Facts of Life

This piece was featured in the Verona-Cedar Grove Times on April 28, 2011.  Read the article here.

“DAKAR, Senegal Thousands of children in Senegal are forced to beg on the streets under the pretext that they are receiving religious instruction, Human Rights Watch said in a report Thursday that urged the government to crack down on the long-established phenomenon…Beneath the staid, even words of the article my U.S. mom had sent me was the reality I had encountered back at the garage in my hometown here of Mbour.

A photo of my host sister Marzia Sarr, age ten. She wants to be a doctor.

I am sitting in a taxi and trying, trying not to turn my head and look into the eyes of the three small talibe boys pressing themselves against my windowpane. They sing a harrowing, high-pitched, traditional song and leave the little traces of their noses and palms upon the glass. These three little boys, knobby-kneed, shoeless, one no older than six, have eyes powerful enough to bore into me and unhinge me. There is no evidence of any  “crackdown” and from where I sit in my weather-worn seat, I feel angry and helpless. I know that the money they collect will most likely not feed their bellies but the coffers of their marabouts, often corrupt clerical leaders. But that fact could not abate the guilty quickening of my heart or the way my loose change seemed to turn cartwheels in my pockets.

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“In Senegal 42% of the workforce and 19% of its members of parliament are women,” I read in a friend’s Lonely Planet Guide and am instantly back in the classroom with my hand-picked, high achieving English students. Before my trip, I had prepared myself for a potential inequality of educational opportunity here, but it is girls who fill my English class for advanced students, girls who tell me that the homework I assigned them really isn’t hard or shyly approach my desk after class to thank me for the lesson.

When I pose a question to the class, instantly hands shoot straight up in the air, like little human cranes. The students snap their fingers vigorously and some even hop eagerly out of their seats; all to be selected to name the preposition that is always coupled with the infinitive in English.  Most of the time, the eager student is a girl. In my two classes of fifteen advanced students I often find myself thinking, “Pick a boy this time” because more than two-thirds of the classes are female.

Pre-trip, I had read about parents who, when forced to choose, value their sons’ education over their daughters’ but two of my host sisters here want to be doctors and one, Fatou, who is third in her class, is determined to go to university in Canada but to return to work here in Senegal. Again and again, I have seen, in the courtyard during recess at preschool or elementary school, a little boy hit a little girl only to receive not tears in response, but a forceful whack. All of this: the brazen hands raised and straining towards the sky, the leveling of enrollment based on gender, the empowerment of girls that allows them the courage to boast lofty ambitions and to refuse to be bullied, leaves me giddy with vicarious pride.

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The life expectancy in Senegal is fifty-five years.” My wandering eyes pilfered the statistic from a fellow’s notebook and instantly I am far away from our Saint Louis retreat. I am back at the orphanage where I work in Mbour, registering a young woman holding a swaddled newborn baby, the kind so new to breathing that it seems to still have gills attached. I ask her if the baby is hers and she begins to tell me a story in a distanced, perfunctory sort of way. Her younger sister had died from loss of blood while giving birth to this child in a local hospital. “Why didn’t you go to a clinic?” I ask. There wasn’t the money, she finishes, a calm smile still pulled across her lips, as if to seal off any escaping emotion. I tell her that I work in the neonatal section and I will look out for her sister’s baby. The doleful truth, though, is that the section is filled with babies whose mother’s died birthing them and whose father’s visit occasionally or not at all. I sometimes question the assistants maternals: “Does Yande Diof have parents?” I  ask. “Just a father,” is the usual response.

In America, we watch the burgeoning, bulging bellies of our sisters, aunts, moms and friends with unfettered excitement. What will the baby be called if it is a girl/ a boy? What gender neutral color should the nursery be painted? Here in Senegal, pregnancy is a muted affair, concealed for as long as possible and rarely discussed in the open. In America pregnancies are colored by the cheerful anticipation of an extravagant shower, while in Senegal pregnancy is enshrouded by the very real possibility of the loss of child or mother or even both.

At the orphanage, I have a special thing for the Tourre twins, but especially little Adama. I love his gurgling laugh and they way he smiles so hard sometimes his bottle tips right out of his mouth—things that, sadly, his mother will never see.

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This time last year I was in suburban New Jersey, rapidly digesting articles about the world. I was ignited by the young people’s fervor in the Iranian revolution, incensed by the stoning of purported adulterers in Afghanistan and, later, disappointed by France’s raging debate on the banning of the burqa. My insatiable appetite for global news was an effort to bridge the gap between my narrow world of midterms, Ugg boots, and Lady Gaga with what I perceived as the real world. Here in Senegal I see firsthand the things they write about in those news accounts. I am so grateful to be here, seeing with my own eyes the three little talibe boys, the girls with their hands raised like human cranes and the swaddled motherless babies. Even when I want to turn my head away, these living facts and statistics and headlines are stories that I cannot skim, cannot flinch away from and cannot forget.