One of my most developed reflexes here is eye aversion. If you’re caught looking at anything, people assume you want to buy it. If you’re caught looking at anyone, people assume you want a conversation (or a marriage proposal).
But nothing drops my gaze faster than the sight of a child. The pattern recognition behavior for a small humanoid silhouette is no longer a smile, but is instead a stare at the ground. Because every child is a beggar.
This is not exactly true. Once in a very long while, I will see children with backpacks holding hands with their parents, or see a group of them in neat blue uniforms. But the majority of the time, a small silhouette becomes a barefoot, dusty-faced child wearing stained ripped clothing, holding out his hand, “saa. Saa.”
I remember that when I was still living on Telegraph Ave in Berkeley, I saw two young boys sitting on the street corner with their father, begging. I had cried then.
This summer, when I was researching Senegal, I finally learned about the Talibé and the abuse they endure. Talibé are supposedly disciples of marabouts, the latter being the Muslim equivalent of priests. It was traditionally an honor for a family to send the eldest son to a daara (Muslim boarding school run by a marabout) to learn the Qur’an. Talibé spend part of their day begging* as a way to learn humility. But this system has turned into an exploitation factory. Marabouts demand that their Talibé bring back a daily quota of sugar, rice, and money, and brutally beat the boys if the quota is unmet. When they bleed there is no healthcare. The Talibé sleep on cardboard, seldom bathe, and are never given new clothes or shoes so that their terrible state instills more pity. In some daaras, all pretense is dropped and the Talibé don’t even study the Qur’an while their “marabouts” get rich. Rural families, sometimes from other countries, unable to feed their children, send their children to Dakar on a false promise, never to see them again. Some Talibé try to run away and become street children; the marabouts form networks to hunt them back down.
After I read this, I sat at my desk, more useless tears streaming down, wondering what I could do. When I landed in Senegal, minutes out of the airport, I saw three Talibé from our air-conditioned bus, and my heart twisted horribly.
And now I flinch. I flinch and walk faster, as if to escape a pack of hungry zombies, as if to escape a pack of starving velociraptors. It feels like that sometimes – often, in fact, when there is a multitude of skinny arms and legs pattering just as reflexively after pale skin.
As part of our Society and Culture class, I visited a daara in Liberté 6. The children were all dirty, but the marabout insisted that they did learn the Qur’an. Dusty and skinny as they were, the Talibé did seem happy there; what I’d found on the internet was probably a reveal of the worst of situations. Still, the Talibé learn no other skills besides memorization of one text; while some have found success, the increasingly exploitative system means that Senegal ends up with a multitude of uneducated young adults whose only skill is begging, just one consequence of education that is available but not compulsory.
I don’t give money. Money fuels and encourages the system and reinforces the idea that light-skinned people are and always will be the rich ones with handouts. “Toubab, donne-moi cadeau” (foreigner, give me a gift), uttered imperatively and imperiously, is practically a standard greeting. In addition, the money goes straight to the marabout. But if I don’t give money, am I responsible for a beating later?
I’ve recently begun to stop flinching and instead shake their outstretched hands and look into their eyes. This morning I had a piece of bread and gave some to the waist-height boy who was extending his hand. It felt so good, but I was so confused about what was the “right” thing.
*There are adult beggars in Senegal as well. One of the five pillars of Islam is Zakāt, or almsgiving, which gives begging a different connotation than it has elsewhere – some even see it as a necessary part of society. The dominant Senegalese opinion is that few of the beggars are actually Senegalese, but are instead from neighboring Mali or Guinea Bissau. This may just be an excuse for people to give beggars a sense of “other.” Some mothers choose to live on the street with their children because they earn more money begging than, for example, selling peanuts. Adult beggars are also often blind or otherwise physically disabled or infirm. Beggars usually sit on the ground, beckoning with “madame” or “bonjour.” The first time I actually experienced begging was this week, when a phone card vendor walked up to my friend and begged him to buy a phone card so he could have some money to eat. “S’il vous plaît, s’il vous plaît,” he’d said, softly.
Update 9/24/2014: a lovely tip from Senegal Daily, 50 tips for running in Senegal:
Greeting while running is not necessary, however acknowledging the Talibe boys while running at least on a semi-consistent basis is always awesome. They eventually see you as a friend who doesn’t just ignore them. They might still ask you for money every once in a blue moon but more importantly, they actually look forward to seeing everyday, which normally brightens their little mornings.