This is the story of Son of Africa. How I ended up in Senegal, Africa is a bit of a story itself, which I’d be happy to sit across the table from you with a coffee in hand and tell you all about that. But this story is about my visit to Africa and why I continue to return each year.
I arrived in March 2010 at 6am… my first hurdle… airport security and customs. Not knowing an actual address for my stay in Senegal posed a problem. Luckily there was a discarded piece of cigarette package on the floor and after a quick discussion with my Senegalese friend and an airport worker, an address of some sort was scribbled down on the paper which served as my ticket into Africa.
Outside the airport, the city was bustling already. Rows and rows of dinted, damaged, smoking yellow Peugeot cabs lined up to collect their first fares of the day. I was happy to be led out to a waiting car and depart the chaos of the airport… but then, right into the chaos of the streets. It didn’t take long to notice the street boys, the “Talibe”, homeless boys that scour the streets begging for money and food from anyone passing by. It’s a problem here; one that has had Human Rights involved with a few times in the past.
These Talibe are boys that have been sent from the outside villages and neighboring African countries into Dakar, Senegal to learn the Muslim Religion from the” Marabout”, the religious leaders. Unfortunately for many of these Talibe, they fall into the hands of corrupt Marabout and end up being sent into the streets to beg for money and food.
The boys mostly range in age from 5 to 15 years. I see them often… sometimes late into the night, barefoot and dodging the night traffic in search of enough money to take back to the “Marabout” in order to avoid sometimes extremely harsh punishment. Don’t get me wrong. There are legit Marabout and schooling for the Talibe – places where the boys are housed, fed and given the promised education. It should be like that, but for many boys, they find themselves living on the streets, sleeping in run down shacks and on the city sidewalks. Many of them leave their Marabout and become street children. They are not orphans, but they are homeless, hungry and not cared for. When I see them I think of my own children and how fortunate they,… we, were to have been born in a country such as ours. Not to say that we don’t have our own share of problems. The difference in Senegal is that the resources and availability of help is so limited and with the high unemployment rate, there are few that are able to offer help.
On one of my visits to Senegal, I got to know a few of these Talibe boys which hung around the coffee shop which I would frequent. Each time I would get a little extra food for them and give them the change from my coffee. One little boy in particular stole my heart with his huge smile and cautious approach. Each day he came closer, smiled more and melted my heart. I didn’t speak his language so our “conversations” were through smiles, time spent and charades (which I dare you to try to outdo me in). I couldn’t help thinking that maybe I was his safe place just for a short time each day. One day my friend was with me and spoke to the little boys in their language. The little boy proudly stepped up and told him, “the “white” is my friend.” Heart melt #2
Only a few days later, as I walked to the coffee shop, I noticed the absence of the Talibe boys…they were nowhere to be found, which is odd here. When I got to the shop I asked about the boys. “Didn’t you hear about the fire in the Medina?” I hadn’t heard yet, but what I found out later was that several Talibe boys had died in an overnight fire when the small shack they were sleeping in caught fire. (http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2013/apr/17/senegal-child-begging-renegade-teacher) The news was devastating. Not just to me, but to the entire country. There was talk that the government had ordered the police to pick up all the Talibe boys from the streets and bring them to a place where they said the Talibe boys would be given proper housing, education and care. Many boys were picked up by the police. Others went into hiding. For a few days I didn’t see any Talibe on the streets, but by the third day they started to trickle back onto the streets and soon everything was back to normal.
I looked for the boy each day but never saw him again. I don’t know what happened to him, or his name, or his story but I do know that the little boy touched my heart over the short time I knew him. This isn’t just about one boy. It’s about up to 50,000 boys that roam the streets of Dakar Senegal in search of handouts of money and food for survival.
It isn’t easy here. Prices are expensive, there is little help from the government in social programs and there are overwhelming amounts of people in difficult situations because of this. There are a few projects working here in Dakar that are helping and I have had the fortune to visit, tour the projects and speak with administration. L’ Empire des Enfant and Village Pilote are two of them. They operate projects similar to what Son of Africa hopes to. When I spoke with them the story was the same… so many needing help with so few resources.
There are also other parts to Senegal,… the ones that amaze me and bring me back. The African traditions and culture here define Africa for me. I am an outsider here, and although I am absorbed into this culture, it belongs to the African people of Senegal and I watch with awe and acceptance.
Beautiful uncluttered, unlittered beaches where life goes on at a slower pace and there is always time for sitting and chatting and handshakes and African tea. There are small desert villages with community water wells where buckets of water are lifted out in leather pouches and small fishing villages where the village people wait patiently for the fishing boats to return with the days catch.
There are places of history of the slave trade days that can reduce you to tears in a breath. There are craftsmen carving out incredible sculptures, painting colorful representations of life, weaving colorful baskets and spinning out beautiful articles of colorful clothing. It will never cease to amaze me – the beauty of an African mother stepping out of a building with her baby on her back in a place where everything,… building, land and sky, is all the same color. The sight is beautiful and the colors and designs in her clothing are incredible and in high contrast to the dull area surrounding her. And then there are the people… beautiful, proud and… enduring.
There is a term here called “Teranga”. Teranga literally means hospitality in Wolof, a Senegalese language. In Senegal, hospitality is more than an art and culture; it’s a way of life. Teranga is the spirit of camaraderie, tolerance, and acceptance of one another. In the Senegalese culture, they strongly believe in taking care of anyone who crosses their path, especially guests… http://www.terangaboston.com/about.php
I see it all the time. I have been welcomed to tea, sat down to dinner to share what is available, welcomed into family homes and invited to see the real Africa that I crave to know. Teranga isn’t just a word. It’s an experience that I hope someday you will all be able to know.
I am here now… in Senegal. My hope is to provide a safe shelter for many of these Talibe boys, street boys,… homeless boys or orphans. Son of Africa will be a shelter where they are offered a safe place to live, an education, proper meals, clothing, life skills and a soccer program, while still keeping strong ties to their African heritage. Son of Africa will offer them an opportunity to better themselves and hopefully be able to become self-sufficient proud sons of Africa. It will give them a sense of family and allow them to play and be boys without the dangers and hardships of living on the streets. They are not orphans but they are homeless street boys. Maybe one day they will be able to return to their villages with their skills and education and be able to provide help to their families and village members. That’s my wish for them.
That’s the story. This is what Son of Africa is about. This is the beginning. I hope you will join me in my venture. Sometimes when you know, you just can’t look the other way anymore.