senegal is one of the poorest countries in the world and its GDP is only marginally higher than Haiti's, but that hasn't stopped the government from going ahead with a plan to offer a new home to 163 victims of Haiti's catastrophic earthquake who arrived on a chartered jet Wednesday.
The young men and women stepped off the plane to a raucous welcome, including dancers that pounded the pavement in costumes made of cowrie shells and traditional praise singers who shouted accolades into megaphones. Senegalese students waited by the dozens holding up signs that said: "Welcome to the home of your ancestors."
The 163 students are the first batch of arrivals from Haiti in a grand scheme that began when President Abdoulaye Wade saw images of the devastated Caribbean nation following the January quake.
He was moved to help, arguing that Haitians are the sons and daughters of Africa because their ancestors were taken from the continent as slaves. French is the main language of Senegal, while Haitians speak French-derived Creole.
He initially offered free land to the quake victims, and the attempt to help them has become one of the main planks of Wade's larger goal of creating a global African community, which includes a proposal to unite the continent into a single country.
He was criticized at home when he went so far as to say that he would be willing to hand over a region of Senegal if a large number of Haitians were to agree to relocate here. The project has since been scaled back and the students will receive free housing — not land. They will also be offered scholarships in a nation where the campus of Senegal's largest university is frequently paralyzed by strikes because of the late payment of scholarships.
The students walked out of the airport wearing baseball caps and T-shirts that said: "Thank You President Abdoulaye Wade." 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 students said they felt overwhelmed by the welcome. Peterson Paul, a 22-year-old sociology undergrad from the destroyed Delmas 19 neighborhood of Port-au-Prince said he lost his house in the Jan. 12 quake and was living under a tarpaulin when he learned of Wade's offer. He filled in an application and went through two rounds of interviews before being selected for the trip.
"It's true that Senegal is not that much better off than Haiti," he said. "But our educational system was rocked by the earthquake. It's in a precarious state. I think it will be better for me here ... and I had no idea that they would do all of this for us."
Masses of people crowded on the tiered staircase leading to the 160-foot (50-meter)-high bronze statue. They banged djembe drums and clapped when the students arrived. Their welcome was broadcast to seven neighboring African nations, and besides Wade, the president of the West African nation of Guinea-Bissau was there to greet them, as was the prime minister of Niger.
The mammoth statue depicting a man, woman and family rising out of the ground was another one of Wade's pan-African projects: It cost $27 million and was billed as the world's largest statue. It is supposed to symbolize Africa's renaissance.
Like the relocation of the Haitians, it got mixed reviews locally and it has become more a symbol of wasteful government spending.
"This is a historic day," said airport security guard Abdou Salam, who leaned against the peeling blue wall of the airport's VIP room in the hours before the chartered jet landed. "But it's a little weird. We're chartering a plane and giving them free scholarships, and yet we know that our own students can sometimes go six months without seeing their payments."
Last year, students angry at not receiving their scholarships seized municipal buses as they entered the campus of Cheikh Anta Diop University in downtown Dakar. They blocked roads and were beaten back by police. The university's dorms are so overcrowded that rooms made for two often house four or more, forcing students to sleep in spoons on twin-sized beds.
Others say that Senegal's poverty — where nearly half the working age population is out of work and where even those that do have jobs bring home around $130 a month — is in fact the reason it should be helping Haiti.
"We are giving the rest of the world a lesson in humanity. Senegal has shown that it's in the hearts of the poor that you can find the gift of generosity," said historian Iba Der Thiam, currently vice president of the National Assembly. "A country that is neither rich nor developed has agreed to share the little it has with its brothers."