Touba

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.

Khadim Bousso

Khadim Bousso

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.

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Khadija

Khadija

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.

It's enormous - I couldn't even get all of it in my shot

It’s enormous – I couldn’t even get all of it in my shot

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The entrance to the room outside of Serigne Touba’s tomb

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There aren’t any clocks on the buildings in Touba. They tell the time by this sun dial – which was laid by Khadim’s family several years prior to the construction of the mosque

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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.

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Cheikh

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Khadija

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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.

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Khadim's family

Khadim’s family

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.

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Porter vs. Potter – It’s Not What You Think

Last night I went over to Mamadou Bâ’s house to relax, talk literature and politics, and eat dinner.  He invites me over at least once a month – a kind gesture that I am very grateful for.  He and his family live with his brother’s family, and his youngest nephew, Patrice, is 4 years old.  Patrice is fairly shy when it comes to interacting with toubabs (white people), so it has taken him nearly 8 months to work up the courage to sit next to me, respond to the questions I ask, and talk about the things that interest him.  It’s not like he hides when I come over or anything – he is perfectly content to stare at me from across the room and jump in front of my camera when I want to take pictures.  But he doesn’t talk to me other than saying “Bonjour.”

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So last night I was pretty happy when he sat on the couch right next to me and started jabbering away.  Then he grabbed Mamadou’s phone and started taking pictures of me, and then he wanted me to draw with him.  Then he and I had a Wolof lesson – I’d point at something and talk about it in Wolof (if I knew the vocab for it), and he’d point at other things and tell me what they were.  A neighbor lady came to pay Mamadou a visit during this time, and she started talking to me in English and after a while I spoke to her in Wolof.  She asked about my family and I responded in Wolof.  Patrice perked up at that…  He pointed to my computer and wanted to see my pictures.  This is what he said (in French):

“Lark, show me pictures of Harry Potter.”

“I don’t have any pictures of Harry Potter, Patrice.”

He furrowed his little brow and said in a very confused voice, “How can you not have pictures of him?  He’s your brother!!!”

Trying not to laugh at the little guy, I looked over at Mamadou and asked good-naturedly, “What have you been telling him??”

Mamadou started laughing and said, “Yeah, after the first time you came over he asked lots of questions about you, and he had trouble saying your last name.  I kept repeating ‘Porter, Porter…’ and he kept saying ‘Potter, Potter… like Harry Potter?’  It went on forever.  So I finally said ‘Yes, he’s her brother.’  And unfortunately it stuck!  And any time when he wanted to see you or when he wanted to know when you were coming over next he’d ask, ‘When is Harry Potter’s sister coming over??’  I don’t even try to explain it to him anymore…”

NO WONDER THE KID WOULDN’T COME NEAR ME!!  He probably thought I’d whip my wand out and turn him into a toad…  Poor boy!

It must be known that French speakers have often made this mistake.  Porter is French for the verbs to wear and to carry – hence the reasons why the servants who carried French and English kings’ bags/belongings were called porters.  But when saying the verb, one doesn’t emphasize the last ‘r.’  In order to pronounce my last name in French, one has to emphasize the ‘r’ and that pronunciation is quite close to how French speakers say ‘Potter.’  So for a 4 year-old, it’s quite natural to get the two mixed up.  But even adults have problems differentiating it – when I introduced myself on my mission, grown adults would often respond with, “Oh, like Harry Potter!!”  I got kind of sick of it (especially when my name tag was right in front of their face and they could see that the spelling was completely different), so the last couple of months of my mission I’d keep a straight face when someone said that and responded back with, “Yes, he’s my brother.”  It was pretty funny to see their reaction – they seemed to forget that Harry Potter is very much a FICTIONAL character… they took it hook, line, and sinker!

Anyway, Patrice wasn’t paying attention to anything Mamadou was explaining to me, and he kept tapping my arm saying, “I want to see pictures of Harry Potter!”  So I googled some pictures and his face brightened up immediately.  “See!” he exclaimed, “You look just like him!”

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What, dear reader?  You’re kidding!  You mean to tell me that you don’t see the family resemblance??  Obviously you’re not a 4 year-old…

Nighttime Enlightenment

Aside

**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.

Tambacounda and the Imams

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.

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Sociologist Mamadou Wade, the imam, the spokesman

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Bamba (in the olive colored robe) giving the imam the materials addressing child begging

Hybrids

Today marks one week of living in Florida.  One week, seven more to go.  It’s been an interesting week filled with disappointments, several frustrations, and some really great moments.  Moving into new apartments is always a roller coaster ride, and this experience was no different.  As I sit here on this couch and type this post, I’m thankful for my roommates’ admirable qualities and they are sweet individuals.  But I miss my desk and my study areas at home 🙂

My introduction to Wolof has also been a hybrid of ups and downs.  I’m in an introductory class with 3 students total, but my other two classmates have already spent considerable periods of time in Senegal.  They understand and produce the language much better than I do.  They are still considered beginners, however I am pretty far behind them.  It’s been a very L-O-N-G time since I was a true beginner (someone without prior knowledge or exposure to a language) and my mind has often gone back to my university students who have looked at me with fear, apprehension, and frustration in their eyes.  Note to self: when teaching 101 classes in the future, be sure to address their concerns and give them hope and assurance of their success.

This experience has made me recognize once again the value of my BYU training in effectively teaching introductory language courses.  Grammar and vocabulary contextualization is so very important in the learning process.  Throwing out vocabulary is so ineffective.  Practice/group work and role plays are essential in providing opportunities for students to manipulate the language.  That’s the only way it sticks.  And having good textbooks also helps.  On the other hand, it’s also important to control the direction of the class period and not allow students to derail the lessons by unrelated questions and tangents.  Perhaps the majority of my frustration stems from the fact that I am a language teacher and I know how much more effective our time in the classroom can be.

That being said, I’m sure that things will improve once we get farther into the program.  I’m learning a lot and despite my frustrations, I enjoy going to class and interacting with my classmates.  They teach me a lot and they’re enthusiastic about the language, the Senegalese culture, and it’s evident that they love the Senegalese people.  I look forward to strengthening my relationships with them.  Interestingly, all of the Wolof speakers in the program (introductory and intermediate) will be in Senegal during the same time I will be in Dakar, so we’ll probably have occasions to meet up and do things together.  It will be great to have friends from the States in the country.  Furthermore, my teachers are wonderful people.  They are so happy and encouraging and they are always smiling.  Their Senegalese friends who stop in from time to time to help out in conversation labs are equally as genuine, happy, and helpful.  I think that all of us are grateful to and for them.