eKC feature
June 16, 2006


Lamine’s Eyes
by Rhiannon Ross

His name is Lamine.

His photo hangs in my dining room between two bookcases. In it, he rests on a white, fringed hammock pitched between two palm trees in a Senegal jungle. His Afro is close cut, his skin dark, his lips pursed, his eyes bloodshot. A newly lit cigarette dangles from his right hand as he stares off into some unknown horizon.

A National Geographic map of his homeland hangs from two thumbtacks in my upstairs hallway. Senegal is located near the top, far left, on the Western coastline of the Atlantic Ocean, like a nose on the curved fish-shaped continent of Africa.

I have never met Lamine but I feel as if I know him. We spoke once in a long distance telephone call, he in French — the language of his country, which was colonized by France — and I, of course, in English. But I could hear the smile in his voice. The only words we appeared to both recognize were “bon jour” and “Sean”— the name of my housemate and the person he was calling.

Sean Branagan, 40, is a Kansas City musician and Hallmark artist. He speaks fluent French, having lived in France for several years following college. A member of the local West African drumming band Djembé Kaan, he has twice traveled to Senegal to study authentic drumming techniques. It was upon his first visit in 2000 that he met Lamine, a friend of the family he was staying with in Dakar.

“Lamine and I became fast friends,” Branagan said. “He sent me to his half-brother in the southern region of the country where we eventually traveled together and I discovered a village with a great number of drummers and dancers.”

Back in the states, Branagan continued to correspond with Lamine via email and telephone. In 2002, he learned that his continental friend was seriously ill.

Lamine had been diagnosed with HIV, not uncommon on the AIDS-ravaged continent of Africa. According to the United Nations 2006 Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic, Sub-Saharan Africa — all African countries located south of the Sahara Desert, which includes Senegal — remains the most affected region in the world. Specifically, “two thirds of all people living with HIV are in sub-Saharan Africa where 24.5 million people were living with HIV in 2005.”

In Senegal (approx. pop. 11 million), the estimated number of adults and children living with HIV/AIDS at the end of 2003, according to the World Health Organization was 44,000. And the estimated number of deaths due to AIDS in Senegal during this same time period was 3,500.

While Lamine had access to anti-retroviral drugs that could help keep HIV from developing into full-blown AIDS, said Branagan, he could not afford the monthly $100 cost.

“There is absolutely no safety net in Senegal. Estranged from his mother, and without other family that had the means to pay for his ongoing medical cost, Lamine had resigned himself to dying. The woman who gave him AIDS died within nine months,” he said.

So for the past three years, Branagan has paid for Lamine’s monthly medication.

“For me this was not a statistic. This was someone I counted as a genuine friend who had looked out for me when I was vulnerable and traveling alone. I did not feel comfortable letting him die for the price of a nice pair of shoes.”

Upon his second return to Senegal in late 2003, Branagan admits to being stunned when he landed at the airport and spied the emaciated body of his friend.

“I think at that moment, if I’d found out that he had been conning me but was in fact healthy, I would have been happy. Sadly, that was not the case,” he said.

The two traveled together for a month, visiting Lamine’s hometown of Casamance.

“He introduced me to the drum master that I ended up studying with for a week under a mango tree. Most importantly, I learned something profound of what it means to be a human being by traveling together for the entire trip. And I learned how much I have, how much we have as privileged citizens of this planet.”

Branagan’s support of his friend did not stop there. In 2005, he helped Lamine open an Internet café called Café Solidarité in Lamine’s hometown. Here, the community can learn how to use computers and be in touch with the world.

“This allows him to be an entrepreneur and at the same time have the kind of work that he can manage in his somewhat physically reduced state. He is learning how to maintain the computers and operate much of the software that they use,” he said.

Efforts also are being made to link Café Solidarité with a Kansas City French charter school so that students here can correspond with children in Senegal, said Branagan.

But in December 2005, Lamine began losing his eyesight. The cause, doctors suspect, may be the result of tainted or out-of-date medication. Lamine needed access to First-World medicine. Branagan had already tried to bring Lamine to the U.S., without success.

“Fortunately, an old childhood friend of his, who lives in France, has volunteered to house and care for Lamine as well as put up $2,000 of the $6,000 necessary for his hospitalization and care for six months in France,” Branagan said. “I pledged to raise the other $4,000. The total will pay for hospitalization, airfare, insurance and the visa.”

Branagan composed a heartfelt letter, addressed to approximately 80 friends and family members in Kansas City and other U.S. cities, detailing Lamine’s plight and requesting urgent donations. He labeled the desktop file containing the letter “Lamine’s Eyes.”

In his letter he writes, “Four-thousand dollars seems like a lot, but if 80 people each give $50, it would be done. That’s the price of a decent meal at a restaurant. Not an extreme sacrifice I believe, but one that I ask you make in order to help maintain a level of human solidarity that has been sustained thus far. Because doing such a thing allows some hope and a sense of genuine support to be manifested where it is truly needed.”

And in the donations came: a trickle at first and on some days, handfuls. Working from home, I was often the first to retrieve them from the belly of the front porch mailbox. It was more exciting than receiving authentic sweepstake notifications. I would fan them on the kitchen butcher block so Sean could easily spot them when he arrived home.

The amount received steadily grew, with some people donating more than requested, and in two weeks, Branagan received nearly $6,000 from over 100 people. Of that amount, $5,360 has been sent to Lamine. The balance has been placed in a separate checking account to help pay for additional needs Lamine may have while in Paris.

“It is an amazing thing that we have done together, to take a stand for another human being, and bring hope and light not only to him, but to all the people that know his story,” wrote Branagan in his thank you note to contributors.

Lamine, for his part, has arranged for the computers from Café Solidarité to be on loan to his hometown elementary school while he is in France. And he has applied for his French visa.

But the bureaucratic process is a slow one. And Lamine is running out of time. Recently, he was hospitalized in Dakar, where he travels the Atlantic Ocean by ferry from Casamance to obtain his monthly medication.

“I’m so depressed,” said Branagan. “The hospital has sent Lamine home and recommended he try traditional medicine.”

Still, we have hope, hope that Lamine will arrive to France in time to receive the care he so desperately needs.

Meanwhile, I have learned a few more French words with the help of Sean who translated my sentiments to Lamine: Tu es daus mea priéres. (“You are in my prayers.”)

If you would like to learn more about Lamine, make a donation for his care or support the work of Café Solidarité, contact Sean Branagan at seanbranagan77@hotmail.com. To access the United Nations 2006 Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic, go to:

Rhiannon Ross can be contacted at rhiannonrosskc@yahoo.com.


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