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Senegalese Women Have High Hopes for New First Lady

This handout photo shows Senegal's new president Macky Sall (R) greeting his wife Mareme Faye Sall, after the swearing-in ceremony Dakar on April 2, 2012.

Senegal's new president, Macky Sall, has promised to usher in a "new era" for the West African country. Yet, it is his wife who has sparked particular excitement among Senegalese women, who say for the first time one of their own is taking up residence in the presidential palace as the nation's first lady.

It is Sunday, the day before the inauguration of Macky Sall as Senegal's fourth president. The international community has praised Senegal for carrying out a peaceful, democratic handover of power, the likes of which are rare in Africa.

Yet, here at the "Lady's Look" salon in Dakar's Grand Yoff neighborhood, talk centers on his wife, Marieme Faye Sall, the country's first born-and-bred Senegalese first lady.

Hairstylist Josie Diaw says it is about time they have a black woman in the presidential palace. She jokes that Sall will burn thiouraye, the ubiquitous Senegalese incense, in the palace and bring an African flavor to the state residence.

The women say Sall is a "real Senegalese lady."

Awa Diallo Diop says Sall has a simple and natural style. She says from what she has seen in the media, Sall appears discrete and modest. She says that is important in their culture. She says Sall was born and raised in Senegal and so they know she has had many of the same experiences they have.

Presidents Leopold Senghor and Abdoulaye Wade both had French wives. The wife of president Abdou Diouf was of mixed Senegalese/Lebanese descent. All three women were Christians, while Senegal is more than 90 percent Muslim.

In the days following President Sall's victory, Senegalese state TV ran a special profile of Sall at home. The camera showed her decked out in traditional boubous, as she served a tray of drinks, straightened up her living room and prayed. Mrs. Sall, the special said, is a devout Muslim.

Housewife and mother of three, Sall said she has one passion: her husband and her children.

It is a message that has resonated with Senegalese women.

Housewife Awa Gueye says for the first time they can see themselves in the first lady. She says she hopes Sall sets a good example as Senegalese women will be watching closely to see how she conducts herself in her new role.

Sall grew up outside Diourbel, a town 70 miles east of Dakar. She met her future husband while still in high school and left her university studies when she had her first child.

Salon manager Khady Diakhate says the first lady understands the difficulties that Senegalese women face. She says she hopes that Sall will try to help women, especially those who in rural areas.

Trumpets greeted a smiling Sall Monday as she accompanied her newly inaugurated husband into the presidential palace.

Sall is known for not meddling in her husband's political career. However, her predecessors have typically taken on charitable causes. Many Senegalese women say they expect her to be a powerful advocate on their behalf.