My personal website is now up and running! www.larkporter.com I created it to aid in future job searches and employment. If you want to find out more about my research and West African child trafficking field work, take a cyber stroll through the site!
Ten years ago this weekend (March 9, 2003) was the beginning of a major turning point in my life.
A big one.
You see, 10 years ago I made the decision to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And I can say that bar none, that was the best decision I have ever made in my entire life.
I think it’s safe to say that most people who knew me as I grew up – especially my family – always figured that I would serve a mission. No one ever said anything about it, no one ever pressured me to serve one. But because my religion was such a big part of my life, I embraced it voluntarily and whole-heartedly – and I was in the habit of working with the missionaries in my hometown and often gave Books of Mormons to my friends and elementary and high school teachers – I think people naturally assumed that I’d follow in my father’s and both of my sisters’ footsteps and serve a mission. So you can imagine people’s shock when I announced sometime during my first two years of college that I wasn’t going to serve one. I had decided to focus on my studies and finish up the art program quickly so I could graduate and move on with my life. And I was ok with that – females aren’t required to serve missions, and I figured that I’d be able to contribute to missionary work by serving in my church and continuing the good habits I’d already developed.
So you can imagine how completely blindsided I was when I received the impression that I needed to serve as a missionary. I mean it literally came out of nowhere and at a time when I least expected it. The experience was so unique, so powerful, and as I said above, so life-changing that I remember the exact date it happened, where it happened, who I was with, and if I were to return to the room where it happened, I can tell you exactly where I was sitting.
March 9, 2003 was stake conference (a church meeting comprised of about 1500-2000 college-aged students who lived in the same geographical area), and the meetings were held in the Wilkinson Center ballroom on the BYU campus. I was in the middle of fighting a cold, so I wasn’t in the best spirits – my throat hurt, my nose was runny, my eyes were really itchy, and I had a pounding headache. To put it frankly, I was not too thrilled about being at the meeting – in fact I had absolutely no desire to be there. I would have much preferred to be home in my nice warm bed sleeping. I sat grumpily in my chair and promptly tuned out what the speakers were saying. From time to time I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, wishing that my head would stop hurting and that I could just go back to bed.
Elder Butler, an area authority, and his wife were there presiding over the meeting. Evidently the Butlers had just finished a 3-year assignment as mission presidents of the Massachusetts Boston Mission (at least that’s the mission I think they presided over), and two of their former missionaries were in our congregation. Elder Butler asked those individuals – a male and a female – to come to the rostrum and bear their testimonies. The young man went first. I have no recollection of what he said. My headache prevented me from really focusing on what he was saying, and even if I could have, remember dear reader, I was being a total brat and I had categorically refused to enjoy the meeting.
Then the woman stood up. She was one of those individuals who have the energy of three people and are so cheery and bubbly that they make you sick. You know the type, the ones you’d love to punch in the face because really, it’s just not healthy to have an attitude like that. I rolled my eyes, rested my elbows on my knees, plopped my head into my hands, and watched her from the corner of my eye. My roommate, DeAnn, was sitting next to me and she started to rub on my back. The girl at the podium was going on and on and on, and in my head I was willing her to be quiet. Near the end of her address she said something to the effect of, “I encourage all of you women to serve a mission. It’s the best thing in the world.” At that I rolled my eyes again and dug the base of my hands into my eyes trying to get the pain in my head to go away. I thought to myself, “Man, chica! Shut up! And no thanks, I don’t want to serve a mission.” And I promptly tuned out the rest of her remarks. Finally she stopped speaking and backed away from the microphone. I was still bent over my knees with my head in my hands and I muttered to myself, “At least that’s over!!” In the 10 seconds that lapsed from the time that the girl left the podium to the time that Elder Butler stood up to speak, the quiet words You need to serve a mission popped into my head. I quipped, “Nope. No way. Don’t want to.”
I don’t really have the words to describe what happened next. The closest thing to even begin to portray what happened is to say that an invisible force hit me like a ton of bricks, almost like it had grabbed me by the shoulders and shoved me upright. It was practically tangible, and I sat straight up in my chair. I sat up so fast that I scared DeAnn – she even jumped, poor thing! My other two roommates were sitting on the opposite side of me, and they turned and looked at me, too, trying to figure out what was wrong. Needless to say, that snapped me out of the negativity I was wallowing in. All of my attention was directed at the words that accompanied that “shove.” They weren’t louder, but they pressed upon my mind with a lot more force. You need to serve a mission.
I replied, “But I don’t want to serve a mission. If I serve a mission I’ll end up going to France, and I hate speaking French.”
The quiet, piercing words responded, That doesn’t matter. You need to serve a mission. Then a calming warmth enveloped me, and it felt as if my heart was on fire.
Tears came to my eyes and I said, “But I don’t want to speak French.”
I immediately felt those same words. You need to serve a mission.
I quickly enumerated the reasons why I “couldn’t” go on a mission – i.e.: I was making significant headway in the illustration program, I was almost done with school and it didn’t make sense to take a break from my studies, there was a young man that I was interested in and was willing to see where our relationship went and plus, I really didn’t want to go to France.
None of those things really matter. You need to serve a mission.
Needless to say, I didn’t pay attention to the rest of the meeting (par for the day). I vaguely remember seeing Elder Butler deliver his address, but I have no idea what he said. I sat in that chair arguing back and forth with that voice (and for the record, no I am not schizophrenic). I presented all of the things I thought were valid reasons to why I couldn’t or shouldn’t serve a mission, and each time I did, that burning feeling increased to the point that my whole body shook and tears streamed down my face.
Finally the meeting ended, and I made a bee-line home. I don’t even remember the walk back, nor do I remember if my roommates returned with me. The next thing I knew I was locked in my bedroom, kneeling at the side of my bed and trying to gather my thoughts before I prayed to God. Finally I said, “Heavenly Father today I have had many impressions that I should serve a mission. I know that they came from Thee. But Father, do I–” I was about to ask if I had to serve a mission. But this thought came: God doesn’t force anyone to do anything… no one has to do anything. So I began praying again and rephrased the question. “Father, is it really in my best interests to serve a mission?” Immediately that burning feeling intensified, and I felt – rather than heard – the word Yes.
That was it. That’s all I had to know.
I took a deep breath and said, “Ok. I’ll do it. But I need Thy help with three things. Please take care of my schooling. I’m in a competitive program and I cannot afford to regress in my artistic abilities. Please help me with my relationship with P so I can feel more at ease with putting that on hold. And finally Father, I hate speaking French. I had terrible experiences my senior year of high school with my French teacher. I only took French 202 here at BYU so I wouldn’t have to take math classes because I hate math even more than I hate French. I know if I serve a mission that I’ll get sent to France… so please help me to learn to love French again.”
I got up from my knees and crawled on top of my bed. I laid down and cried. I really wasn’t too thrilled at the prospect of serving a mission. I was almost devastated. For those readers who aren’t familiar with how members of the LDS Church are assigned to missions, the applicant doesn’t decide where s/he serves. Rather, members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles review his/her application and recommends a mission to the President of the Church – a man who we believe to be a prophet, a man with a calling similar to Moses – and he essentially makes the final decision. He then issues the applicant’s mission call by letter. I had absolutely no control over where I would go.
Yet I knew that I would be sent to France.
So I called my sister Amber and asked – or rather demanded – that she come to Provo and pick me up so I could talk with her. I didn’t say why, but she’d figured out why by the time she arrived at my apartment. According to her, she said that she knew I’d gotten “thumped.” Seriously, that’s what she said – with a smile and laugh pulling at her lips. She took me out to Village Inn and bought me pie, and we talked about her mission and how it had blessed her. She was beaming the whole time because she was so happy that I was going, and I was hiccuping over my sobs because I didn’t want to go to France and I knew I would. I was heartsick.
But I was true to the promise that I made with God in that prayer – I would prepare myself, and then serve. And He was true to what I asked Him to do. Within one week all three of the things that I asked for help with were taken care of. I spoke with my art professors and learned what I had to do to reserve my place in the program, events happened enabled my heart to be at ease in regards to P, and I went out and bought a French translation of The Book of Mormon and began reading it from the beginning.
Many other things that I consider miracles happened between that day and the time when I was eligible to turn in my mission papers. (I was 3 weeks shy of my 20th birthday, and back then the age at which females could first serve a mission was 21. Applicants could send in their papers 3 months before their birthday). One of those miracles occurred during the October 2003 sessions of General Conference. The general leadership of the LDS Church address the church membership, and the broadcasts of the conference are sent via satellite to chapels all over the world and are simultaneously translated in over 80 languages. My roommate Ginger and I were able to go up to Salt Lake and attend the conference in person. When one of the Apostles, Elder Richard G. Scott, stood to speak, one of the most amazing things happened. He began talking about the blessings one receives for serving a faithful mission. Despite sitting in an auditorium that seats 21,000 people, it seemed as if he and I were the only ones there. It was like he was talking directly to me, just for me. He addressed concerns that I had. Overall his talk acted as a confirmation that the decision I had made in regards to serving a mission was correct.
Fast forward to Thursday February 19, 2004, 11 months after that stake conference with Elder Butler and his cheerful sister missionary. My papers had been at Church Headquarters for approximately 2 weeks, and on that day I was sitting in the relaxing quiet of my figure drawing class drawing the live model. Out of the blue I felt these words come to mind: Your mission call has just been decided by Elder Scott. My eyes filled with tears and I had to stop drawing because I couldn’t see what I was doing. Fortunately our professor called a 10 minute break, so I ran up the stairs and went to the computer lab to email my sister, Autumn. Since I knew that Elder Scott’s recommendation would be sent on to President Gordon B. Hinckley within the next couple of business days, I wrote to tell her what had just happened and that I would receive my mission call and packet the next Wednesday, February 25th. Later I spoke with some of my closest friends and said that I’d have my call the next week. They asked how I knew and I said, “I just know it.” One of them said, “You know, Lark, my brother’s mission call took 4 weeks to get to him, and he was here at BYU. Your papers have only been in two weeks – there’s no way you could possibly know when it will arrive.” I shrugged my shoulders and changed the subject.
On the morning of the 25th I woke up and was as excited as could be. I knew that my letter would be in the mail when I got home that day. It was all I could do to focus on my classes. Finally I finished up on campus and rushed home. Sure enough, there it was on the table. Some of my closest friends came over to watch me open it (thanks, Nielson family!!), and I called my parents and opened my letter with them on the phone. I read
Dear Sister Porter: You are hereby called to serve as a missionary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You are assigned to labor in the France Toulouse Mission… [and signed by President Hinckley at the end]
France. Big surprise.
But I was so excited and so happy! By then I’d read The Book of Mormon all the way through in French – I’d already done so numerous times in English – and true to what I’d asked for in that prayer, I’d regained my enthusiasm for French.
My mission was by far the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. I had to overcome lots of challenges. I met people who were really rude and antagonistic towards my church and the message that I had to share. But I served the full 18 months, and I was blessed beyond measure. I made several lasting friendships, both with the persons I served and those who I served with. My love for the Savior grew a thousand-fold, and I came home with a deep and abiding love for France, the French culture, and the French-speaking people I met and taught.
Today, ten years later, as I reflect back on what happened on March 9, 2003 and on what I prayed for that afternoon, I am humbled and grateful that God hears and answers prayers. My prayer was quite simple, and in many ways, it was kind of selfish. Remember that I didn’t pray for the people that I’d eventually meet and teach… They didn’t even enter my mind – I prayed that I would learn to love French again.
Well, I got a lot more than what I bargained for.
Little did I know that that one request would launch me on a path that has allowed me to use my French in some way every single day since I entered the Missionary Training Center on June 2, 2004. Little did I know that that path would lead me to earn a bachelors degree in French Studies, a masters degree in French literature, and – in the near future – a PhD in French and Francophone African literatures. Little did I know that I would teach French at BYU and at UW-Madison, little did I know that I’d return to my mission area in France and teach in a French high school. Little did I know that ten years from that day I’d be living in Dakar, Senegal conducting doctoral research and gaining a love for the Senegalese and their culture.
Lots of people ask me why I served a mission for my church. I served a mission because I wanted to be obedient to what I felt that day. I knew where those impressions came from, and I knew that God knew it. I also served a mission because I know how much happiness the teachings of this Church can bring to people. I served a mission because I knew that God loves His children, and I wanted to help people feel that love.
Who knew how far reaching the simple words of you need to serve a mission could be?
March 20 has been declared jour de la Francophonie, a day where various Francophone cultures are celebrated throughout the world. 2013 marks what would have been Aimé Césaire’s 100th birthday, and the Francophone Ministry (based out of Paris) decided to throw a huge celebration/colloquium to honor his contributions to French and Francophone literatures – particularly Francophone African and Caribbean literatures. In fact their work precipitated the advent of African literature.
Who is Aimé Césaire, you ask? Well to put it very simply, he’s one of the three fathers of the Negritude movement which he and Léopold Sédar Senghor (who would later become the first president of Senegal) and Léon Damas started in Paris in the 1930s. It’s a movement that highlighted black cultural identity of many of the then-colonized peoples, and fought against French political and ideological domination. They forged their own literary style and theories, emphasized black African/African Diaspora culture by trumpeting traditional African values and rejected the longstanding relegation and dehumanization of the black race. Here are a couple of links out of thousands that explain more about the importance of the movement and Césaire:
His most famous work is a surrealist poem entitled Cahier d’un retour au pays natal – most often translated as Notebook of a Return to the Native Land. Sometimes it’s a hard read, but it is beautiful. The poem traces one man’s transformational journey from hating his race and its history to accepting it and seeking to be the voice of the voiceless. The poem and the Negritude Movement encourage the abused and humiliated black man to embrace his difficult past and to proudly forge ahead into the future. In this sense, the Negritude Movement has been associated with all battles against oppression – regardless of race, culture, or heritage – and the championing of universal humanity. In the closing pages of the poem, Césaire wrote:
And the nigger scum is on its feet
the seated nigger scum
standing in the hold
standing in the cabins
standing on deck
standing in the wind
standing under the sun
standing in the blood
standing and no longer a poor madwoman in its maritime
freedom and destitution gyrating in perfect drift
and there it is:
most unexpectedly standing
standing in the rigging
standing at the tiller
standing at the compass
standing at the map
standing under the stars
*I apologize to the literary people out there whose eyes are screaming from pain -Wordpress formatting didn’t allow me to follow the format/alignment of the stanzas*
Here’s a link to a pdf of the entire English translation of the poem – it’s not light reading and it’s not for the faint of heart. Remember that this is surrealist writing with complicated, and at times graphic, metaphors. And it can be hard to grasp what Césaire is trying to say, so it requires several re-readings. But if you want to tackle it, here it is:
All of this to say that Césaire’s contribution to literature and politics (he was mayor of Fort-de-France, Martinique for 56 years) is enormous and cannot be overstated. He’s huge. And so are Senghor and Damas. Giants among giants. I’m not exaggerating.
At any rate, the 3-day-Ministry-organized-and-funded colloquium was held in Dakar last week. International dignitaries, famous African authors, and well-respected professors throughout Africa, Europe and the Americas all gave presentations. It was phenomenal. I almost didn’t attend due to the fact that I didn’t know it was even planned. Fortunately the weekend before the conference I walked the dog that I’m babysitting for the next few weeks around the Point of Les Almadies, and I saw signs advertising just outside the 5-star hotel where it was going to be held. That Monday I asked to get a few days off of work so I could attend – fortunately there’s not much going on at the office, so it wasn’t a big issue. And even if it had been, Cheikh Hamidou Kane, the president of our NGO and one of Senegal’s most famous writers was presenting… and that meant that what he says goes, and since he’s one of the people who got me over here (and I’m a literary PhD candidate), there’s no way that he would have wanted me to miss it.
Well it turns out that Macky Sall, President of Senegal, was presiding over the opening ceremonies. And that means that they weren’t open to the general public and attendance was by invitation only. And attendees had to present said invitation at the door…
Confession: I didn’t have an invitation…
Never fear – I get past Secret Service barricades all the time back home. It’s a piece of cake. NOT! But I wasn’t going to miss any of the conference. So I walked past the Presidential Guard who were decked out in their blood red uniforms and long swords, past the armed military escorts of the diplomatic corps, past the international press corps, and flashed my smile at the police and military guards that were blocking the entrance to the hall. After looking them directly in the eye, flashing my smile again, exchanging a few pleasantries and answering probing questions about who I am, what I – as an American – am doing in Senegal and where I work, they lowered their guns and let me in.
Being an Crest Kid really pays off… 🙂
Yeah, talk about being in the presence of a pantheon of literary, political, and academic greats. I knew that there’d be some pretty high profile guests in attendance, but I was pretty floored to see some of the faces that I did. And it was then that it hit me just how amazing it is to be studying contemporary literature.
Do you know why? BECAUSE THE GRAND MAJORITY OF THE AUTHORS I STUDY AREN’T DEAD!!! Do you know what it’s like to have your nose buried in a bunch of dusty books written hundreds of years ago? And then go to reading works written by people who are still breathing? I mean don’t get me wrong, Molière, Racine, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Montesquieu, Rousseau and Voltaire are pretty great (most of the time), but I’d be a little disturbed if I saw one of their skeletons walk into an auditorium. Ummmm… that would not be cool. Not in the slightest. But do you know how big of a deal it is to see some of the greatest minds of your field?
Yeah. I knew you’d understand.
But this post is long enough and it’s late. So I’ll wrap it up with a list of presenters/significant attendees, some pictures, and my recordings of the conference proceedings. The recordings are entirely in French, so sorry non-French-speaking friends, they won’t be of much use to you. To my Francophone lit friends: you’re welcome.
- Macky Sall – President of Senegal
- Abdoul Mbaye – Prime Minister of Senegal
- Claude Bartolone – President of the French National Assembly
- Christiane Taubira – French Minister of Justice, Keeper of the Seals
- Moustapha Niasse – President of the Senegalese National Assembly
- Serge Letchimy – Deputy President of the Regional Counsel of Martinique
- Muriel Berset Kohen – Swiss Ambassador to Senegal
- Fabienne Mathurin Brouard – Vice President of the Regional Counsel of French Guiana
- Clément Duhaime – Administrator of the International Organization of the Francophonie
- Khalifa Sall – Mayor of Dakar
- Raymond Saint-Louis-Augustin – Mayor of Fort-de-France, Martinique
- Jacques Bangou – Mayor of Point-de-Pitre, Guadeloupe
- Marcel Bibas – Spokesman for the Césaire and Senghor families
- Amadou Mahtar Mbow – Former Director of UNESCO
- Alioune Tine – President of the Senegalese Committee of Human Rights
- Chiekh Hamidou Kane – One of Senegal’s most respected authors and former government Minister
- Aminata Sow Fall – One of Senegal’s most respected authors and the first black African woman publish a book and the first black African woman to win a prestigious international writing award
- Racine Senghor – Professor of Letters and former Counselor of the Minister of Tourism
- Abdoulaye Elimane Kane – philosopher and former Minister
- Daniel Maximin – Guadeloupean author and Professor of Letters
- Amadou Lamine Sall – Poet, President of the African House of International Poetry
- Ousmane Diakhaté – Professor of Letters and Director General of Senegal’s National Theatre Daniel Sorano
- Lise Gauvin – Quebecois author and Professor of Letters
- Michel Bouchaud – Headmaster of Lycée Louis-le-Grand (a prestigious high school in Paris)
- Souleymane Bachir Diagne – One of Senegal’s most respected philosophers and Professor of Philosophy, Islam and Francophone Literature at Columbia University
- Alain Houlou – Poet and Professor of Classics at l’Ecole National Supérieure-Ulm
- Moncef Follain – Chief of the Service of Cooperation and Cultural Action at the French Embassy in Dakar
- Hamidou Dia – Author and Special Counselor to the President of Senegal
- Monique Blérald – Professor of Letters at the University of the Antilles and French Guiana
- Eugénie Rézaire – President of the Friends of Léon Damas Association
- Lilyan Kesteloot – One of the world’s preeminent scholars of Francophone African Literaures, Professor of Letters at Université Cheikh Anta Diop
- Amadou Ly – One of Senegal’s leading scholars of Francophone African poetry and Professor of Letters at Université Cheikh Anta Diop
- Mamadou Bâ – One of Senegal’s leading scholars on the poetry of Aimé Césaire
**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.
No, I’m not talking about the movie by M. Night Shyamalan – although that was a pretty fabulous movie. After our PARRER meetings in Kolda, we changed our clothes and went to a village to see a daara (Koranic school) that our funds helped construct. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, one of the many contributing factors to the talibé problem in Senegal is the lack of modern daaras. Wait, scratch that – there’s a lack of daaras. Period. I’ve seen many an “open-air” daara where the marabout and his talibés are sitting beneath trees or right on the side of busy roads in Dakar. No building, and the kids sit in the dirt, breathe in the the terrible car exhaust, and have to deal with honking horns and the overall noise of a metropolis inhabited by 2.5 million people all the while trying to concentrate on memorizing and reciting the Koran in Arabic. Not the greatest conditions for little kids who are trying to learn.
At any rate, many of the marabouts and imams that we work with in our efforts at PARRER always point to the lack of constructed, modern daaras that drive them to migrate from rural areas to Dakar with their talibés. That in turn separates the children from their parents (obviously), drives up the number of children wandering out on the streets, and increases the chances of children becoming subject to drugs, pedophilia, beatings, illness, and a host of other things. So last year we allocated some funds to go towards building daaras in a few select villages. Those daaras would enable Koranic teachers and the students to stay in the village, the kids wouldn’t wander the streets begging for money, and most importantly, they’d be able to stay with their families. So it’s a wonderful gift to the village and the children.
Because the majority of PARRER’s Executive Board and Imam Ousmane Samb were in the area, we wanted to go to the village outside of Kolda that has one of the daaras that was constructed with our funds. Not only would we meet the families, the Koranic teacher, and the talibés, but Ousmane Samb would be able to dedicate the building. That’s a pretty big deal. We drove a good 10 or 15 minutes outside of Kolda on paved roads, and then we did another 5 or 7 minutes worth of off-roading in order to get back to the village. It was totally out in the bush, but I thought it was a in a very beautiful area. Here’s a picture of a mud hut that I took from the car as we were driving on the road.
When we finally pulled up to the village we were greeted by a semi-circle (located next to the daara) divided into two sections – the women and small children on the left and the men on the right – and a loud humming noise that I later identified as the voices of children coming from the daara. They’d already placed a row of plastic chairs in front of the semi-circle (our places of honor), and they were obviously quite proud to have our delegation there. The women were dressed in a beautiful array of brightly colored boubous and little toddlers peeked out at us from behind their mothers. Greetings are very important in Senegal, so we personally greeted every member of the village. Actually, they all arose from their chairs – or the ground – and came to greet us. Most of the men didn’t shake our (the women’s) hands, but the young girls and mothers crowded around us with their faces all aglow with broad smiles, and they patted us on the back and clasped our hands warmly.
Then our local NGO partner introduced us in Pulaar, and then he asked one of the men to tell us about the experience they had as they were building the daara. Then one of the mothers stood and said that she acted as treasurer of the funds and she explained how the members of the village had set up a sort of savings account to which they all contributed in order to make up the difference in costs that our funds didn’t cover. Then she thanked us for our help and said how much it meant to her and all of the mothers to know that their children were safe, off of the streets, and able to learn the Koran in an environment more conducive to learning. Then Imam Samb and the Executive Board members went into the daara to see the talibés – I was a little surprised to see that young girls were part of the group – and to eventually dedicate the school. It was a very small building made of cinder block (with concrete plaster covering the blocks) and a corrugated tin roof. The kids were very proud to have them there. They had their long boards on which they write verses of the Koran in water-based ink, and some could recite without using it, but younger ones still used them. They recited some verses as a group and then the Koranic teacher called up to young boys and had them recite other verses to him and Imam Samb. The men would nod and say “Uh hum” periodically to show that the boys were reciting it correctly.
While the dedication took place the mothers and small children gathered around the daara to listen – most of the little kids gathered around me and giggled softly, so I suspect another reason they came over was to get a better look at the toubab (me). That’s when I took my all-time favorite picture of the Senegalese. I’ve already shared it on this blog, but there’s just something about this little girl that tugs on my heartstrings a little bit. So I’ll post it again 🙂
A mother brought her little girl to the daara entrance so she could see what was happening. I thought she was pretty cute.
After the boys finished reciting and got the all-important approval of Imam Ousmane Samb, the imam said a prayer over the building and the Executive Board members, the imam, and the village elders all excited the daara. The Koranic teacher continued his lesson, and the parents and younger children came and thanked all of us again for helping them build a daara and, essentially, helping them protect their children.
Then all of a sudden I felt a tiny pair of arms wrap around my legs. It was my little friend giving me a hug. Soon all of the kids 5 and under swarmed around me (but I noticed my friend made sure she was standing right next to me the whole time), so I gave my camera to Khady and asked her to take pictures of me with the kids. They came in droves – some came up and touched my hair, others were content to stare at me, others smiled and laughed with me, and some hid behind their mothers. When their mothers tried to get them to go towards me they started crying (again!), but there weren’t too many who were afraid of me. They did pretty well for never having seen a white person before!
Everyone was speaking excitedly in Pulaar so I didn’t understand a word they were saying, but they were all trying to get my attention. All of a sudden I saw a chubby baby boy coming at me through the air. His mother kept saying, “American, American, American,” and wanted me to hold her son. So I took him and he was fine as rain. He didn’t cry at all, and he was such a chunk that I couldn’t resist giving him a few kisses on the head. Well that made everyone start chattering, laughing, and clapping and the next thing I know about 5 other mothers where holding their babies out to me so I could hold them, too. It was so fun!
My boss signaled that we needed to go, so I pried myself away from the kids. A couple of mothers wanted to get in a picture with me before I left. One of the more elderly ladies grabbed me by the hand and started gesticulating wildly, chattering rapidly in Pulaar, all the while pulling me away from my boss and toward these two women. When we got over to them the grandma lady smiled and pointed to one of the women who was probably 8 months pregnant. Grandma Senegal pointed to her, then back at me, slapped me on the shoulders a few times, laughed and then pointed at the other lady’s belly. By now many of the other women had gathered near us and they started laughing and clapping their hands. I have no idea what Grandma Senegal said, but evidently it was pretty good. She pointed to Khady and my camera, so I posed with the soon-to-be mother and another lady who’s baby I held. After we were done Grandma Senegal pointed back to the mother’s belly and back at me and said, “American! American!” and then said something that sounded like baax na which is Wolof for “it’s good.” Finally it dawned on me that she wanted a picture with me because it would be good for the baby. So I smiled, pointed to myself and said in Wolof, “Bébé (baby), baax na.” They all nodded and laughed. The expectant mother still had her arm around my waist and she looked up at me and smiled, chuckled a bit, and then rested her head on my shoulder. That made all of the other women clap. I sure hope that baby is healthy and turns out to be a good kid, otherwise they might end up shaking their heads in disappointment and saying something to the effect of, “It’s all the American’s fault s/he turned out this way!!” 🙂
By this time everyone from my office was waiting for me to get into the car so we could get back to the hotel. I really wish that we could have spent more time with those people. While they were talking about us in Pulaar before the dedication and before I got to interact with the kids and the women, my eyes wandered around the village and the faces of those people. Tears came to my eyes for a few seconds. There they were stark poor, without the conveniences of the modern world – not even electricity and running water – yet they were happy and so pleased that they could have a school in their midst. I could almost feel how relieved those mothers were to know that their children would be safe and protected and still be able to memorize the Koran – a very important part of their religious upbringing.
And then I got to thinking about how remote the village was. In all reality, it was an obscure little place, far away from the major metropolises of the world, and some people would say that in the grand scheme of things it really doesn’t matter much. Most of those people haven’t traveled even to Kolda, let alone Dakar. Most of them have probably never even seen the ocean – which was just a couple of hours away. Seeing Paris, London, New York, LA, Chicago is absolutely out of the question for them – those places are just an abstract “something” that people talk about (how many of them have even seen a picture of those cities??). Most probably don’t even have much of an education, have never seen many of the contraptions that I (or the rest of us) see as an essential tool/part of my life, or even know what something as simple as snow is… They are so cut off from the “rest of the world,” so seemingly insignificant.
The scripture in Psalms kept running through my mind, “What is man that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man that thou visitest him?” I looked back over the little crowd gathered in front of me and I immediately loved every single one of them. And in that moment I knew with great conviction that God knew who they were, that He knew them by name and as individuals. I’d had similar experiences on my mission in southern France, but I’d never felt it in such a profound way before. As I looked into their faces that thought kept coming over and over and over again – that God loved him/her and that He was infinitely concerned about their well-being, their joys, their worries, their families, and that He was watching over them. It made my heart pound really hard and it felt like electricity or some other type of energy was coursing throughout my body. I had to clasp my hands in my lap because they were shaking so much. I looked back over the mud huts, the animal pens, the trees and saw that in many ways they are rich in their poverty. Rich because they aren’t distracted by the unimportant things in life. They are surrounded by the land and their families and they find joy in what matters most. Oh, the things that they could teach the rest of us!!
Out of all the wonderful things that I have experienced since my arrival here, visiting that village has been the most rewarding. I will probably never go there again, and I will probably never ever see those people again. Our visit lasted a maximum of 30 minutes, but that little village will always be sacred to me.