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Talibés: les Enfants du Sénégal | A Creative Essay by John Edward Ellis

Prologue

The boy drags the goat through the alley, over a furrow of dirt between earth brick and concrete. When they reach the hutch’s entryway, the boy kneels between the goat’s fore and hind legs in a process of human-animal repetition fiet tedium: a scrabble of twine, a flick of the wrist, a noose over the hoof. The animal waffles, bleats, and pulls. The boy slaps its haunches. The goat pulls against the twine again, and there I see it—a mien of alarm or grief or protest in the way of all forms of captivity.

 

My knowing began with a name—the name of a river, the name of a country—a fabled Portuguese interpolation of the phrase sunu gaal, meaning our pirogues or our canoe in the original Wolof. Rumor has it that the Iberian sailor was asking the name of the river; the Wolof fishermen saw him point to a lip in the waterway baring their dugout canoes.

The country’s historical record suggests more than a few etymologies as quotable as this one; nonetheless, if you know the river and its coastal cities, all abundant with pirogues, our canoe is the only one worth any mention.

A decade ago, as I traversed a dozen countries across the European continent, I wrote in the margins of a journal one knows no country but one’s own, and in all others, one remains a passenger. If there’s some greater truth to this—the fixed status of one’s itinerance—I resolved to be, in the very least, a competent, empathetic passenger. In this manner, I knew and did not know sunu gaal.

Sunu-gaal:

A phrase from a fable. A page of my childhood atlas. A country with a silhouette resembling the profile of a hand puppet. One of fifty-four nations on a continent. One of sixteen expressing a region. Fourteen degrees north of the equator and fourteen west of the prime meridian. The westernmost portion of the cradle of humankind.

And so. When the opportunity presented itself, I applied for the grant—to live there, to write there, to know there, but still a passenger. A passenger in the canoe.

Senegal.

 

The verdigris of the nightlight disclosed the room:

A dam of suitcases against the closet door.

My wife and daughter across the queen bed.

Nondescript wallpaper.

Single-serve coffeemaker.

Art deco chair.

No smoking pictograph.

And at the center of everything, the trifold sign reading bienvenue! Welcome.

Above the carpet where I lay over the bedsheet, the window receded beneath its curtains, two halves of a mask drawn against dawn’s awaiting face. Here I remained in a loop—fog-apercu-fog—until the tips of the curtains grew so sharp with day, I could no longer ignore the façade materializing outside. A madman, I stood up and placed my hands on either edge of the sill, inhaled severely the last of our climate-controlled air, and squinted to shield my eyes from the coming light.

 

Two-hundred and sixty kilometers separate Senegal’s airport from the northern coastal city of Saint-Louis. In this expanse, one finds the transition of worlds within a single country—alfisols to plinthite, tropical to semi-arid, warm to hot—Savanna becoming Sahara. This transition zone is the Sahel.

Derived from the Arabic word Sahil, meaning shore or coast, the Sahel forms the northern boundary of the Savanna and the southern boundary of the Sahara. In Africa, the Sahara—Arabic for desert—is not unironically likened to a sea. Like most who are not themselves African, I have always been more familiar with the form of the Savanna—grasslands, plains, acacias, and so on. This is what one sees in broad images of African landscape, what one imagines in the settings of an Achebe novel or Senghor’s poetry—not the sandstorms and wretched vegetation of the Sahel.

And yet. On that first day of the first month of the rainy season, as we drove those two-hundred and sixty kilometers north, our sky bore the jaundiced patina of silt freshly upended by Saharan winds and imparting a unique semblance of the apocalyptic: the atmosphere, pale yellow sandstorm; the vegetation, wretched. On this day, my first in Africa in over thirty years, I searched the expanse through the eyes of what I was—a passenger—realizing I would see little else of the Savanna through the car window and that here was my welcome (bienvenue!): the first hours of Armageddon.

 

The landlord of our apartment led me out the iron gate to a two-lane road, one of Senegal’s few byways and an avenue through downtown Saint-Louis. Having offered to walk me into the neighborhood market, he led me over an intersection where the eponymous river rose parallel the road. Across the transparent waterway, fishing pirogues pierced the meridian and folded against the shore.

Within some minutes, the asphalt transitioned onto a dirt road recession where concrete enclaves, garage-like storefronts, and fruit stands abutted one another. Masses of men and women inundated the footways, nudging the produce and bartering in the blonde light while on the roads mule carts and rubble piles competed for space. As we crossed the suburb’s thoroughfare, a band of ragged, preadolescent children absorbed the space around us, ambling in threes and fours and fives, all with empty containers swinging at their sides like picnic baskets. My landlord waved them away. The children skirted behind us for several blocks, then evaporated somewhere. I glanced back at the last of them.

“They are from the daaras,” my landlord said. I searched his expression, and he pointed into the throng to a crown of unpainted earth brick hutches. “The Quranic schools.”

I shook my head. “Students?” My landlord nodded, and I watched a few other boys snake the dirt between the concrete storefronts, lifting their empty containers over their heads to any who would acknowledge them. I looked again at the daaras. “The schools don’t provide their food?” My landlord squinted as if to consider some novel plausibility, then waved at me to follow him further into the crowd.

 

The doorway to the office framed the retinular interior: a polished coffee table and assembly of wing-back chairs coaxed visitors toward an oaken desk over which a portrait of Senegal’s president colluded with the enfilade. Fatoumata Fall’s ivory boubou and veil mirrored the harmony of her room, and as she spoke, I placed one hand across the notebook in my lap, buoying the motion of my pen as I transcribed her narration:

“In my country, everyone knows the value of education; the people want it, so our government is attempting to reach all children. It is the law that children from the ages of 5 to 16 must go to school, so this is the commitment of the teachers in my region.” Fatoumata stretched her forearms over the desk and turned to her computer. Her eyes travelled the screen, perhaps for some anecdote of disclosure, then she turned the monitor to face me and pointed to a shaded pentagon marking the Saint-Louis regional school system. “In spite of this, the government can’t enforce its law; we don’t have enough schools.” Fatoumata lifted her hands from the desk, palms facing me. “This is why we started building the abri provisoires in our outlying communities. The abri provisoires are temporary constructions, made from whatever materials the local people can find. Our priority is to have all children receiving an education, even if their school buildings are not permanent.”

I turned my notebook on its side to capture Fatoumata’s soliloquy until it ended. When she stopped speaking, I read the last several inscriptions. “I’m glad to hear of the abri-provisoires.” In pretense of the French, I mumbled the pronunciation. Fatoumata repeated it. I turned the notebook through its previous three pages, all bearing her statements in bulleted form, then I glanced at the clock over the office doorway. “And I appreciate all the time you’ve spent with me.” I paused to stretch into the wingback chair as Fatoumata again searched her computer screen. “I do have one more question.” I leaned forward and cleared my throat. “On the road from where I live to downtown Saint-Louis, I see many young boys, the one’s carrying the small containers. The one’s who beg.” Fatoumata shifted her elbows to press her fists together. I closed my notebook and sat it against my lap. “But this is on the weekdays, during daytime hours, when other children are in school. Can you tell me why these children are not in one of the abri provisoires?”

Fatoumata leaned away from her desk and crossed her arms. “We are a country with limited means.” She paused, then hung her head forward. “The boys you see attend the country’s Quranic schools.”

I nodded. “The daaras?”

Fatoumata stared at me. I watched her gradually uncross her arms and shore the edges of her desk with her fingers. “Yes, the daaras. These have been in Senegal a very long time. Even now, we have families who won’t send their children to French schools. They only trust the marabouts.” I looked at Fatoumata. “These are the religious teachers,” she said.

My pen turned across the notebook. “I guess my question is…why must the children spend all day begging?”

Fatoumata tapped her fingers on the arm of her chair. “As I said, we are a poor country. The families who send their children to these schools are typically under some hardship. The families should pay the teachers but usually can’t, so the students must provide for their own means.” Fatoumata was silent again; she looked into the ceiling tile. “This deprivation that you see, it is…” Fatoumata glanced at me, as if waiting for some object of comprehension. “…it is also considered tradition. To harden the boys. It is a part of their religious profession.”

I nodded. “Why is it only boys who go through this process?”

“Girls are… spared the hardship.” Through the window across from Fatoumata’s desk, the branch of an outstretched acacia abraded the glass. “This is the tradition,” she repeated.

 

Beneath moon, under kitchen window, the room’s unlit timbre as the African night, I turned on the screen, typed the words: Senegal daara children. I searched a few seconds. Fewer. The answer was already there. Apparent. A commonplace. A single word.

Talibés.

Derived from the Arabic root Talib, meaning seeker of knowledge or student.

Talibés.

The pixelated light of innumerable testimonies and statistics traversed the page: the estimated number of student-children in Senegal—not in the thousands but the tens of thousands; of those, the average number who begged—not in the thousands but the tens of thousands; the average number of hours spent begging each day; the average quota of francs the marabouts imposed on their students to requisition within a single day; the average number of students deprived of a meal or forced to sleep outside the daara when not achieving that quota; the average number of hours the boys spent between meals; the average weight per age that qualified as malnourished or wasted; the average number of those physically abused.

Talibés.

I whispered it into the room. Aloud, the word was stentorian. The ataxia of the markets. A flight of teals from a mangrove.

I looked at the date of the article. Ten years of research. Journalists, childcare workers, human rights advocates. Seven cities. One hundred and fifty interviews. Sixteen documented deaths. The cases of children abandoned by their marabouts. The cases of forced migration between countries. And those children, in an effort to escape their abusers, left to the shelters or streets.

I scrolled further, faster, the article’s subtitles flashing, their words emboldened: Deprived. Neglected. Malnourished. Exploited. Trafficked. Abused. Tortured. Enslaved. Then the saturnine, monochrome photographs:

A boy collapsed over a bridge guardrail.

The half-silhouette of a neotenous face, scarred after having been struck by a metal rod.

The seven-year-old chained to a wall.

The images flashed as spinning microfiche. I looked away.

I lay my head against the window and recalled that morning—shutting the iron gate, crossing the intersection, the fishing boats on the meridian. There, I saw two children on the road, their empty containers lifted toward me as we passed one another. The younger boy, maybe six, clinging to the older boy’s hand, his lips churning, his voice dim, as if echoing up from the bottom of an empty pool. Staring. The actuality of experience eliminating all distance. I looked away.

In the obscurity of evening, a bleating awakened outside the window: an unclaimed goatherd ambling into the night.

 

Ousmane greeted me from the shade of an awning over Rue de France. I lifted the brim of my cap and replied in French, but he pointed to his mouth, asking if I spoke English. I nodded: “Oui, je le parle.” Since arriving in Senegal the month before, Fatoumata and my landlord were the only people I had met who spoke conversational English. With everyone else, I spoke French.

Ousmane sat down on the concrete. “Where from?” I told him I had moved from Washington D.C. Ousmane grinned and slapped his thigh. “Wash-ing-ton.” Each syllable streamed in staccato succession. “I like Wash-ing-ton. Bih-den. Joe Bih-den.” He began laughing: “Joe Bih-den too old.”

The breast pocket of Ousmane’s shirt bore the emblem of Senegal’s football team. I pointed to it and asked if he was Senegalese. He shook his head. “From Gambia. Moved to Senegal last month. You been to Gambia?” I told him I hadn’t. In truth, I knew nothing of the Gambia other than its location within its larger French neighbor. Ousmane grinned. “We speak English.”

After Ousmane and I introduced ourselves by name, I moved beneath the awning and sat down. Ousmane asked why I had come to Senegal; I motioned to a notepad and pen in my shirt pocket, saying I was there to write about the country and its people. Ousmane appeared to me in his late teens, maybe twenty, and a backpack lay against his leg, so I asked if he was a student at the local university.

Ousmane shook his head. “I am a student of the Quran.”

I drew my hat down over my forehead and stared at Ousmane from beneath the bill. “Where do you study?”

Ousmane reclined onto the pavement and lifted an open hand, as if presenting something for exhibition, and I watched his face flash into something hardened, then return, effulgent. “There.” He pointed across the block, into an alley forged between earth brick and concrete.

I nodded. “A daara,” I said, unsure if I intended it as a question or declaration.

Ousmane nodded. A silence unfolded in time, broken first by the bay of a dog, then a passing taxi, and finally, Ousmane: “I’ll show you.”

 

I follow Ousmane through a narrow alley. Where the earth brick ends, a space reveals the entryway to the unlit cavity of a hutch. Under the light of late morning, I discern only the initial darkness, not so much a doorway as the cessation of a wall. In the entrance, we pass a boy collapsed on a cot. A tapered mantle of sunlight divulges his torso, stenciled beneath a murmuration of flies. He sits up long enough for me to see the rungs beneath his eyes, then he lays back again, drawing a rag of blanket across his waist and over his bare feet.

Inside, Ousmane moves around me to sit down on a vacant cot and motions for me to do the same. From all corners of a dirt floor, a host of preadolescent and adolescent boys gape in my direction. I begin to raise my hand. Ousmane snaps in Wolof and the boys dart through the darkness to sit down around us in an elliptical on the dirt. In a few seconds, they are there, I am there, all of us an ensemble of expressions, glances, grins, stare-downs. Ousmane continues to speak Wolof; he points at me then motions outside. Several boys nod. Across from me, I see one of the youngest, maybe six or seven years old, and I evoke from memory the two boys crossing the intersection near my home. The word returns, stentorian. The statistics, categorizations, and emboldened terms. I see the fishing boats on the meridian.

Ousmane stops speaking and grabs the side of my arm, pronouncing my name. Several of the boys repeat it, smirking. Ousmane looks at me. “These my brothers. These Talibés.” I nod. He grins. “I told them you a friend. I told them you from Wash-ing-ton. You live in Senegal. You write about people in Senegal.”

I nod. “I’m glad to meet everyone.” Ousmane translates. I look around the band of faces. “Actually, what are your names?” Ousmane says a few words in Wolof, then points to the closest boy. One by one, they speak their names aloud. Through the opaque, I notice one of several recesses of brick streak sun against the opposite wall. As the last boy says his name, the sound of bleating carries through the alley outside; a boy approaches from across the open vestibule, dragging a goat by a rope bridle. He kneels, ties the goat by its leg, and slaps it from behind, then he crosses the entryway to peer into the hutch. Ousmane motions for the boy to sit with the others, then he turns to me. “You ask another question?”

I remove the notepad and pen. “I have many.”

———-

Photo: E. Diop on Unsplash (remixed)

John Edward Ellis
John Edward Ellishttps://www.johnedwardellis.com
John Edward Ellis’ grew up in West Africa, Europe, and the Northeastern United States. His essays and articles have been published in Relief Journal, Able Muse Review, Embodied Effigies Magazine, and elsewhere. His memoir about teaching underprivileged youth in San Francisco and traversing the Mojave Desert is forthcoming. Ellis is the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship to Senegal and a graduate fellowship from Saint Mary’s College of California, where he earned an M.F.A. He serves on the editorial board for the Journal of Veterans Studies.

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