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!
Wow, it’s alarming how I have neglected to write on my blog. April consisted of doing hundreds of hours worth of research for my final papers, and then I had to write them in May. Talk about not enough hours in the day. So here we go…
[Deep breath] in mid-April I called up my friend, Khadim Bousso, who I know through my internship at PARRER and asked if he’d be willing to do an interview with me to help me in my immediate and long-term research. He gladly accepted, and he invited me to his cousin’s house so he could act as translator. Khadim is 33 years old and is one of the oldest sons of the Imam of the Great Mosque in Touba, the spiritual and cultural center of the Mouride brotherhood (Sufi Islam). Khadim’s great-grandfather was Cheikh Hamidou Bamba Mbacke’s marabout and uncle. (Cheikh Hamidou Bamba is also known as Serigne Touba, and he’s the founder of Mouridism). Familial ties create father/son/daughter relationships between an uncle with his nephews and nieces. Similarly, mother/son/daughter relationships exists between aunts and her nephews and nieces. So let’s put this into context… if I were to apply this notion to myself, my sister’s children would be considered my children, and I would be considered my aunt’s daughter. Therefore, since Serigne Touba’s uncle was a Bousso, the Bousso line is considered to be descendants of Serigne Touba, and that makes Khadim one of Serigne Touba’s grandsons. Since Serigne Touba was taught by a Bousso, all of the educational and teaching responsibilities in the Mouride brotherhood are controlled, delegated, and carried out by the Bousso family. They’re also in charge of protecting and maintaining the tomb of Cheikh Hamidou Bamba. The Mbacke family (specifically the male descendants of Serigne Touba) are named the khalif of the brotherhood. That position is essentially the civic and religious leader of the whole brotherhood – and the brotherhood had millions of adherents throughout West Africa, parts of Europe, and there’s even a fairly substantial population in New York City. So it was a big deal to have Khadim agree to do an interview with me.
After our interview, we at dinner with a couple of Khadim’s brothers, Ndiamé (his cousin), and Sokhna, Ndiamé’s wife. Ndiamé and Sokhna have a 6 month-old girl named Khadija, and Khadija and I became fast friends. It was a very pleasant evening, and when I said that I hadn’t been to Touba, Khadim offered to drive me there one weekend when he went to visit his family.
So a couple of weeks later, he and I, along with his mother and a couple of other relatives made the (normally) 4-hour trip into the interior of the country. We arrived fairly late due to traffic and having to stop in almost every little town so we could greet other friends and family members. Finally around 10 pm we made it to the Bousso’s traditional home, and after dropping our things off, Khadim took me around the city. An arched gateway leads to what we would call the “city center,” and it is illegal to drink or smoke beyond that point. Guards stop cars before they enter, but since they recognize Khadim’s car, we just drove right on through. The Great Mosque is located on a huge tract of land right in the middle of the city. It sits on a gated plot of land and the ground surrounding the mosque and various annexes is completely covered in large marble slabs. There’s no grass – just marble. The whole outer elevation of the mosque is made of marble slabs and mosaics imported from various European countries. Five minarets surround the mosque itself (they’re in the middle of building 2 more), and smaller buildings surround it house the tombs of Serigne Touba’s sons who were the khalifs after his death. Workers have been repairing broken pieces of marble and/or mosaics, so along with the construction of the two new minarets, most of the mosque was covered with scaffolding.
We walked around the gates, and when we reached a section of the sidewalk that faced the library Khadim and his brothers took off their shoes and walked barefoot until a designated spot further down the sidewalk. I asked if I should remove mine, as well, but they said that I wasn’t required to. Evidently hundreds of copies of the Koran are buried underneath that section of the sidewalk. After we were done walking around the mosque, he took me around in his car to show me other areas of town (and he stopped to get a haircut), and then he took me back to the traditional home. He said that his family has several houses in Touba and in a neighboring town (and in Dakar), but he didn’t want me to stay there because he wanted me to have the experience of staying in a traditional house. I thought that was pretty cool.
When we returned, his mother, sisters, and sisters-in-law had dinner prepared (at 11:30 pm), and they pulled a mattress and grass mats into the sandy courtyard and we sat and ate dinner with our hands in a communal bowl. Some of them spoke French, but mostly they spoke Arabic and Wolof – so it was kind of entertaining to try and communicate. The little kids thought I was something else – a toubab (white person) doesn’t stay with them very often, so I had a lot of little pairs of eyes silently staring at me in the darkness. The family had me go to bed around midnight or shortly thereafter. However, everyone else, including the little kids, stayed up for at least another hour.
The next morning I took a bucket shower and had bread, scrambled eggs and warm powdered milk for breakfast. I’m actually going to miss the powdered milk they have here – it’s fairly thick and creamy and has an interesting sweetness to it. When Khadim woke up and finished eating we went back to the mosque – I was excited to go in, but I didn’t realize there were certain parts that Christians aren’t allowed to go in. They asked me to take my sandals off when I entered the gate. Unfortunately, the marble was already extremely hot from the sun (it’s significantly hotter in the interior of Senegal than in Dakar) and within seconds a large water blister formed across the length of the balls of my right foot. It HURT!! And it takes a while to cross the complex, so I had to walk that way for quite a distance. At one point Khadim turned back and saw my face and he felt really bad – he said that he forgets that most Westerners aren’t used to walking everywhere and anywhere barefoot and have sensitive soles. He took me to the outer chamber that leads to the Cheikh Hamidou Bamba’s tomb. It was really interesting to see peoples’ reaction when he walked in – they were lined up waiting their turn to enter the tomb. I asked if he knew them and he said he knew a few, but that he didn’t know the grand majority of them. But they certainly knew him. He doesn’t dress differently than any other Senegalese men, so I’m guessing that the Bousso and Mbancké genes are very recognizable.
Unfortunately he didn’t take me to the parts of the mosque that Christians are allowed to see. So I didn’t get to see much of the inside – but what I did see was pretty impressive. We left the complex (which means I had to walk on those hot slabs again!) we drove to his friend’s house and watched TV for several hours. The little kids filed in and out of the room where we were. Some of them were really inquisitive and brave, others were really shy and didn’t know what to do as they stared at me, and one 4 year-old girl, Khadija, was a complete ham. She pointed at my camera and started striking poses. So I humored her and snapped away. Some of her other friends joined in, so she definitely acted as an icebreaker. She was a blast. Then I had to go around to the various parts of the house and meet everyone, especially the mothers and grandmother.
We went back to Khadim’s house later that night, and once again, they pulled out mats and mattresses so we could eat dinner on the ground. After we ate we laid out under the stars, and they gave me Wolof lessons (and laughed at my attempts to formulate more complicated sentences or learn new vocabulary words). Then they all wanted me to teach them some English – and then it was my turn to laugh good-naturedly with them. The little kids picked up on it fairly quickly. Around 10 pm the older boys (probably between 9-15) came home from their long day at the daara (Koranic school). They had their tomato cans tucked under their arms – so they definitely have a different experience as talibés than most of the young boys that I’ve seen and worked with in Dakar. They go to the daara at sunrise for a few hours to learn their verses, and then they spend some time begging, followed by attending a Franco-Arabic school (reading, writing, math, etc). Then they spend a few more hours back at the daara and out on the streets begging before heading home well after dark.
It was a lot of fun to spend time with Khadim’s family and see how people live outside of Dakar. They asked about my family and my interests. When they asked what my Senegalese name was (Awa Seck), Khadim’s mom said, “My name is Awa!!” And she was tickled pink. She followed that up with, “But your name is no longer Awa Seck. It’s Awa Bousso. You are part of our family now, and you’re now named after the wife of Serigne Touba.” I was really touched by that. We stayed up for another hour or so to enjoy the coolness of the night air, and then I went to bed.
We left earlier the next day so we could go to the library – that didn’t end up happening, but it was still good to be in Touba and meet the people I did. Maybe another time when I’m in Senegal I’ll get to go see more of the mosque and the library. All in all, I’m really glad that I went.
**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.
This trip has allowed me to experience a lot of different things – not only have I seen a lot of the country, gained a new appreciation for the Interstate network in the US, met new people, and strengthened relationships with influential people who are working to stem the tide of child trafficking in Senegal, but I have been able to get out of Dakar and see how people really live.
I’ve also been a cautious shutterbug – some of the Senegalese do not like to have their picture taken and it’s considered very rude/inappropriate to take pictures of certain people or things. So you always have to ask before you take a picture. But the thing that I’ve enjoyed the most was interacting with the children. As soon as they saw my camera they swarmed around me like bees to honey, all the while excitedly exclaiming, “Toubab, toubab!!” I noticed that a lot of young kids would stare and stare and stare at me – I’m probably the first white person they’ve ever seen. Some mothers would try and hand their babies/toddlers to me and point to my camera – they all wanted to see their child’s image on my screen – but a few of the children would turn away and start crying. Poor things, I scared them!! The ones that were older either gave a deadpan stare to the camera or they hammed it up by doing crazy antics or by trying to take up all of the room and/or crowd out the other kids.
I just love how bright their eyes and smiles are. They make me so happy! When we arrived at the house of the second imam in Tambacounda, a little girl met me at the door as I was getting out. She smiled right away and pointed to the cars and said, “Am na ñaari autos!” (There are two cars!) Evidently she liked them a lot. Then she saw my camera and touched it and then pointed to herself. So I took her picture and she giggled gleefully when I turned the camera around and showed her the image. It was pretty cute. During our meeting with the imam (I’m guessing she was either his daughter or granddaughter) she’d hide behind the cases (huts) and peek out from behind the walls to see if I was looking at her. I’d smile and wave at her and she’d giggle and hide again. Pretty soon she’d sneak out and creep towards the deck where the adults were sitting and talking, trying not to laugh and debating whether she should hide when I met her gaze or to wave back at me when I acknowledged her. Towards the end of our visit I noticed that she’d gone to the other cases in the concession (family compound) and dragged her little friends out to come see me. She’d whisper in their ears and point at me. Then they’d laugh and scamper off. It became a game to see how many kids she could pull over within eyesight of me and “spy” on me. When we finished with our business she ran over to me, grabbed my hand and pointed to her little posse and then back to my camera. She has a lovely smile – and you can tell she was quite pleased with herself that she got to be in several photos. Then she wanted me to be in a picture with her – by this time she’d captured the imam and his spokes-people’s attention and they lined up on the edge of the deck to watch us. They thought her antics were pretty funny.
The following picture is probably my favorite one of a Senegalese child. We went to a tiny village out in the bush – about 6 minutes outside of Kolda in the Casamance region – to see how our funds and efforts are being put to use out in the field. I’ll write a separate post about that visit but I think her bright, shining face epitomizes the happiness that these people – on a whole – exhibit. They have so little, yet they are happy, charitable people who are willing to do anything for you.
So here she is.