By Danielle Paquette
Dakar, Senegal – Before she vanished in France eight days ago, the young woman had become an academic legend in Senegal.
Her name – Diary Sow – is practically synonymous with achievement in this West African nation, which crunches grades every year and names a top student. Sow won that honour in 2018 and 2019.
She landed a spot at a prestigious preparatory school in Paris and, her peers say, continued to ace classes. She published a novel last year at age 19.
“To Diary,” the Senegalese president wrote to her in an August note, “a rising star who is the pride of the people.”
Then her school, the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, alerted the Senegalese Embassy on Jan. 4 that Sow had stopped showing up.
Nobody has heard from the student who was known to never miss a lecture – neither friends nor family.
Paris police have shared no leads as they scour the city. The prosecutor’s office called the disappearance “worrying.”
“This has devastated everyone,” said a former teacher, Mame Coumba Diouf Sagna, who proofread early drafts of Sow’s book. “She has so many dreams to realize. She has so much hope to give.”
Senegalese President Macky Sall sent investigators to help, while Sow’s classmates embarked on their own search. By Tuesday, a team of eight had called 12 hospitals each.
“We’re doing everything we can,” said Moussa Gueye, a 21-year-old engineering student from a suburb of Dakar, the Senegalese capital. “We’re out here printing and distributing fliers.”
Sow is reserved yet kind, he said – not boastful, though she has the right to be.
“She gets the best grades in everything,” he said.
Hundreds of Senegalese expatriates in Paris and other French cities took to the streets this week, passing out pamphlets featuring Sow’s face and a number to call. Video shows them chanting, “Ensemble allons chercher Diary Sow.” Together let’s find Diary Sow.
“She is famous for being brilliant,” said Souleymane Gueye, vice president of the Federation of Senegalese Students and Trainees of France. “She stands out. Those academic awards usually go to boys.”
In Senegal, speculation blazes across social media: Was she taken? Did she run away?
“What if Diary Sow doesn’t want to be found?” someone tweeted. “Idk I’ve been thinking about it all night, the pressure of being a good student is hard for anyone.”
In September, the month she turned 20, Sow visited Dakar to promote her novel, “Under the Face of an Angel.”
It’s about a complicated girl, she told a bookstore audience. The character is guarded and keeps to herself. Her love interest sees only “roses,” she said – not the thorns.
“The names are fictitious,” she said, “but I use words to express myself to the world.”
Abdoulaye Diallo, the director of Harmattan Senegal, a publishing house in Dakar, teared up as he recalled the day Sow’s uncle urged him to read her manuscript.
“It took us a year to publish it – with two blind proof-readings,” he said. “With the quality of the text, one couldn’t imagine that the author was a woman of her age. It must be recognized that this is a higher mind.”
Sow wanted to explore people’s inner worlds, she said in an August television appearance. The expectations and pressures – “the secret emotions,” she said.
She wants to pursue an engineering career.
“I am a scientist,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean I should be limited to science.”
Her fervour for learning was clear early on.
“She is in front of books all the time,” her mother told news crews after Sow won her first big scholastic prize. “She doesn’t want to waste a second of her life.”
Sow grew up in the fishing city of Mbour, about 60 coastal miles south from the hustle of Dakar.
She came from humble means, said Sagna, her former teacher. There were no fancy tutors.
“Just pure determination,” Sagna said. “When I called for recess, the other students would go outside and play, but Diary would just get something to eat – some pasta or rice – and sit inside with a book.”
By age 13, the star pupil was always scribbling in a notebook. At 15, she began to write the story that would turn into her first novel. Sagna corrected grammar and smoothed some phrasing, she said, but the raw talent was obvious.
Together, they polished hundreds of pages over four years. “She became like my daughter,” Sagna said.
They last talked in August, a few months after Sow’s father had died. The teacher had expected grief.
“She was just so positive,” Sagna said. “She rarely complains. No one had any idea of what was to come.”
Now Sagna weeps and prays for the young woman’s return.
“She is the inspiration of so many,” she said. “She’s the example. I don’t want my students to think, is it worth striving so hard if something like this can happen?”