Empathy: singing and dancing in holes

It happened immediately. As soon as I stepped outside of the gated parking lot of the airport in Dakar, a young boy approached me. He held out his hand with his palm facing up toward the cloudless sky of a hot Senegalese summer morning. In his other hand he carried a tin can that rattled with each step. I looked at him and smiled. He looked back at me and held his hand out farther. I continued walking, hoping maybe that would be it, maybe that would be the end of our interaction and I’d be let off the hook easily, but he followed right alongside me. I looked at him again, this time nodding my head “no.” He persisted. After lugging my 49-pound suitcase over the street curb, I turned to the boy and said, in perhaps the most inauthentic French accent ever uttered, “je m’appelle Brooke.” He stared at me blankly. I repeated the phrase, this time pointing at myself while slowly enunciating each syllable. He pointed at himself and said “Wolof.” Oh, I thought. I knew even less Wolof than French, which meant I knew none. During the short time that I had attempted to introduce myself to the boy, three more boys holding rattling tin cans had joined our walk. They flanked me on both sides, surrounding me with a circle of outstretched hands.

As I began to feel desperate and powerless over the situation, I remembered a conversation I had had a few days prior to arriving in Dakar. I was being told to prepare myself for inevitable encounters with talibés (young boys who are sent away from home to study the Quran and who account for a large portion of child beggars in Senegal). I was being told that the money they receive while begging on the streets doesn’t usually go toward their studies or well being, rather it goes directly into the pockets of their marabouts, or religious leaders. I was being told that the best way to handle the talibés when they ask for money is to give them food or to simply talk to them, but that it was a difficult tightrope to walk because before you knew it they would swarm around you. Well I didn’t have any food to give and I didn’t speak Wolof or French or any other language that may have been useful in that moment. All I had was my smile, so I went with that. The swarm ensued. 

A few weeks later I sat in the courtyard of a school where talibés were taken in off the streets and given a place to live until they could be reunited with their families. I watched the boys, none older than 13, topple over one another while singing and dancing. They laughed hysterically and squirmed for room to show off their moves. One of the boys looked familiar. As he clapped and sang and smiled so big I thought he might pull a cheek muscle, I fumbled to recall whom it was he so vividly reminded me of. In this school in the middle of Dakar, far from his home and far from mine, in this oh so familiar looking boy’s face, I saw my little cousin. I saw my neighbor down the street who I babysit. I saw the kids I serve super hero ice cream to when summer camp lets out for the day. I saw the team of little league players that practices in the field next to my soccer games. And I saw myself. I saw the pure unabashed joy I feel when a song I know every word to comes on the radio and I can’t help but sing along. I saw myself throwing my arms up in the air and moving my feet in an unapologetically awkward fashion while tears streamed down my face from laughing so hard. I saw myself happy and free and without worry.

But how? And why? How and why did I feel like I knew this little boy when our lives were completely different and separate, when I had never, and probably would never, experience some of the hardships and struggles he faced on a daily basis. I didn’t know him. I didn’t know his name or his story. But I knew what he was feeling in that moment of song and dance. I, too, had felt it, and I’d seen others feel it as well. I was feeling with the little boy in that moment. I wasn’t feeling for him, I was feeling with him. 

Before traveling to Senegal, I heard an explanation of the difference between sympathy and empathy that went something like this: “sympathy” is looking down at someone stuck in a hole and saying “shucks, looks pretty rough down there,” while “empathy” is jumping into the hole with that someone and saying “aw man, this really is a bummer.” So, friends, next time you come across someone stuck in a hole, try jumping in with him or her, and maybe even do a little dance and sing a little song. Next time, find it in yourself to find yourself in others.