**Warning: this post describes some of my volunteer work with the street children in downtown Dakar. Some parts are fairly graphic. I’m not trying to sensationalize the story, I’m just trying to make an accurate account of what I saw and experienced. This is their reality, and it would be dishonest and very unfair to these individuals to gloss over the more somber details.**
I just got back from a night “maraude” – or cruise – with employees of Samusocial Senegal, an NGO that works with street children. Their center is in Ouakam, a neighborhood near Les Almadies on the northern portion of the Cape Verde Peninsula where Dakar is located, and they welcome kids who come off of the streets. They have a few rooms and beds for those kids who prove that they’re trying to get off the street rather than just abusing the center’s resources. During the day kids can come and play foosball, do crafts, play soccer, and get a good meal. Twice a day – once during the afternoon and once at night – a center employee, a volunteer doctor, and a driver go out in a little miniature ambulance and drive around the city to specific locations where they know street children gather. The ambulance is nothing more than a van with two worn-out bucket seats, an ancient-looking stretcher, a 10-gallon water container and a cup for washing and drinking, and a filing cabinet filled with forms and medical supplies. They provide basic first aid for various wounds, and if needed they take the kids to the hospitals for x-rays or emergency treatment. Samusocial allows other people ride along in the ambulance and volunteer their time by helping the kids.
So I went on one tonight. And I have to say that, bar none, the two hours I spent with them afforded me the most eye-opening and most productive experiences I’ve had since my arrival in Senegal. They also took all of the aspects that I’ve been studying academically and professionally and shoved them up front and center. It was like someone yanked me out of the abstract realm comprised of concepts, literary applications, legislation and sociocultural phenomena and slammed me hard on the ground while saying, “Stop swimming through and attempting to mold sense out of word soup. Here’s the hard and fast truth. This is their reality, and it isn’t pretty.”
It’s not like I’ve been oblivious to the street children – that’s literally impossible. They’re everywhere, and they range in age from little toddlers to teenagers. Hundreds of them have approached me to ask me for money, dressed literally in rags and covered in light gray grime. Only the lucky ones have shredded footwear – most run around barefoot. The talibés’ “look” isn’t complete without their trusty tin tomato cans or red and yellow plastic bowls that they use to collect coins and scraps of food. All street children wander in and out of traffic – it’s a wonder that more of them aren’t seriously injured by the cars – tapping on car windows, breathing in thick black exhaust in the process, trying to sell something (or steal it), or they’re just trying to survive and avoid getting beaten up by older kids or their adult guardians. But during the day they put their guard up, and once they get their alms (or even if they don’t), they quickly move on to the next person. They move from one area of town to another in little packs and then spread out on the sidewalks in order to get to as many people as possible. Some might smile at you if you try and talk to them, but most scurry off. The order of the day is to get as much money or food as they can and avoid the flailing hands and feet of outraged superiors.
Seeing them at night is a completely different experience. The crowds of pedestrians and shoppers are gone, the streets are fairly void of cars, the street vendors have left, and their abandoned, wooden-skeletoned boutiques with spindly legs line the streets like a silent, immobile army of giant spiders. Pale orange light from the occasional street lamp or florescent lighting from hole-in-the-wall restaurants and bars slice unevenly through the thick shroud of darkness. The red-orange sand blown in on the Harmattan winds from the Sahara has, for the most part, finally settled and it gives the scene an even more surreal eeriness. For all of their visibility during the day, the street kids really know how blend into the shadows of their dingy, nighttime ghosttown-like surroundings. They’re hardly noticeable. But they’re there.
The driver parked the ambulance directly under a street lamp located right in the middle of downtown Dakar. The doctor touched me on my shoulder and said, “Do you know where we are?” I told him that I knew we were in downtown Dakar on the Plateau but I had no idea where. He laughed and said, “Surely you’ve been to Sandaga?” I told him that I walk through Sandaga (Dakar’s largest and busiest outdoor market) every day on the way to and from work. He chuckled and said, “Then you should know where we are.” I looked around again. Sure enough, we were in the heart of the market but the scenery had changed so drastically that I initially didn’t recognize it. The driver and the other Samusocial employee, Aminata, laughed good-naturedly at me and the doctor said, “Don’t worry – even the Senegalese get stumped when we come here at night.”
Then Aminata pointed to our right at the “sidewalk” next to us and said, “There they are.” All I could see was a crumbling wall decorated with scrawling black, blue, and green graffiti and wooden boutique tables lined up underneath it. I looked harder and I finally made out the shapes of two boys curled up on top of the tables and three others stretched out underneath the tables. All of them had found some sort of tattered burlap sack or ripped up sheet and they were using them as blankets. Most of them had their heads covered, too. Soon I saw the dark silhouettes of other boys come out of the shadows and they sat down on the broken tiles that made up a section of the sidewalk, waiting for us to get out of the ambulance. Samusocial has been doing these excursions for 10 years, so the kids recognize the ambulance and they know that they can receive any medical help they may need, or if they’re not hurt, they can at least get some food – usually in the form of crackers and granola bars.
We got out of the van and immediately the faces of 3 boys lit up in a smile. They gave high-fives to the doctor and driver and one of them turned to me, said “Toggal,” (sit down) and offered me a stool that he was sitting on. One boy about 15 years old who was wearing a blue and white AC/DC shirt started talking to us and once he moved into the light, I could see that he was high – I’m surprised he was still conscious. His eyes were hooded and glazed over, his speech was incredibly slurred and even though my Wolof is fairly elementary, I could tell that he was just speaking a bunch of jibberish. He perpetually leaned to his left, and when he tried to stand up he nearly fell over. The boys who weren’t as impaired talked openly and freely with us and one of them tried giving me a Wolof slang lesson. Soon a pack of little 7-year-old talibés found us. A couple of them were drowning in oversized boubous, and they of course had their trusty tomato can tucked under their arms. They watched us with wide eyes and they never said a word the whole time they were there.
A few minutes into our visit, I watched as the driver approached the boys who were sleeping on and under the tables. I grimaced to see how weather-beaten the wood was. It looked like the antique, gray wood from my grandpa’s barn – blanched, rough, and warped – a perfect nest of long, ugly slivers. The scraps of material that they were using as covers were stained with dirt, grease, and bodily fluids and were certainly huge cesspools of germs and infections. The boys under the tables had managed to fall asleep on top of large, uneven chunks of cement, cinderblock, and gravel – the vestiges of a once-well-poured sidewalk and solid wall. A combination of dust from the cement and the red Sahara sands had settled over a partially dried pool of leaked oil, making an annoyingly grainy, and due to the chunks I described previously, very uncomfortable bed. The driver started talking to them in a loud voice to try and wake them. Nothing. I got closer to them and looked at their faces (the ones that weren’t covered). They were sleeping far too soundly for regular slumber. Their breathing was too shallow, and there was absolutely no reaction to the driver or the older kids’ conversation that had risen from a low buzz to a raucous discussion. My sports medicine and first aid training kicked in and since I wasn’t allowed to touch anyone, I was dying inside for someone to check their eyes and their pulse. The driver tousled their hair in an effort to wake them up, but to no avail. Finally the doctor noticed what was going on (by now there were about 15 kids there) and he came over, felt for their pulse (they had one) and lifted their eyelids to look at their eyes. Even in the dark I could tell that they, too, were drugged. The youngest of the boys looked to be about 8 or 9 years old. I asked the doctor what they’d gotten high on and he said that the kids soak cloths in gasoline, turpentine or other strong odorants, hold them to their noses and breathe in the fumes. A quick, easy, and powerful drug.
Almost on cue, a dizzying waft of gasoline that had been mixed with another substance cut through the acrid stench of stale urine that permeated the area where we were standing. I turned around and AC/DC Fan and one of his younger sidekicks were standing next to me. Tonto was holding a balled-up red cloth to his nose, he had a quirky smile plastered on his face, and he was looking at me with a crazy, glaze-eyed stare. AC/DC Fan was trying to get the cloth away from him so he could get another fix, but finally Tonto shoved him against one of the tables with the passed-out kids sleeping on it. That woke one of them up and he wasn’t too happy about it. All during this time the driver was trying to wake up the littlest boys sleeping on the ground, and his efforts and the commotion from AC/DC Fan and Tonto finally paid off. They stirred on the ground and “responded” to the driver’s questions, but they quickly rolled over and blacked out again. Resuscitated Kid slid off the table (SLIVERS!!) and staggered around trying to talk to his buddies.
We started handing out food – some of them waited patiently for it and others lunged for it. Our group had grown to approximately 20 people, including some teenage girls who had gotten caught up in the sex trade. A couple of them had 8 or 10 month-old babies on their backs. One of the babies caught sight of me and looked at me for a solid 5 minutes. I went over to her and rubbed on her little face and talked to her in a mixture of French and my broken Wolof. She was so extremely tired and dirty. Sleep and other gunk had crusted around the entirety of both her eyes. She stared and stared at me, blinking slowly every now and then, trying to fight off sleep. It was 10:15 PM, she was in a noisy environment, and to make things worse, AC/DC and Tonto were still wobbling around, grappling over their gasoline concoction. They must have soaked the cloth again because the stench was even stronger and it was smelling up the whole area. My head began to spin and my stomach turned a few times. I can’t imagine what the fumes were doing to those poor babies. More talibés had shown up by that time – one wasn’t much older than my 27-month-old nephew, Henry – and they looked up at us with beseeching eyes and held out their little hands to get something to eat. My eyes teared up when I saw that one. He wasn’t any older than 2.5 years old and he carried a tomato tin that was almost as big as he was.
The doctor climbed into the ambulance and motioned for the kids who were hurt to line up. I got in, too, and watched him care for their wounds. One boy had a bunch of bloody flesh hanging from his middle finger on his right hand, and he had a swollen left eye, complete with a bright pink cut/burn that was located next to his left tear duct. He’d obviously been sniffing stuff, too, because his eyes were all red and he could hardly sit up. The second boy had his right hand wrapped up in gauze – undoubtedly the doctor did that a couple of days ago – and when the doctor cut it off I saw huge, blood and puss-filled blisters and cuts on his palm. I asked what had happened to those two boys, and the doctor said that in order to prove their bravery and strength, street kids self-inflict pain by doing various things i.e.: cutting themselves, drinking or eating toxic foods, burning themselves, or holding burning firecrackers as long as they can before the fuse burns out and the firework explodes. Some don’t let go, even when it explodes. That’s what those two boys had done. The first boy dropped it as it was exploding (thus his mangled finger) and parts of the casing hit him in the eye. He was lucky because if it’d hit him just a half a centimeter to the left, he probably would have lost his eye. The second boy didn’t drop the firework when it exploded. A third boy about 17 years-old and really muscular had defensive wounds on his arms that needed bandaging, and others kids had minor scrapes and burns that needed attention.
I turned my attention back to the kids outside and I saw that a third member had joined AC/DC Fan and Tonto – it was actually the kid they woke up during their initial scuffle – but this one was so high that he was rotating his hips and shimmying his shoulders to music only he could hear. If he had his head on straight, he’d probably make a good salsa dancer. Every once in a while he’d stop, bend over, and then laugh silently. Sometimes he’d slap his legs like he’d heard the world’s funniest joke, other times he’d walk up to another person and speak jibberish to them. The doctor and I got out of the ambulance and I joined Aminata under the street lamp. She said that all of the older boys were street children through and through, meaning that they weren’t talibés (Koranic students) but that they roamed the streets stealing, finding ways to drug themselves, and just trying to survive. All of them had had complete ruptures with their families. The little kids were mostly talibés since they had their signature tomato cans, although some of them would probably end up fleeing their Koranic teacher and joining their street friends. The girls were street kids, too, but a couple are being trafficked for sex. She pointed out a tall, skinny kid with clear, bright eyes and said that he was a newcomer. He just arrived from Kaolack (one of the cities that I drove through on my work trip last month), and he ran away from home. Evidently his father was abusive. Aminata said that he hadn’t gotten in the habit of drugging himself – his eyes told us that one. I found myself silently praying that he wouldn’t ever start. Salsa Dancer had stumbled his way over to Newcomer, and he was making elaborate and slightly inappropriate figure-eights with his hips. Newcomer ignored him (yay!!).
I don’t know where his stash was, but Salsa Dancer absolutely reeked of the gasoline concoction. I was starting to get physically ill from the fumes, but I snapped back to attention when I saw his gaze shift over to me. I wasn’t afraid of him, but his eyes were really creepy. It wasn’t evil or menacing – it was quite evident that none of these kids would do anything to hurt us… I don’t know how to explain it, but I never felt threatened by any of them. In fact, I had the very strong impression that if anyone – whether a member of their group or an outsider – had made a hostile move against any of us, those street kids would have fought to defend us. But nevertheless, there was something in Salsa Dancer’s eyes that unnerved me. The only word that comes to mind is wild. He was completely and literally out of his mind. He stumbled over to where Aminata and I stood and got within 6 inches of my face. His eyes squinted into his crazy, quirky smile and he watched me to see if I’d flinch. Not that I go around looking for trouble or anything but since I had knives and worse things pulled on me on my mission, I wasn’t about to get scared of a kid doped up on gasoline fumes. Plus I knew that the Samusocial employees wouldn’t let anything happen to me, either. When I didn’t react, he backed up and cocked his head and looked at me for a few seconds. Then he bent over and did his laughing bit again and wandered over to someone else.
We packed up our stuff around 10:45 PM. Back in the ambulance I asked the doctor why the kids drug themselves. He explained that some of them get addicted to harder drugs, too, and that for the most part it was a coping mechanism. They try to block out pain from injuries and beatings, they try to forget various things in their past and present reality, and some do it because they’re tired of living. I’m sure that other reasons come into play, too. I’ve found a lot of literary references to street kids and/or child-soldiers who get addicted to drugs, so it was really something to experience that tonight.
All in all, it was a sobering and heart-wrenching experience. But I’m looking forward to doing another one. While it was really hard to see those things – especially those little kids who were the same ages as my nephews – It felt good to help those kids out.
It was definitely an experience that I’ll never forget.