The Talibe

On Understanding My Purpose in Senegal
Written on September 28

Hold out one of your hands. Spread your fingers apart. Collapse your thumb, ring finger, and pinkie. What do you see? If you did it correctly, you might be thinking of long-hair, San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury, or The Beatles.

Let’s try again. Hold out one of your hands. Spread your fingers apart. Collapse your pointer, middle, ring, and pinkie fingers. Rotate your wrist. What do you see? If you did it correctly, you might be able to tell whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist.

One more time. I promise I won’t make you offend the person sitting across from you.

Hold out one of your hands. Turn it over–palm facing the sky. Cup your fingers. What do you see? If you did it correctly, you are looking at a gesture that I’ve become quite familiar with over the last few weeks.

It’s not uncommon to see Senegalese children playing in the street. They laugh and kick semi-deflated soccer balls between each other’s legs. When one hears the put-put of an engine approaching, he calls out “voiture!” and the game halts. The children scatter to the safety of the sidewalks and wait for a declaration of safety before they resume their play. I pass by one of these groups every morning on my walk to school. It’s impossible for me not smile as they kick the ball in my direction, allowing me to become a kid again for a few beautiful seconds each morning.

After stepping through the game, I come to a familiar landmark. Café Touba is where my neighborhood hangs right onto the main road. There are also children who spend their time on the main road, but they are not playing soccer. They are not laughing with one another or warning one another of cars. They are in competition. They are reaching up to me and putting their hands out in this all-too-familiar shape.

Many of the children I have seen here in Senegal have been well-nourished and happy. Yet, as I’ve discussed with other fellows, the “talibe” (a term used for children begging on the street) certainly aren’t in rare supply either.

Talibe, more than any other single factor, have forced me to question my purpose here. How can I help these children? Why can’t I help these children? Why is it so sad? How is my pity doing anything positive for the situation? Does giving one a coin solve the problem in the short-term but propagate a long-term unsustainable dependency?

I had a conversation about talibe with Papa Pierre, who revealed a far deeper cultural connection than my superficial observations. My French teacher explained that the cupping of hands is a contemporary aspect of the talibe; when he was growing up, every talibe had a bowl. This might seem like an irrelevant distinction–both the hand and the bowl can be used for nonverbal asking–but upon further exploration, this shift reveals a large cultural shift in a single generation.

In the past, the talibe used their bowls to travel from house to house asking for food. Immediately after mealtimes, talibe would humbly approach and ask for leftovers. Instead of a byproduct of poverty, the begging was an exercise in religion. By asking for food, and often being given an unappealing mix of ingredients, the children learned to be humble and grateful. This was a sustainable system whose results ultimately made the community stronger. For instance, very little food went to waste; any leftovers were saved for the talibe. Furthermore, these children were not an economic burden to the community as their meals, and often clothing, were essentially crowdsourced, leaving more funds for education. Finally, instead of flipping a coin out of pity, food was spooned in empathy.

Papa Pierre’s eyes gleamed as he spoke about the talibe of his generation, but saddened as we transitioned to the present-day situation. Not because the talibe are orphans, but because they are often exploited by the their parents or caregivers.

“Sometimes, a man and his wife (or wives) will have many children and send them out on the street to beg. The man might say, ‘Unless you return with 500 CFA today (roughly 1 USD), you will die.’ This is why talibe often refuse to accept food–they need money.”

Learning about the talibe from a viewpoint apart from my own eyes has helped me better understand my purpose here. I’m not a tourist. I’m not here to walk around, feel sad about the injustices (as I deem them to be), donate some money to ‘charity,’ and get on a plane a week later. On the other hand, I’m also not a local. I don’t know the whole story and am thus unable to pass judgement on this society (as I might on my own) and work to help enact some sort of change.

I am beginning to truly realize that my role is neither to pity nor save; my role is to learn.

I recently reread Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael and was struck by a passage:

“[Narrator:] ‘What do I do?’
[Ishmael:] ‘What you do is teach a hundred what I’ve taught you, and inspire each of them to teach a hundred. That’s how it’s always done.'”