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Anxiety in Senegal after its ‘best student’ is lacking in Paris

PARIS – When Diary Sow was crowned Senegal’s best student, after finishing first in national high school competitions in 2018 and 2019, much of the country fell in love with the young woman, a brilliant student with a modest background with exemplary work ethic who excelled in for science and literature.

Mrs Sow was awarded a Merit Scholarship by Senegalese authorities, enrolled in one of France’s most prestigious schools in Paris and even published her own novel. Pleasure in Senegal saw her as destined for greatness.

So when Mrs Sow, now 20, was reported missing this month, there was an outflow of concern in Senegal and France, where prosecutors have launched an investigation. The Senegalese diaspora in France has also swung into action in hopes of finding her.

“She symbolizes hope,” said Fatou Bintou Sanoho, a board member of the Federation of Senegalese Students and Trainees in France.

“For a growing country, schooling for young girls is very important,” Mrs Sanoho said, adding that Mrs Sow was a standard bearer for all Senegalese girls. “She was perfectly suited for that role.”

Mrs Sow studied at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in the Latin Quarter of Paris in a strenuous curriculum that prepares students for highly competitive exams that open the doors to France’s best business, nature and engineering schools. Last year, there were almost 12,000 Senegalese students in France.

She seemed to be thriving. Emile Bakhoum, an official handling Senegalese student services in France, said Ms Sow had never reported any specific issues with her department.

In August, Ms Sow shared a photo on Facebook of a book by President Macky Sall of Senegal – autographed for her by the president himself. “To Diary Sow, a rising star who is the pride of an entire nation,” wrote Mr. Sall.

But on January 4, after the end of the winter break, Mrs. Sow did not fail to come to class. Several days later, she was still missing.

On Thursday, her school warned Senegalese authorities in Paris, who filed a report with police. Mrs Sow was last reported at a student residence in the 13th arrondissement of Paris, where, according to the Senegalese consulate, she had a small studio apartment, although it was not clear if anyone had actually seen her or if her badge had been used there.

Senegalese authorities said there was no evidence of a criminal act and that no hospitals had reported the admission of Ms Sow, but they also warned that the investigation had just begun.

Mrs Sow is originally from Mbour, a town about 56 km south of Dakar, where a steady stream of local and foreign journalists visited her family on Tuesday in a quiet and tense atmosphere.

Family members rejected most of the press talks, but an uncle who refused to give his name to preserve the family’s privacy said they had last spoken to Mrs Sow on 2 January.

Ms. Sow was admitted to a selective high school in Diourbel in western Senegal, and she won a science award in 2017. In 2018 and 2019, she was named Senegal’s “best student” after finishing first in the Concours général, a nationwide competition with scientific and literary challenges.

A picture of Mrs Sow posing with her novel is now prominent on the Senegalese consulate’s website. “The diary is thin, 172 cm high and has dark brown eyes,” reads the announcement. “Help us find her by sharing. We trust you! ”

Over the weekend, about 200 members of the Senegalese community handed out leaflets on the streets of Paris, shouting “Together, let’s go and look for Diary Sow!” Other posted posters with her picture on the walls of her school.

A campaign to spread the word about Mrs Sows’ disappearance is also underway on social media with the hashtag #RetrouvonsDiarySow or Let’s Find Diary Sow.

In Senegal, the disappearance has captured the country’s attention and created newspaper headlines. Mandione Laye Kebe, a photographer who runs a highly-followed Twitter account in Senegal, was one of many who have mobilized online with the hashtag #RetrouvonsDiarySow.

“I can not imagine the grief of her family,” he said. “They live very far away. They have no idea what’s going on and they do not know what to do or who to talk to. It is very difficult. ”

Aida Alami contributed reporting from Dakar, Senegal and Mady Camara from Mbour, Senegal.

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