Max Siragusa - Senegal

March 13, 2013

The Talibé are one of Senegal’s most noticeable pariah groups. You see them swarming about Dakar and Saint-Louis, in Thiès and Mbour, in any city and even in smaller villages such as mine, Leona.

The Talibé are children who are given by parents over to the ward of a Marabout or a Koranic teacher. The parents abandon their children to these men so that their kid can learn piety, humility, the value of a meal, the importance of solidarity, the true value of a dollar, and what it means to have a roof above one’s head and clothes on one’s back. Many times, the Talibé are sent out to beg for food and for money from strangers. If they want to eat, they must depend on the kindness of people they don’t know to provide their nourishment. When the Talibé return at the end of a day to their Marabout, they are often mistreated, sometimes beaten savagely, if they don’t return with enough of what they were sent out to garner from the pity of others. For all intents and purposes, the Talibé are urchins.

The children are as young as five years old and sometimes as old as fifteen or sixteen, although you never usually see Talibé of the latter age group. You can easily pick them out if you look hard enough: they are usually unbathed and often appear underfed. The fact of the matter is that many of them are, in fact, the unenviable beneficiaries of chronic malnutrition. The clothes they wear are typically the only ones they have and in any case, clothes are exchanged between them when they return to their Madras at the day’s end. That being the case, their clothes are often torn up and threadbare, providing little protection from the elements. Some of them are quite obviously ill and sport open sores and welts that result from extremely poor sanitation as well as from untreated injuries. As stated before, they are essentially urchins and they definitely look as such.

In my experience with the Talibé thus far, I have come to discern a correlation present within their caste: the quietest Talibé are the ones who have seen the most hardship and existential struggle. You can discern when you look at a Talibé that they have endured circumstances that children should not have to. These largely silent individuals have not just struggled in the great challenge of life. They have been defeated in the course of that struggle and you can read it in their character, in their very mannerisms. They are still functional but the way they’re forced to live, for some of these kids, is enough to have broken their spirit in irreparable ways.

A Talibé that I have befriended, for lack of a better term, is Ahmadou.

Ahmadou is a bit of an enigma to me. He’s at least seven but can’t be older than ten. He’s about a head and a half shorter than me, has mocha-tone skin and is alarmingly thin. He lives in Thiowor, a town that’s a kilometer and a half away from mine. He comes to Leona a couple times a week, market days and then again when he feels like it. I have never seen him wearing shoes or sandals. I don’t know where he was born though I’ve asked him plenty. He understands Pulaar and I have heard him speak it. Yet he also knows and speaks Wolof. When I ask how he knows two languages, he doesn’t answer.

Ahmadou is very, very quiet. In Leona, he has some regular givers but even strangers end up giving him something when they see him. Maybe the inhabitants here know something about his past that I don’t, but you wouldn’t need to have studied the history of this kid’s hardship to read the look on his face and in his eyes. He wears the expression of someone who has seen so much of life’s underbelly that it has altered the very person he was born as and has changed his features and way of behaving. I think people give to him so willingly whether they know him or not because they can practically feel this is one of so many derelict souls life has squashed down and put out of commission. He’s young enough that to pick up on this mote of existential defeat clinging to him is not saddening, not even pitiable: it is merely astonishing.

Ahmadou and I chat at least once a week for several minutes, sometimes longer. He likes to make mean fun of people but isn’t a harsh kid at heart, at least as far as I can tell. He never makes trouble, never pesters people, never chases them or tails them in an attempt to goad forth some money or food. We comment on passersby and their wares on market days and what he says, sometimes, speaks to experience too far beyond his years to be appropriate. His opinions on material goods, on what the family is, what a mom is there for, and how important God is, are the opinions of someone who does not just suffer from material lack. They’re opinions of someone who has known very little affection and who has had a hard time recognizing love in their life. He hasn’t many personal tastes or preferences, no real likes or marked dislikes, no strong commentaries to be made of any sort. It’s almost like his deprived existence has retarded the growth of his personality in some ways. I think that when your day-to-day life is spent working on meeting the bare essentials, you aren’t left with much time to simply live and to let your Self flower. I see a bit of a child underneath his toughness: hints of rebelliousness and intelligence. He’s been forced down, but Ahmadou is certainly a unique character underneath.

For as long as Ahmadou lives, no matter how far he manages to transcend the existence he knows at this point in time, he will never forget what it was like being a child of the street. A part of him has been killed by being forced into this literally hand-to-mouth existence; who he was born as has partially ceased to be. No matter what he goes on to do or to be, his time as a Talibé will mark him for life, for better or for worse it’s too early to tell. Maybe he will never know anything but poverty and separation, or maybe he will make it back into school and make a life for himself. I’m no romantic, but I hope the latter is what happens. He may be disadvantaged, but he most certainly isn’t dumb. Not by a long-shot.

When I see and speak with Ahmadou I am struck dumb with a sense of common humanity. Not because I can relate to him, but because he and I are so vastly different and have led such utterly separate, divided lives that it’s hard to believe we’re even living on the same planet. We’re more different than I thought possible. Our only bond is in being members of the same species and I have a tough enough time processing that. After that, we have no commonalities whatsoever. Some Talibé manage to leave their street lives and eventually return home. Some never make it home once they’re tossed out of the care of the Marabout. Some of them get by fine and others are like Ahmadou- the experience has damaged them in ways not always visible.

I very carefully look at the Talibé like Ahmadou, the quiet ones and the ones wearing expressions entirely devoid of any kind of emotion, the ones who no longer have the motivation to actively beg for sustenance. When I do this, I am humbled by their struggle, the magnitude of their defeat and their will to somehow keep going, despite what life is for them.

Max Siragusa