RJ & Aliyah Mahdi left the United States to build a vision in Dakar Senegal. This young couple are the creators of Made In Africa, an intentional effort to help promote African business and foster the buying power of the Diaspora. In this interview, Aliyah Mahdi shares a bit of their life in the West African nation.
Let’s start at the beginning. Did you grow up travelling or living abroad?
I had personally never lived abroad. Our move to Senegal was my first international experience, and it was life changing for all of us. My husband RJ lived in Senegal briefly as a teenager, because he studied there for one year.
Especially with recent events and Ghana’s successful Return to Africa campaign, we find a number of people are interested in living in Africa. What brought you to Senegal?
My husband, RJ, was already familiar with the community in Senegal because his mother Sheree (may she rest in peace and may Allah be pleased with her) sent him when he was a teenager to study the Quran. So we had a strong support system when we decided to make the move.
What was your strategy? How long did it take to accomplish?
We planned our move to Africa about two years in advance. One year before my son was born and we made it one year after he was born. We saved, we were disciplined in our spending, we cut out unnecessary and expensive bills. We didn’t know exactly what Africa had to offer us on the other side, but we made a firm intention to go and find a way to help bring the diaspora back home.
Senegal is a francophone country and you are originally from the US. Did you already speak French or Wolof ?
I did not speak French or Wolof upon arrival. It is something I had to learn along the way and I am still learning. My husband learned some Wolof from his first trip to Senegal and has since built upon that. He speaks it fluently.
You founded the Made in Africa Project. What is the mission?
The Made in Africa Project was designed to connect the diaspora to the continent by helping them shop, visit, invest and relocate to the continent. We offer services in each of these sectors. We host events like Africa Day, which will be held May 25th-31st in Dakar, and we have secured land for the city of Alkebulan. All of which help bring the diaspora home.
Let’s be honest, it can sometimes be challenging for those from a Western background to relocate to a sub-Saharan community. Can you share some of the benefits and challenges you’ve faced since you’ve been in Dakar?
Well the sub-saharan region of Africa is considered one of the fastest growing urbanized regions in the world. The transition from America to Dakar is different, but not impossible, and not a huge culture shock either. Americans will find many of the same amenities here that they have back in the States. The biggest challenge is getting over the language barrier, but technology has made that much easier.
There are many benefits from living here. You will notice a more wholesome, holistic lifestyle, better food, hospitality and a strong sense of community and everyone working together to support each other.
What was your families’ reaction to your decision to move to Senegal?
They were somewhat surprised, but not really because we have always been on the move and out of the box thinkers. They’ve been curious about Africa ever since we made the move, and why we have decided to stay.
You are also raising young children abroad. What has that been like, especially in a place that is different from where you grew up?
Raising children here has been one of the greatest blessings. They are exposed to a wholesome environment. They have witnessed the ‘it takes a village’ mentality, and it has been very beneficial to their social development.
For the first timers, what’s an experience they should have when they are visiting Senegal?
I think everyone should take advantage of visiting the Renaissance Monument and Goree Island. Both symbolic places of our past and moving into the future. I think one of the best cultural experiences is communal eating. Eating from one bowl with your hand, we have built a lot of relationships from just joining together in meals. There are some Senegalese who say you can never really trust a person until you eat from the same bowl, then you are like family.