Yama my shadow

Gaya Morris - Senegal


April 19, 2010

Yama follows me absolutely everywhere. I might be in the school computer lab, out shopping at the épicerie, visiting a friend, or just out for a walk and someone will ask me ‘who’s the kid?’ I’ll suddenly remember she is there, clinging to my pinky or carrying my nalgene, or crouched over a little piece of paper she’s found drawing apples and bananas and talking to herself all the while, and say ‘oh that’s just my little sister Yama. She refuses let me go anywhere alone.’ Indeed, I usually try to convince her to stay home but it never works. For Yama does whatever she wants, especially if its something she’s not supposed to.

Answering the question, ‘who has influenced you most during your bridge year?’ for a GCY worksheet, I recently chose Yama as one of the people who as most impacted me. For she has given me insight into the issues of neglected children, into the depths to which a child can fall without parents, or without someone who acts like a parent. For it’s not just the fact that Yama’s mother has given up trying to control her or, or the fact that her father spends most of the year in the Casamance fighting ‘the war,’ it’s more the combined effect of the very many people in the household who never open their mouths to her but to insult or tell her off. Considering the little girl’s impossible attitude, I don’t blame them for not liking her. But a child who is always treated like and animal will only ever learn to act like one. It’s a downward cycle.

Naturally, what Yama wants most is attention, and she has figured out that she can get this from me. I let her play with my cards, with my guitar, let her draw with my colored pencils and make her practice her letters and numbers at nighttime, and then let her draw all over my door with chalk. I’ve taught her to ask nicely and to say please. But when all of a sudden I don’t give her what she wants and start ignoring her (when she forces me to take things away because she’s being rude and stubborn), that’s when she gets really angry. For the past few days for example, it would seem that her sole purpose in life has been to annoy me. And with such persistance. It took me an extra hour the other day to get to Victoria’s house because she wouldn’t stop following me and then I had to take her all the way home and sneak out the back way. When I tell her she can’t come in the computer lab, she’ll climb up on the bars of the windows and dangle there for hours until I let her in. And if I close the windows she’ll bang on them. Once inside the computer lab she’ll nag at me incessantly for paper and crayons and when I give her some to just get her to be quiet (so I can concentrate on my capstone worksheet) she’ll tell me the crayons are the wrong colors, and then start chanting ‘danga bon, danga naaw, danga soxor’ (you’re bad, ugly and mean) under her breath for hours on end.

Now if I were Senegalese, I would have beaten this child long ago, just to get her stay away from me. But I don’t do that because she gets hitting children disciplines but rarely educates them, and as much as her behavior seems to be asking me to hate her (she likes to tell me flat out, I’m bad and impolite and I don’t care what you think), I know what she really wants is the opposite, to be loved, and I pity her for not knowing how, for never being taught how to get this. Its like she doesn’t even know what its like to be “good.” And despite the language and cultural barriers that hinder my ability to teach her this, I can’t give up on her like everyone else.

Yama is my shadow, but for the past few days she has been more like a shadow over my head. For I don’t think I’ve ever met a more impossible child, and it depressed me so much to think how it is so completely possible for a kid to sink this low – and out of a household of perfectly normal, perfectly nice people. My host mother, Yama’s grandmother, claims that its her mother’s fault for letting her ‘roam the streets’ where she picks up everything she sees and hears. And indeed its not the first time I’ve been shocked by the behavior or children in Sebikotane, or the first time that I’ve considered this other flaw in the education system, at the root of Sebikotane’s education system. For school is really just one half of the puzzle. One could argue that the more important type of education occurs at home. Even the teachers at school confirm that’xale yi danu raaw ci Sebikotane‘: that children here are particularly impolite. Many of them tell stories of having much better teaching experiences in rural locations because people in rural villages tend to value the education of their children more, and because smaller amounts of kids can be better looked after. Here, once school lets out, children basically run wild through the tightly winding sandy streets, coming home at night for leftover ceeb (rice) and never opening their school books until the next morning. Most parents enter the school yard only twice a year: at the beginning to pay the entrance fee, and at the end to pick up their child’s exam booklet. Teachers complain about the lazy attitudes of Sebikotane parents, telling me how when called to school to deal with a troublesome kid they’ll say ‘oh my child is just like that, there’s nothing I can do about it. But don’t worry I beat him every day.’ Teachers even describe a worsening of attitudes in the past five years ago. It seems that it was once possible to get parents to pay 1000 fr a month for teachers to tutor their kids after school, but now most parents refuse. In the words of Madame Ndiaye, the people of Sebikotane don’t know if they are villagers or residents of a city, and that’s why they have the problems of both.

Unfortunately, instead of thinking of ways to address the problem, most teachers, including the almighty Madame Ndiaye, talk of wanting to move away and find better places to teach. The population just doesn’t help us they say. But then every once in a while you’ll see glimpses of hope. In the past two weeks I have discovered to locally founded education related organizations. Ousmane Soumaré I met in the computer lab one day and happened to learn about a little movement he is trying to start in the quartier of Darou Salam to get educated residents more involved in l’encadrement des enfants, with the practical goal of opening a local library/cyber in Darou Salam to offer after school learning activities for kids. This was very exciting for me to hear about considering that was basically what I had been doing in the school library for the past few weeks, giving kids exercises and games to play during the Easter vacation. I suggested that Ousmane should contact the school director to use the library for his organization after I leave, for otherwise I fear no one will be using it at all. And then there is also a nationally recognized local organization for the education of children in Sebikotane, L’Amicale des Elèves et Etudiantes de Sebikotane (AEES), which has a ‘siege’ and seems minimally active offering after school tutoring at the middle school, although on paper their list of activities seems very comprehensive. I only wish I had discovered the existence of the se organizations a few months ago, so I could further explore what they do. Until I heard of them, I would have thought I was the only person in Sebikotane who volunteers personal time towards to goal of educating children. And if the people of Sebikotane care at all about reversing this decline in the education of their children, its going to take the efforts of many more of them.

Finally, yesterday, Yama took a first good step in the right direction. Her grandmother had beaten her twice the night before for her attitude towards me, but it was clear that that hadn’t really made a difference. And so after lunch I told Yama we were going to ‘waxtaan ak sa maam’: chat with your grandmother. I had Anna MBengue translate for me to her that she has two weeks to change her behavior, if she wants to be my friend. We told her what she has to do to be polite (listen to what I say, stop insulting, leave me alone when I have work to do, etc.) and if she can do it, I will be nice to her again. And, in the deep, fluid Wolof of her grandmother, under Anna’s piercing gaze and thick pointing finger, I think it kind of worked.

Later that day Yama accompanied me to sit in on a meeting of a woman’s literacy group. At the end the women had a bit of a shouting match over how the substitute teacher had made them stay later than usual. Anger and insults all around. Walking back down the hill towards Sebi as the setting sun makes the sky glow yellow, and as the call to prayer rings out in the distance, Yama clinging to my pinky with one hand and holding my nalgene in the other, she asks me ‘those women weren’t very polite were they?’

No, Yama, you’re right, they weren’t, I said. Insulting is very rude. You don’t insult do you?

Deedeet, she says. And so I know that finally she has understood.

Gaya Morris