Volunteering co-ordinator. Social entrepreneur. Travel guide. Tour organiser. Polyglot. Mentor. Motivator. Fixer. Personal trainer. Muscle man. Advertising model. Footballer. Marathon runner. Yacine “Yass” Diallo does it all, and does it all extremely well.
Before our trip, I had no idea who he was. My friend Justin was going on the tour, and that was good enough for me. Now I know Yass isn’t just a genius tour organiser, entertaining travel companion and effective leader who effortlessly united and inspired a disparate group of individuals. He also looks amazing in a pair of speedos.
Any man who came from nothing and has achieved what he has might well be justified in enjoying the fruits of his success, but for Yass, achievement has never been an end in itself: instead, it’s a means to help others. With the money he has earned in his career as a personal trainer, he has built the SenExperience+ Centre in his native town of Kolda, in one of the most impoverished parts of Senegal. There, he has installed a classroom kitted out with computers, engages volunteers, helps out with advice, encouragement and practical support wherever needed. For the kid who dreams of a footballing career. For the girl with Down’s Syndrome who wants nothing more than to go to school. For the paralysed woman who needs a wheelchair. For the aspiring rapper dreaming of creating his own music videos. For the young girls who want a perspective other than getting married at a young age to a man not of their choosing. For a whole community so far from the action that it can sometimes feel forgotten by the outside world.
The sheer range of his projects is beath-taking. Yass helps out on so many fronts that he’s really a living, breathing one-man NGO.
Where does his motivation come from? How did it all get started? And why this sense of mission, this drive to make a difference, and to inspire others to do the same?
“Even as a little child, I instinctively knew and believed in the value of education”, explains Yass as we meet over coffee in a private members’ bar overlooking Piccadilly Circus. Gazing at Big Ben through the picture window, our comfortable surroundings are a far cry from the straitened circumstances of Senegal.
“My father opted for polygamy and had seven children with my mother alone”, he says, tucking into not one, but two blueberry muffins which he washes down with a hot chocolate, surely breaking several fitness rules all at once.
“I was her only boy, so school wasn’t really on the cards. Instead, mum wanted me to help her make ends meet. But I was always desperate to go to school. I hung around the school gates and made friends with the caretaker. One day, this caretaker mentioned my case to Jean-Simon, a Frenchman who lived and worked nearby on a secondment. I have no idea why, but Jean-Simon resolved to help me. He went and talked to my mum, persuading her to let me get an education. He also paid for my school books and materials. It wasn’t much, only £50 a year, but such a sum would have been completely out of reach for my family. Even at this young age, I knew this was a precious opportunity, so I was determined not to let it go to waste. ”
If Yass feels any sorrow or anger at reliving his early, impoverished days, he doesn’t show it. Instead, he tells a tale of goodwill rewarded and a life changed beyond recognition. Yass achieved excellent grades and soon moved to a larger city to attend secondary school, living with Jean-Simon and his family.
“I believe every child deserves a chance regardless of the colour of their skin, their background, nationality or religion. That’s what Jean-Simon showed me, and for that he will be always my biggest inspiration.”
Having passed this stage with flying colours, Jean-Simon arranged for him to study Travel and Tourism in France. This in turn enabled him to land a job as Country Director of an NGO at the tender age of 23. From that day on, he never looked back.
“I’ll never forget what this man and his family did for me when they decided to take me under their wings. And I resolved that from now on, I would dedicate myself to transforming lives in the same way. This is what drives me, and this is what drives SenExperience+.”
Beautiful though it is, the story of the young boy from Kolda and the Frenchman in Africa has a tragic ending. I ask Yass what became of this extraordinary man.
“Jean-Simon moved back to France in 1999, and a few years later I came to the UK”, Yass continues. We’ve long since finished our drinks but none of us seem to want to interrupt the flow of our conversation with a trip to the bar. Instead, Yass continues to tell his story.
“Ever since we parted ways in Africa, I’ve never had the chance to see Jean-Simon and his family again. So this September, I decided to make a surprise visit to Carpentras, in southern France. But when I got there, I was met with bad news. Jean-Simon’s house was deserted. The neighbours told me that he had been living in a private retirement for the last three years, seriously ill with cancer – so much so that he had lost one ear. I immediately went on to the residential home, but when I got there, I was told that Jean-Simon gave strict orders that nobody be allowed to see him apart two family members. He wanted his friends to keep their good memories of him instead of being stressed by seeing him in such a bad condition.”
“I returned to the UK very sad and disappointed, but felt relieved. I always felt I owed him that visit, whether he was dead or alive. And as a tribute to my friend, I will run a half-marathon. I want to dedicate my run to him, and help beat cancer. If he or any of his friends read this, I would like to say and continue to say – thank you, Jean-Simon.”
By now, we’ve talked for hours. The autumnal sky has darkened and in the street below the traffic has changed into a solemn cavalcade of lights, a crawling band of white and red. The lunch-time calm that allowed our conversation to expand has given way to the animated chatter of cinema-goers clutching glasses of white wine.
Life may be unjust, I think as Yass and I descend once more into the West End’s frenzy. The world may be grotesquely unequal and often cruel. But as long as kindness lives, it shines with beauty.