Fatick, Senegal - In this remote, dusty town in southeastern Senegal, some 130km from capital Dakar, residents have high expectations of the town's most famous son, Macky Sall.
Sall might now be riding the crest of a wave of popularity, pit against President Abdoulaye Wade in a historic presidential runoff vote scheduled for Sunday, but townsfolk are hardly surprised by his success.
"I have worked under four mayors of Fatick, and without a doubt, Macky was the best," said Gorgai Ndong, a former clerk of the municipal office for 19 years.
"The first thing he did when he became mayor was to increase the salaries of his staff," said the 64-year-old, who retired in 2011. "He also developed the infrastructure in this town … and, importantly, he has the willpower.
"Mayors in Senegal do not have the sufficient resources to invest their towns but whatever he could have done as mayor, he achieved," concluded the veteran administrator.
Sall was once considered one of President Wade's closest allies. He served as Wade's prime minister between 2004 and 2007, and was director of Wade's election campaign in 2007. But after Sall was alienated in 2008 for raising questions about financial irregularities related to Wade's son, Karim, Sall started his own party - the APR-Yakaar - and started a bid for the presidency. Sall also became the mayor of Fatick (the capital of the region of the same name) in 2009, having previously holding the position between 2002 and 2008.
His long association with the town, being "a local boy", has been overwhelmingly positive, residents say.
"I have seen something in him that gives me hope," Pape Sarr.
Sarr, who is 27 years old, and runs a motorcycle taxi service, added: "He improved the roads and this has directly improved my life and my work, because I need good roads to be able to do my job.
"If he managed to do this as a mayor and prime minister, it means he will be able to do more if he became president."
Both Yacine Fall, a traditional tea seller in her late thirties, and Thiare Sarr, who manages a street mobile phone recharge booth, agree.
"I know [Sall] is going to change the fate of the country."
- Thiare Sarr, Fatick businesswoman
"I know he is going to change the fate of the country," said 28-year-old Thiare.
Dressed - like so many in the town - in a Macky Sall campaign t-shirt, she argued that Sall was the first politician to "respect himself and respect the people, and I feel the need to give back this honour and respect to him."
These sentiments from the ground mirror the results of the ballot sheet. In the first round vote, out of the 10,128 registered voters in the town, Macky Sall secured 7,574 votes. The closest contender was Aboulaye Wade, with 1,476.
But results in the small town of Fatick are largely inconsequential to the fortunes of Senegal's national political and economic destiny. The town and region is considered among the poorest in the country, and fares badly when compared with the population density and the economic prowess of Dakar, Thies, or Senegal's northern regions.
Comparing Fatick with the rest of Senegal - with its five million voters - is an exercise in futility, says Semou Diouf, secretary general of the town's APR-Yakaar Youth League.
"Those [regions] have always been areas of privilege, bigger investment, and much larger budgets than Fatick," Diouf said.
In other words, the lack of social and political capital in Fatick only makes Sall's rise to national prominence an even more remarkable feat.
Sall campaigner Semou Diouf, of the APR-Yakaar Youth League, said Wade would be 'beaten hollow' [Azad Essa/Al Jazeera]
Lack of investment
Stuck between somewhere and nowhere, known for fishing, pastoralist farming and salt mining, Fatick is an obviously poor regional capital.
Little wonder then, the town and region is mostly known for its peanuts.
The area has long been known as one of the largest nut producers, but due to a lack of investment, there is little industry to create new jobs in the town and its surroundings.
"Indeed, there is a great deal of production of groundnuts taking place here, but the lack of development means that a lot of exploitation has taken place," Ndong said.
"The lack of jobs means that people have to come to town and sell small things to make a living."
And the poverty is plain to see.
The town centre is a two street intersection, a ramble of donkey-driven carts, a foray of beggars, goats, street children and a handful of informal traders sitting under umbrellas selling discoloured wares. The occasional one-storey buildings are tattered, splashed with campaign graffiti, and the streets littered with the drying dung of passing cattle. But the town is interspersed with newly tarred roads, almost incongruous among the humble dwellings on the sides of the streets. On the outskirts, a majestic new mayor's office paints a picture of an ambitious future.
While townsfolk are convinced Sall is about to boost the town's fortunes, Bocar Dieng, a development journalist based in Fatick, tempers the optimism.
"People's expectations over Sall are driven more 'by hope' than 'what he has achieved thus far'.
"Indeed he has done some things here, not so much, but he offers a lot of hope … and Macky Sall is recognised as some one who is very courteous, with a lot of humanity, and kind," Dieng added.
"Everyone dreams of having a president born from your area and this symbolism is important for people of Fatick. Also, that he actually started to make some improvements here … allows people to have this hope."
But Ndong, the retired clerk, was adamant that Sall's efforts would amount to more than empty hopes.
"I accept that this region is dominated by farming … but if he can invest in this town and the region, by building industry that processes what is produced here, this would create jobs for young people.
"There are other practical things that the town could benefit from, like a better public transport system," Ndong adds.
Dieng said that, in many ways, Sall had an obligation to improve the area - and agreed that the area had a lot of potential.
"When Senegalese people think of Fatick, they imagine it as poor ... How can it be that this region does not have a hospital?"
- Bocar Dieng, development journalist
"When Senegalese people think of Fatick, they imagine it as poor. And it is justified. How can it be that this region does not have a hospital?" Dieng asked, rhetorically.
Meanwhile, in preparation for Sunday's runoff, Semou Diouf said that the APR-Yakaar's youth league had been hard at work, campaigning for Sall across the country:
"We have convinced a lot of people to vote for Sall in the second round - Wade will be beaten hollow."
Ami Ndiaye, a 48-year-old trader sitting on a stool on the sidewalk said that she was voting for Macky Sall because her preferred candidate, Mustapha Niasse - a former prime minister knocked out in the poll's first round - had asked his supporters to do so.
"Macky Sall has made agreements with my candidate regarding the programs of action, and so I will now vote for him," she said.
It is with a taste of some irony that people here say that Sall reminds them of the hope they once had in President Wade, a hope that has since become a distant memory.
"Of course there will be people voting for Wade … but they will be so few, you could count them on the fingers on your hand," Pepe Sarr signed off with a smile.
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