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!
It’s after midnight here in Dakar so that means that technically, I fly home to the United States in two days. Yep, two days from now I’ll be back in Madison, hugging my dad (and probably crying), eating some really yummy food, and sleeping in my bed for the first time in 10 months. And the day after my mom will be flying home from Utah and the hugging and crying will start all over again. We’re criers in our family. But they’ll be good tears.
While I am profoundly grateful for the experiences I’ve had, the people I’ve met, the places I’ve visited and the things that I have learned, I am absolutely thrilled and even more grateful to be going home.
My first two weeks will be a whirlwind of activities, including finalizing things for my new apartment, getting things settled with my car, going through belongings to see what things I can get rid of, seeing my extended family over the Fourth of July weekend, and moving into said new apartment. And from the minute I step off of that plane at O’Hare – wait, probably from the time I board the plane in Dakar – I will get questions like, “Why did you go to Senegal?” “Why did you choose that particular topic when you could have chosen so many more positive things to write your dissertation on?” “Why Africa?” Those are all good, valid questions. But more often than not, I’ll also get the more banal, humdrum, run-of-the-mill, barely-scratch-the surface questions like “What was your favorite thing/place/person you saw/visited/met in Senegal?” “Do the Senegalese have TVs and drive cars?” “What’s the food like?” “How was the weather?” And my all-time favorite: “In three or four sentences, tell us about the highlights of your trip.”
HUH?? As Genie says in Aladdin, “What? Doth my ears deceive me??” I just spent 10 months over there and you want me to distill all of the sights, smells, tastes, people, joys, frustrations, things-I-wish-I-did-differently moments, cultural adjustments, soul-searching, fear, bewilderment, helplessness, empowerment and happiness I experienced into 3 or 4 sentences? You’re nuts! (And evidently, so I am I because I just quoted a line from a 21 year-old Disney film in an otherwise very somber, intellectual post. Seriously, guys, I haven’t watched that movie in at least 15 years. But that’s beside the point).
I know that these types of questions are coming because those are the exact same questions people asked me when I came back from my other two residencies abroad… except for the TVs and cars one… And in all fairness, those types of questions aren’t an affront to me or what I study. The people who ask them have good intentions, and they’re trying to express interest in what I do and understand what makes me and my research tick. So I can’t get miffed about it. And usually I don’t. Because I understand. I’ve asked those stupid questions myself in the past, even when I knew better. But they’re not the best kind of questions that one should ask another person who has dedicated the last however many months or years to a single topic/area of expertise and who will continue to dedicate – or at least be heavily interested and involved with it – for the rest of his or her life.
So what types of questions should be asked by others – including by the one who had the experience (aka – during moments of self-reflection and pondering)? Well, in essence, the ones that you have to think about in order to formulate and the ones that become springboards to substantial elaboration. Here are a few off the top of my head:
- What are some of the most important things you learned during your time abroad?
- What aspect of their culture touched your heart the most? Why?
- What do you appreciate the most about those people/cultures/experiences and why?
- How has this time made you a better person?
- How are you going to take what you have learned and make a difference in your life and the lives of the people you will touch in the future?
- What would you want someone like me to understand about x, y, or z?
- What were the things you experienced over there make you more grateful for your upbringing/cultural heritage/family/job/blessings?
- Are there any people/places/things (yes, that is the definition of a noun) that you hope to never take for granted again and why?
- How have you changed for the better?
- What did you do when times got tough and you wanted to throw in the towel? What kept you going?
- How did you see the hand of God directing you or the people you worked with?
Those are hard questions, and your friend may have a little difficulty answering them. Or at least putting all of those feelings into words for the first time. But those are the ones that really show interest, and more often than not, those are the questions that s/he wants you to ask because their answers will embody the complexity of the most important aspects of their experience. Some of those questions are quite personal and depending on how well you know him/her, they might be inappropriate for you to ask. However, those questions will get him/her thinking and will help that individual identify and process the richness and uniqueness of their experiences. If they can’t share them with you, at least you’ve helped them put feelings and heart beats into words.
So by all means, when you see me, ask me those questions. As soon as I stepped off the plane into the stifling humidity that envelops Dakar in September, I’ve been asking myself those exact questions, trying to wade through some of the answers and trying to formulate them into one cohesive whole. It’s hard because they’re multi-faceted and don’t lend well to quick, off-the-cuff conversations.
A lot of you ask me why I don’t write more specifically about the things I’m researching and seeing with the children. Well, there are several reasons. First, some of the things I’ve experienced here are so completely unbelievable that if I hadn’t seen them myself, I’d question my honesty as I reported them. Second, you have no idea how much suffering these people go through, nor can you readily identify with how happy most of them remain throughout their horrendous difficulties. You have to see it and experience it for yourself. Most of us Westerners really need to suck it up, stop whining, and look for the blessings in our lives. Because we flip out if we can’t get the smartphone we want or go on that trip we’ve been looking forward to, etc. We think our life is “over” if we have to go without this or that or don’t do this or that. Give me a break, guys. These people are pretty down far the ladder in terms of material wealth and bodily health, and yet their smiles are some of the biggest and brightest I have ever seen, and their laughs have more life and sincerity than the majority of ours. And yes, I am chastising myself just as much as I’m chastising you. Because I flip out unnecessarily, too.
Third, a lot of what I’ve been doing will turn into intellectual property and play major roles in my dissertation and future publications. So it isn’t necessarily in my best academic or professional interest to have them plastered on the internet for others to take and use for their own purposes without being able to control how they’re used. Fourth, and most importantly, I have seen and experienced things that are so terrible and evil… that I don’t think I will ever be able to talk about them – and if by some miracle I do, it will be several years down the road.
But I can tell you the following.
I am proud and humbled to be an American. I love my country, I love my freedoms, and I hate seeing them being stripped away by people who think we need to be more like other countries and other cultures. I will not apologize for or be ashamed of what we hold dear, nor will I bow down to what other people think we should do/be or not do/be. Because I have seen what such actions can do to a whole society. And Senegal is a model in West Africa and the surrounding area. The Senegalese have it good compared to other countries. Think about that one for a while. Are they good people? Do they have things to offer me and others as far as values and the way they treat others? Do they have just as much inherent potential and value as you or me? By and large, have I enjoyed my experience with them? To all of these questions, I respond, by all means YES! But I cannot tell you how much my heart swells with gratitude when I see my flag and think of the myriad of things it symbolizes.
Similarly, we all need to be careful of smooth talkers – no matter what profession they practice, no matter what social class they belong to, no matter what religion they adhere to, no matter how beautiful or popular or rich they are. Because they do not always have our best interest at heart. This is true in politics, and this is especially true in leader/follower or mentor/mentoree relationships. In my current context, I have seen this time and time again as families entrust the care of their young children to individuals who they think are good men. But they turn out to be the worst kind of charlatans and do unspeakable things to children who range from the age where they just barely cut their teeth to the late teens and early 20s. Things are not always as they seem, and we owe it to ourselves and our loved ones to study it out from every different angle possible, and especially to not fall into traps that so often come with the proverbial bandwagon. We do not have to be like everyone else. We do not have to keep up with the Jonses (sorry, Dan and Darla!).
Families are the most important thing that you and I have, and they are society’s most important unit. Nothing can replace loving parents who honor their marital commitments and strive to raise their children in kindness, with soft voices and warm hands, and with the purest of love. Parents, don’t get sucked into the media and money-crazed world that we live in. Put the phone, laptop, iPad down (or anything that is similar metaphorically) and pay attention to that little voice who is asking for your attention or to the little hand resting on your knee in the hopes that you will pick him/her up and hug him/her close. The phone will be there when you get back. So will the computer or the TV or that book or that project you’re working on. Stop allowing yourself to be distracted by the things that matter the least and ignoring the people that mean the most. I have always been very sensitive to the needs and actions of little children – and if anything, these last 10 months have made me even more so. Play with them, speak gently to them, hug them, kiss them. Remember that when they’re little they’re still learning – don’t develop unrealistic expectations for a young child that s/he cannot achieve. If you do, you’re setting both you and him/her up for heartache and disappointment, and the little one will learn to fear you and not trust you. Help your kids know and understand by your words – and most importantly – your actions that they are loved and that no matter what happens in the world or what stupid (or serious) mistake they make that you will always, always, always love them. Don’t let your bad mood dictate how you treat them – it’s your problem, not theirs. Because they will remember it, and their little spirits will break.
Remember that the relationship you have with your spouse affects them in ways that you can’t even fathom. So if you and your spouse aren’t doing so great, love yourself, him/her and especially your child enough to evaluate where you went off track. Stop getting mad over stupid stuff. Stop yelling. Stop arguing. Be adults and learn to work out your differences like adults. The other person isn’t entirely at fault. You share part of the blame. So stop deluding yourself into thinking otherwise. Of course there are situations where splitting up and divorcing is inevitable and the best solution in the end. But by and large, your problems can be fixed fairly easily. So be a man (or woman as your situation dictates) and suck it up. Stop being so selfish. Because it’s not just you who is unhappy. Your spouse is, too. And remember that there is a little pair of eyes watching you from around the wall, eyes that are filled with pain, tears, and fear because you are his/her world. And if your world falls apart due to ridiculous reasons, so will his/hers. I don’t care how old the child is – even if s/he is an adult. I promise you that they will have the harder end of the deal than you.
I realize that these are harsh words. Most of you know that I have no tolerance for those kind of things. But as one who has seen to the bottom of the cesspool, please realize that I only have your best interests (and those of children) in mind when I say what I say. Can children and child-rearing be difficult? Yes, of course. Don’t think for one minute that I don’t recognize this or that I haven’t experienced it just because I’m not yet a mother. But remember that your child can test your patience, love, and metal without you reacting or retaliating in a way that is unbecoming of their parent, the person that should love them unconditionally. They don’t force you to react one way or the other. They have no control over your reaction. You chose how you will respond. Not them.
Cherish your families and treat them accordingly. Live so you won’t have any regrets if you don’t wake up tomorrow. Live so your children know, see, and understand that they are loved.
Lastly, God lives and He is good. Despite of what I have seen and experienced lately (and even in my past), I know that He is aware of us as individuals and that He cares very much about what we are all going through. I’ve heard the following expression over and over since my arrival in Senegal: “God? What God? How can He see this suffering and not do anything about it? If God exists, He must be dead.”
God is not dead. He is always reaching out to us, always willing to relieve our pain, always willing to enfold us in His arms of love. But just like any other relationship, we must put forth the effort to know Him and embrace His goodness. How can He help us if we give into despair and refuse to find the good in the world and people that surround us? How can He help us if we have adopted a fatalistic attitude?
Let us be better friends and disciples, let us seek for and fight for the good. And we will find that He is and always has been right by our side.
There is always hope. There is always light at the end of His tunnel – we just have to choose not to dynamite the cavern and block our path to what lies ahead.
So in a nutshell, that’s what Senegal and studying/working with victims of child trafficking have taught me. There’s certainly a lot more, but in essence, my time here has helped push aside the fluff and focus on what’s important.
I pray that I may keep this perspective uncluttered and move forward with faith, hope, the determination to work hard, and the courage to love when it is difficult to do so.
**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.
We had a meeting with approximately 30 imams and maîtres coranique Thursday morning and afternoon at the regional government seat in Tambacounda. Since 99.9% of the imams don’t speak French, these meetings are always conducted in Wolof. So that gives me lots of listening comprehension practice, and from time to time my colleagues also get to hone their live translation techniques. Imam Ousman Samb presented verses from the Koran and various hadiths that talk about the responsibility of parents and adults towards children, violence (in and out of the family unit), begging, and the safety of children. UNICEF and PARRER commissioned him to work on a document in French and Wolof on those same subject that they, along with the Senegalese Ministry of the Family, just published last year and he used a lot of that in his presentation. Since we’re asking imams around the country to address the dangers associated with child begging, he also prepared a model sermon that they can use in their meetings should they chose to do so.
Something that I still have a little trouble understanding is the shock that crosses their faces when we tell them that when parents confer their sons to itinerant marabouts – many of whom end up taking them from their villages located throughout Senegal and moving them to Dakar – the children end up spending the grand majority of their time on the street rather than learning to recite the Koran. Instead, many become victims of various forms of violence and pedophilia. Many imams, even those in Dakar, don’t believe that when we tell them. It’s such a well documented fact that it’s hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that they’re not aware of it. Their ignorance (and I don’t mean that in a negative sense) stems from the fact that many do not have access to the internet, it’s rarely brought up in all its horrors on national TV, and newspaper stories are superficial at best. In fact I’m not at all impressed with the press here. But that’s a story for a different time. The statistics come from Western organizations and while the government is aware of the issue, the strong influence that religion has in politics causes people to skirt around it. You know the expression “the elephant in the room”? Yeah, well this is an ENORMOUS elephant, the granddaddy of them all, and no one has had enough courage to effectively enforce child trafficking laws that they ratified back in 2005. (I’ve written several academic papers on this aspect, so while I’m not citing references here I will gladly do so if people would like to read up on the subject). Another reason why disbelief runs rampant is that a generation or two ago, those ills weren’t associated with Koranic education in any way, shape, or form. So today’s imams only have their effective, and in many cases holistic, perspective and experiences to draw upon. It doesn’t even enter their mind that something like child rape, the heavy usage of illicit drugs, etc occurs. A sad commentary on our times. Oh, how the world has changed.
So their first reaction to our presentation is resistance – many of them think that we’re fighting against Islamic tradition, specifically that of teaching young boys to memorize the Koran. But we’re not. We’re asking that since anyone can proclaim themselves to be a Koranic teacher, that, as well-respected individuals in the community, they as imams effectively caution parents to be wary of men who masquerade as Koranic teachers. The second most common thing they say is that federal funds need to be set aside for Koranic schools, not just for the French system (again, that is another topic for another day), and that it’s the government’s job to hold those men accountable and convict them in courts of law. And they’re right. The government absolutely needs to step up to the plate and stop cowering behind the status quo and the way things used to be. But these imams often forget that they have a role to play, too. And quite frankly, so do parents. And our team is working with all three parties. A third thing that often comes up in these meetings is denial. “Oh, that doesn’t happen in our daaras (Koranic schools). Our talibés (students) are happy and aren’t mistreated at all.” It has always surprised me that my superiors and the big-wig imams who are working on this project don’t call those individuals out on the carpet. Because it does, and they are. And there are scores of documentation in the offices of various local and international NGOs that prove it, not to mention those of the United States Departments of State and Labor and the United Nations. Maybe it’s my hard-nosed, stubborn, in-your-face streak that gets my dander up because I would have absolutely no problem calling their bluff and calling a spade a spade. Stuff like that ticks me off and I don’t have any tolerance for it whatsoever.
So you can imagine how hard it was to fight my urge to stand up and clap when one NGO leader that works in this region did what I’ve been wanting to do ever since I arrived in this country. One imam fed us the line about how well their daaras are run and this guy looked him straight in the eye, pointed his finger at the imam and effectively said, “That’s not true and you know it.” And he went on to say that on December 31st (just last week) he met a young talibé who had fled his daara because of the abuse to which he had been subjected. The director took compassion on the boy and he took him into his own house and he’s staying there until arrangements can be made to send him back to his parents. You should have seen everyone’s faces. They’d been called out and they were totally feeling guilty. We got a lot further with them after that.
Side note: I’m so grateful for the organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and all of the planning, intellectual and financial efforts, standardization of teaching materials, and training that our general leaders invest in making sure that the doctrine remains pure. I’m also grateful that individuals who grossly stray from it are held accountable. So many problems that are tied to this child begging issue could have been avoided had efforts been made to ensure that their practices (Islam in general and Sufi Islam specifically) are the same across the board. Other cultural practices add to the problem, but by and large it goes back to religious doctrinal standardization and accountability.
After our meetings one of the more receptive imams took us to the homes of three other imams so we could meet with them and ask them for their support. Evidently they hold a lot of religious and political clout, but due to their age, they weren’t able to come to our meeting. It was very interesting to be in their homes. They were in some of the poorer areas of town, they were quite simple, and they were often surrounded by family and neighbors who had lots of little children. We had to take our shoes off before entering the sitting room, the women didn’t speak other than giving the customary greetings, so the whole affair was done between men. I noticed that out of respect to the imam, no one looked him directly in the eye (except for me before I realized what was going on – it kind of unnerved the first one we met with). The conversation was spoken in either Wolof or Pulaar and no one except for the oldest member of our group spoke to him directly. It was all done by a spokesman. When the imam wanted to tell us something, he told the spokesman and then the spokesman relayed it on to us. At the end the imam prayed for us and the success of our mission. Later Bamba told me that all three of them said that they would address the issue that night at the Friday night prayer. That’s a big deal because the Friday prayers are the most important of the week. At dinner Imam Ousman Samb, the big-wig imam ratib from Dakar who is part of our team, told me that the third imam that we visited said a beautiful prayer over us before we left his house. It was a very long prayer – that’s basically all I got from it – but Imam Samb said that the language he used was quite beautiful. Evidently that imam is considered as one who has devoted his life to God so completely that he has achieved the status of one who “sees and knows hidden things.”
In the course of 90 minutes of silent observation I learned scores of things about the cultural and religious customs of Senegal – very interesting stuff.
Everyone was exceptionally pleased during our car ride back to the hotel because all three of them agreed to help us and encourage the imams he presides over to read the materials we created and address the issue in their sermons. So it was a good day and quite effective. Here’s hoping that our efforts and training aren’t abandoned and left by the wayside.