Talib in Senegal

By: Projects Abroad

You cannot be long in Senegal without noticing the talibe. Shoeless and dwarfed by outsize, ragged football shirts, they weave between the taxis and the stately women in vibrant boubou; crawl between the wheels of stationary carts like cats seeking shade; trot in the wake of well-fed tourists with their trademark cry, 'donne moi cent francs' (the equivalent of 10p). If, new to the country and the concept of these skinny, wide-eyed boys, you take pity and dig in your purse, you are suddenly pressed to the wall by talibe tugging at every available shred of clothing, shrieking and shouting, 'donne moi cent francs! Donne moi cent francs!'

To understand the talibe, whose youths pass in thirteen hour days begging on the streets and in nights bent over a copy of the Koran, you must discover the cramped Daaras where they live and then the elusive, sometimes almost mythical figures of the marabous, who act as masters, teachers, punishers and a loveless version of parents to the boys. A boy's life as a talibe begins from the age of five upwards, when his parents, usually impoverished labourers from remote rural villages or sometimes Mali and Mauritania, give him up to the marabout in return for ready cash and the vague promise of a religious education and a better life in the city for their son. Sometimes the parents, who have barely been beyond the confines of the village and are themselves poorly educated, believe the grand stories the marabouts tell; sometimes they simply, conveniently allow themselves to be deceived by the tantalizing sums they're offered. And so the boy leaves with the marabout, perhaps on his first journey to the city; overwhelmed by the blaring horns of the taxis, the crush of people, the lorries and the diesel fumes. But these streets will be his work and his livelihood; they will support him until the age of 15 or 16, when he leaves the Daara to fend for himself.

He will arrive at the Daara, whose facade is little different to one of the more unkempt houses in the district, and be shown where he will sleep: an alcove the size of a small room, shared with anything between 10 to 15 other boys. Half-heartedly cleaned T-shirts hang from the fronds of a banana tree; the marabout discourages washing, as the dirtier the boy, the more likely he is to be pitied by a toubab or a passer-by and given a few cents. He will leave the Daara early in the morning to beg, or, as he gets older, to carry shopping and run errands. He has to bring 300 cents home a day (30p) - if he doesn't, the marabout will beat him. This constant pressure will perhaps force him, one day, like many of the other boys, to theft and a lifetime of scrapping with the gendarmes.

When he returns in the evening, if he has the requisite amount of money, he is fed before two hours of Koran study. They learn to write in Arabic and to recite vast tracts of the holy scriptures. Mostly, they have no idea what they are saying means. Depending on how liberal the marabout, some of the younger boys will be sent to a conventional primary school to learn a smattering of French and basic maths and science, but some will not go at all. And so their time passes, shaking tin cans on street corners, until they receive their leaving certificate: a ticket to an adulthood of petty criminality and the most unskilled of jobs. Some boys save religiously for years to scrape together the fare to go back to their villages and the parents who sold them years earlier and with whom they have had no contact since, which, all considered, demonstrates an astonishing capacity for forgiveness.

To the casual tourist, this complicated story translates, after the initial stab of pity and sympathy provoked by their buck?toothed, grinning faces, as a daily battle to avoid them. They quickly become a nuisance; you cease to see a face but rather the trademark grubby shorts and the bare feet, and you look to see if you can cross to the other side of the street. Picnicking in the park, the chanted 'j'ai faim, j'ai faim' becomes a minor irritation, like seagulls hopping round your feet watching for crumbs, instead what it should be: a hungry; thirsty, parentless small boy, who is desperately eyeing your feast of nuts, cheese, fruit and bread for any chance bits of leftovers you might happen to throw him.

So what exists to help the talibe? Who, if anyone, tries to pacify the secretive, possessive marabouts, who are quickly roused to anger if they perceive you as trying to 'compete' in the upbringing of the boys, and at the same time tries to offer them some kind of security; a place to go to relax, free from the stresses of the Daara? The answer: talibe centres like the ATT, staffed entirely by local volunteers and, occasionally, foreign helpers. The ATT centre, And Taxawu Talibe, is situated on a patch of rubbish-strewn wasteland in one of the poorest quartiers of Sor, St Louis. The local children, who come out to watch the toubab go by, are grubbier and their faces more closed than those in other neighbourhoods, and they too benefit from the centre, which treats them for cuts and grazes and, on occasion, feeds them.

The doors of the ATT are always open, and it offers card games, swimming, sport activities and, most importantly breakfasts and dinners three times a week, which about 80 children have come to rely on. These are run by Projects Abroad volunteers, and also funded by the organization. There is a shower room (which the boys only use after much persuasion!) and a room with mattresses where they can sleep. However, there are only two or three regulars, as the marabouts send the older boys - who often develop a loyalty to their masters as strong as to a parent, despite the fact they are often treated appallingly - to round up the younger ones and bring them back to the Daara and the inevitable beating. One of the youngest boys, 6, returns every day to the centre with a broad grin across his face, thinking he's free, only to be taken away again towards evening.

The Projects Abroad volunteers can arrange to drop by and participate in some of the activities (recent ones including drawing and a treasure hunt). It's strange to watch the talibe playing Uno, giggling, wanting to show off and win in front of the toubabs , making rapid and fervent attachments to any adult figures who come into contact with them, joking amongst themselves, slapping the cards down, hiding them under the table. At times like these it's hard to see their energy, their charm, and know that they sleep where and if they can, sometimes on the streets; they eat what rubbish they can; and that whatever innocence they have they will soon lose. It's also at times like these that they seem most like boys.

Sometimes they snap from play to barely controllable rage, squabbling viciously over a slice of bread or over some throw-away comment. At times like this, no amount of shouting will distract them from their blind fury. This is in evidence in Assane, who thinks he's about 12, whose right eye is misshapen, missing a pupil and a milky blue. Look closer, and you can see bubbles in the film that stretches across it. He says that a fellow talibe attached him with a stick in 2002, after which his sight gradually deteriorated until he is now completely blind in that eye.

Many boys suffer from skin complaints: Malick, 8, has great tracts of swollen, weeping redness over his legs and scabies all over his head. Katrin, from Germany, and a foreign volunteer at the centre, has to clean and cover it every day, despite his protests. Seydou, 16, is a mere 5'2 and lives at the centre. He seems much younger than his age, and gets a childish pleasure out of reciting 'head, shoulders, knees and toes' in French. And then there is my favourite, Touba, whose face is so open and happy and who always reaches over to take your hand....

The main problem is how to attract more boys to the centre, particularly during the day when there are sometimes as many stagiaires as talibe, without totally alienating the marabouts, whose support is vital if organizations like ATT can continue to try integrating boys into society and giving them skills - like French, dyeing clothes, sewing and practical training -that they would never have gained otherwise. It is extremely rewarding to work there and even just to be there and see the invaluable work that Katrin, Hajime (a stagiaire from a US university), and Maimouna and Marie, the local coordinators do.

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