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Story By John Murray
Waly Thiam is a joyous man who has shared his infectious smile and musical talent at The Gathering in downtown Waterbury for much of the past decade. Thiam is from Joal, Senegal, a small fishing village, and grew up in a family of traditional storytellers.
Before writing, and before colonization, the secrets of Africa were passed down through the generations by storytellers, and many of the stories were communicated through the rhythmic beat of drums.
“Before cellphones we could communicate through drums when somebody in a village died, or when it was time to eat,” Thiam said. “We needed no words, just drums.”
Waly Thiam sat for an interview this Autumn in Library Park, in downtown Waterbury.
Thiam said his grandfather was an historian, a storyteller, and his whole family played drums. “All my family played on the drums as part of the storytelling,” Thiam said. “We play to tell the story of what has happened.”
Senegal has a population of 16.4 million people in West Africa.
Thiam was raised in a fishing village along the Atlantic Ocean and his life was transformed when a group of young Connecticut kids came to his village on the west coast of Africa to help with a fishing project.
“They were Black and White and I asked them to come to my house to eat and talk,” Thiam said. “I ended up driving them around and became friends with them.”
The group offered to pay Thiam for his time, but her refused. “We don’t have a lot of money in Africa,” Thiam said, “but we share. It’s really beautiful and that is the power of Africa.”
Growing up in Senegal was difficult for Thiam. His father left after his parents divorced, and then his mother re-married and she left him to be raised by his grandmother. Thiam said he often went to school on an empty stomach, and when school was dismissed, he would go into the village to try and catch a fish he could sell for 25 cents.
“I know what it means not to have any money to eat,” Thiam said. “Now I like to share.”
Waly Thiam plays a djembe drum during The Gathering in downtown Waterbury.
After the group returned to Connecticut, they encouraged Thiam to come to the United States. He applied for a visa and was turned down two times before someone reeled in U.S. Senator Chris Murphy for a letter of support, and Thiam got his visa.
Like millions of people before him, Thiam had dreamed of coming to the United States because of what he saw on television. “We believed the United States was the best,” he said. “Our dream is the United States, but I never believed I would come here. I’m a French speaker and did not speak English.”
His powerful connection with the Connecticut group changed everything. He helped them, and other groups that followed, and they returned the favor and helped Thiam come to Connecticut.
He arrived in November 2008 as the United States was electing its first Black president, and he said back in Senegal he never thought much about race relations. “Whites and Blacks get along well in Senegal,” Thiam said. “People here talk more about race than we did in Senegal.”
Thiam lives in Bridgeport and works as a cashier at The Pantry on Post Road in Fairfield. He said he is very popular at The Pantry – some customers have told him they come in the morning just to see his smile – and he gets positive feedback from supervisors who tell him he has excellent customer service.
“I smile at everybody and take care of people,” Thiam said. “In America that is called customer serve. In Africa that is the culture and normal.”
Thiam travels back to Senegal once or twice a year and sends a container of used clothes that he buys at the Goodwill to sell back in his village. During one trip back he heard about young women dying during childbirth. His village did not have a maternity ward, so Thiam started a GoFundMe campaign and with the help of the Fairfield community he raised more than $20,000 to build the facility. Not trusting politicians with the money, Thiam flew back home to oversee the project.
Thiam raised $20,000 to build a maternity ward back in Joal, Senegal.
“Everyone was very happy, and they started telling me to come home and run for mayor,” Thiam said. “I like to help.”
Thiam helps the local football team in Joal with equipment.
And Thiam digs into his own pocket to outfit the local football (soccer) team in Senegal with balls and equipment, and back here in Connecticut he loves to go into schools or attend festivals to play drums.
“I love to come to The Gathering and play drums,” Thiam said. “There are so many people from all around the world that come together in peace. It is a beautiful experience.”
And Thiam has made friends at The Gathering. “The festival connected me with brothers and sisters from Africa I had never met,” Thiam said, “and we are now friends because of The Gathering. There is too much politics in the world right now, everyone fighting each other with words, but at the festival everyone gets along.”
Thiam said he is looking forward to performing at the next festival, hopefully, in September 2022. The Gathering skipped two years due to the COVID pandemic, but organizers are beginning to plan again for next Autumn.
Thiam and Nana Nana Ya Assimbly (right) from Ghana are fixtures at The Gathering.
And if everything works out, Waly Thiam will be back in downtown Waterbury playing drums, and continuing the storytelling tradition of his family.