DAKAR, SENEGAL — The sheep was stolen on the eve of Eid al-Adha, the Muslim fête celebrated by the slaughtering of livestock. In Dakar, Senegal, a dizzyingly dense city with a metro area population of 4 million – plus more Senegalese coming in for the holiday with their own sheep in tow – finding the thieves would be nearly impossible.
Enter Moustapha Sané, who leads a team of Senegal’s best non-detective detectives.
The stolen sheep would eventually join the ranks of countless wallets, IDs and even long-lost family members as beneficiaries of Sané’s Facebook page, Trouvés ou Perdus. (That’s French for “Found or Lost.”)
With members numbering in the hundreds of thousands, the page and an accompanying Facebook group of the same name operate like a lost and found but for an entire city – and beyond. Posts have been known to resonate across the country and sometimes across West Africa.
“There are a lot – a lot – of sheep that are found via the page,” says Sané, an accountant. He created the page in 2018 and now runs it with a team of admins on a volunteer basis.
The post noting the missing Eid sheep was accompanied with a witty message from the owner stating, “Women, if your husband brings you this sheep, know that he stole it.” Laughing reactions rolled in, but so did likes and shares. Within hours, someone spotted the sheep and alerted the owner, who arrived with the police and retrieved the stolen animal.
But don’t a lot of sheep look … alike? “There are spots. When you look at the spots — there are black spots, brown spots, et cetera,” Sané says matter-of- factly. “It’s easy to recognize.”
It all began with a lost wallet
A sheep is one thing. A wallet is another. Anyone who’s lost a wallet in a big city like Dakar might be resigned to never finding it again. In fact, that’s what happened to Sané once, before the page existed.
To someone searching for such a small and valuable possession, the city might seem to just swallow it up. It is a pretty overwhelming metropolis. Motorcycles zip past taxis stalled in crowded traffic. Horse carts and cattle compete for road space with an intricate system of city buses and their informal car rapide counterparts.
After failing to find his wallet, Sané created Trouvés ou Perdus. Since then, it’s taken off, becoming a form of Senegalese teranga, or hospitality, on steroids: Descriptions of lost items are posted on Facebook – either on the Trouvés ou Perdus page, which boasts more than 130,000 likes, or the group, with about 60,000 members.
“It’s the members” who are spurring the growth of the page – and its success – Sané says. “It’s the members who say, for example, ‘I say to my friend, I lost my son. And my friend says, automatically, go to the Facebook page.'”
Then the comments, likes, prayers, and shares roll in.
And there’s an impressive reach. The number of eyeballs who see a post can reach into the millions in this country with a population of about 17 million.
‘We’re asked to help our neighbors’
It’s not just sheer numbers that lead to lost things being found. Users of the page say that there are also cultural reasons it succeeds so well.
“In Senegal, there’s a certain spirit of solidarity,” says Mamadou Dia. Dia started volunteering as an admin after the page helped locate his stolen car. “Your reflex is to help.”
In his case, someone saw the car, matched the license plate to the post and called him.
“In our religion, we’re asked to help our neighbors,” says Abdourahmane Deme, another admin, who, like most of the country, is Muslim.
Baye Omar Niasse, whose brother found a locked smartphone in the back of his taxi last month, posted a photo of the phone on the Trouvés ou Perdus page because “I’ve lost my phone before,” he says.
“I have important things in my phone,” and surely so does whoever owns this one, he adds. He’s still waiting for the owner to find him.
Then there’s the story of the lost-and-found horse.
When Bassirou Ndao’s horse ran off, he didn’t know what to do. The horse was an essential part of his livelihood as a farmer, pulling plows and transporting goods. A replacement would be expensive, between 350,000 and 500,000 CFA francs — $600 to $900. The fields on his bean and millet farm in Ndawene Ale, north of Dakar, barren from the recent harvest, stretched blankly out before him.
Days went by with no news.
“That horse is our everything,” says Ndao. “I was so, so scared, oh God.”
A friend gave a picture of the horse — and Ndao’s contact information — to Sané.
Three days later, someone idly scrolling their phone had come across the post of the horse – and recognized it as one they spotted in their village about 20 miles away from Ndao’s home.
“It was beautiful,” Ndao says of the cooperation the page engenders among total strangers. But beyond the beauty of the moment, there were serious financial implications. “I couldn’t have bought another one,” he says. “It’s too expensive.”
Missing children, migrants, family members
Amid the posts about animals — and even in one case, a pigeon (still at-large, Sané says) — and the quotidian wallets and phones, there are more serious cases: runaway children, and families trying to reach homeless relatives or those who have run off during a mental health crisis.
Others seek information about people who have made journeys to Europe as migrants or long-lost family members who haven’t been seen in decades.
The page’s success in finding missing people has led to collaborations with the authorities. “Most of the cases we send to the page end up working out,” said Charlotte Sarr, a teacher who works with a social services agency that takes in lost and missing kids. Young children, Sarr says, might know what city they live in, but don’t always know their mother and father’s first names, their phone number, their exact neighborhood or how to find their house. Posts to the Facebook page with what information they do have has led to reunions, she says.
Public health groups also turn to Trouvés ou Perdus to share vital information about disasters. In August, the Mauritanian Red Cross got in contact to inform its members about the individuals on a capsized boat carrying Senegalese, Malian, Guinean and Ivorian migrants to Morocco en route to Europe.
There were survivors, among them two of the 12 Senegalese on board. Their names were posted as was the notice that the 10 deceased were unable to be identified – their papers either not being on them or lost to the sea. They were buried in Mauritania.
Searching for a dad she hadn’t seen in 23 years
Even when a case is not solved, valuable information can be uncovered.
Aissatou Traoré never knew her dad growing up. When she was three months old, her father and mother split. Her father returned to his native Mali, where he had another wife and family. That was the last time she saw him.
“When we’re children, we don’t understand. Sometimes, when you see people surrounded by two parents, you ask yourself, why aren’t they both here?” she says. Nearly 23 years later, she was still upset.
Traoré yearned both to know her father and also her extended family on his side, whom she had never met. Now a parent herself, she also wanted her son to know her father and his family.
On a Friday in early August, Traoré posted on Trouvés ou Perdus, including a photo of herself and the few personal details she knew about her father. She went to bed, thinking it wouldn’t work.
The next day she had a lead from someone in Bakel, a city in eastern Senegal near the Malian border. Her father, she learned, had lived there after leaving Dakar.
Eventually she found out that her dad had died in 2018 — but the chain of contacts connecting her to her paternal family had already started.
“I met four members of my family — two brothers and two sisters,” Traoré says. “The first time, it was so moving.” They had been living less than 2 miles away, in a Dakar neighborhood not far from her own. Now they stay in contact by phone, which is how she’s connected with other family members in Mali.
Not all the posts have happy endings. Many wallets, sheep, and people are never found. But for those who have seen Trouvés ou Perdus work, it’s magical.
“I didn’t believe” the post would work, says Traoré. “I had the chance to meet my paternal brothers and sisters. It was everything I wanted.”
Nick Roll is a freelance journalist based in Dakar.