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.