DAKAR, SENEGAL – The sheep was stolen on the eve of Eid al-Adha, the Muslim holiday celebrated by the slaughter of cattle. In Dakar, Senegal, a dizzyingly dense city with a metropolitan population of 4 million – plus other Senegalese coming for the holidays with their own sheep in tow – finding the thieves would be next to impossible.
Enter Moustapha Sané, who leads a team of Senegal’s top non-detectives.
The stolen sheep would eventually join the ranks of countless wallets, ID cards and even family members long lost as beneficiaries of Sané’s Facebook page, Found or Lost. (This is French for “Found or Lost”.)
With hundreds of thousands of members, the page and an accompanying Facebook group of the same name functions like a lost item but for an entire city – and beyond. The messages have been known to resonate across the country and sometimes across West Africa.
“There are a lot – a lot – of sheep that you find through the page,” explains Sané, an accountant. He created the page in 2018 and now manages it with a team of administrators on a volunteer basis.
The message noting the disappearance of the Eid sheep was accompanied by a witty message from the owner stating: “Women, if your husband brings you this sheep, know that he stole it.” The laughter reactions have arrived, but so have the likes and shares. Within hours, someone spotted the sheep and alerted the owner, who arrived with the police and collected the stolen animal.
But don’t many sheep look alike? “There are spots. When you look at the spots – there are black spots, brown spots, and so on,” Sané said neutrally. “It’s easy to recognize.”
It all started with a lost wallet
A sheep is one thing. A wallet is another. Anyone who has lost a wallet in a big city like Dakar can resign themselves to never finding it again. In fact, this is what happened to Sané once, before the page existed.
For someone looking for such a small and precious possession, the city can seem to swallow them up. It’s a pretty overwhelming metropolis. Motorcycles pass by stranded taxis in crowded traffic. Horse-drawn carts and cattle compete for road space with a complex system of city buses and their fast car counterparts.
Not having found his wallet, Sané creates Found or Lost. It has since taken off, becoming a form of Senegalese teranga, or hospitality, on steroids: descriptions of lost items are posted on Facebook – either on the Found or Lost page, which has over 130,000 likes, or on the group, which has around 60,000 members.
“It’s the members” who drive the growth of the page – and its success – says Sané. “These are the members who say, for example, ‘I tell my friend, I lost my son. And my friend says, automatically, go to the Facebook page.'”
Then the comments, likes, prayers and shares arrive.
And there is an impressive reach. The number of eyeballs that see a message can reach millions in this country of about 17 million people.
“We are asked to help our neighbors”
It’s not just the numbers that lead to the recovery of lost items. Users of the page say there are also cultural reasons why it is doing so well.
“In Senegal, there is a certain spirit of solidarity,” says Mamadou Dia. Dia began volunteering as an administrator after the page helped locate her stolen car. “Your instinct is to help.”
In his case, someone saw the car, matched the license plate to the pole, and called him.
“In our religion, we are asked to help our neighbors,” said Abdourahmane Deme, another administrator, 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 Found or Lost page because “I already lost my phone,” he said.
“I have some important things in my phone,” and certainly whoever has this one, he adds. He’s still waiting for the owner to find him.
Then there is the story of the lost and found horse.
When Bassirou Ndao’s horse ran away, he didn’t know what to do. The horse was an essential part of his farming life, pulling plows and transporting goods. A replacement would be expensive, between 350,000 and 500,000 CFA francs – 600 to 900 dollars. The fields of his bean and millet farm in Ndawene Ale, north of Dakar, barren from the recent harvest, stretched out in front of him.
The days passed without news.
“This horse is our everything,” says Ndao. “I was so, so scared, oh my God.”
A friend gave a photo of the horse – and Ndao’s contact details – to Sané.
Three days later, someone scrolling through their phone without doing anything had fallen on the horse’s pole – and recognized it as the one they had spotted in their village about 20 miles from Ndao’s house.
“It was wonderful,” Ndao said of the page’s cooperation among complete 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
Among articles on animals – and even in one case, a pigeon (still at large, Sané says) – and daily wallets and phones, there are more serious cases: children on the run and families trying to reach homeless parents or those who ran away during a mental health crisis.
Others seek information on people who have traveled to Europe as migrants or family members lost to follow-up for decades.
The success of the missing persons page has led to collaborations with the authorities. “Most of the cases we send to the page end up working,” said Charlotte Sarr, a teacher who works with a social service agency that supports lost and missing children. Young children, Sarr says, may know what city they live in, but may not always know their mother’s and father’s first names, phone number, exact neighborhood, or how to find their home. The posts on the Facebook page with the information they have led to meetings, she says.
Public health groups are also turning to Found or Lost share vital information about disasters. In August, the Mauritanian Red Cross contacted its members to brief its members on individuals on a capsized boat carrying Senegalese, Malian, Guinean and Ivorian migrants to Morocco en route to Europe.
There were survivors, including two of the 12 Senegalese on board. Their names were displayed, as was the notice that the 10 deceased could not be identified – their papers not being with them or lost in the sea. They were buried in Mauritania.
Looking for a father she hasn’t seen for 23 years
Even when a case is not resolved, valuable information can be discovered.
Aissatou Traoré never knew her father while growing up. When she was three months old, her father and mother separated. His father returned to his native Mali, where he had another wife and another family. It was the last time she had seen him.
“When we are children, we do not understand. Sometimes, when we see people surrounded by two parents, we wonder why they are not both there?” she says. Almost 23 years later, she was still upset.
Traore longed both to know his father and also his extended family by his side, whom she had never met. Now a mother herself, she also wanted her son to know his father and his family.
One Friday in early August, Traore posted on Found or Lost, 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 trail from someone in Bakel, a town in eastern Senegal near the border with Mali. Her father, she learned, had lived there after leaving Dakar.
Eventually, she found out her father had passed away in 2018 – but the chain of contacts connecting her to her father’s family had already started.
“I met four members of my family: two brothers and two sisters,” says Traoré. “The first time, it was so emotional.” They lived less than 3 km away, in a district of Dakar not far from his. Now they keep in touch by phone, which is how she is in contact with other family members in Mali.
Not all messages have a happy ending. Many wallets, sheep and people are never found. But for those who have seen Found or Lost work, it’s magic.
“I didn’t believe” the station would work, says Traore. “I was fortunate enough to meet my paternal siblings. It was all I wanted.
Nick Roll is a freelance journalist based in Dakar.