I’ve told you about Talibe boys before. They’re the barefoot children that wander the streets of Dakar clutching rusty, tin tomato sauce cans, begging for spare change. They’re part of an organized system-each “works” for one of the many local Islamic cult leaders.
They’re taken from their families at an early age [some are sold, others are voluntarily given], and brought to Dakar under the guise of becoming Qur’anic students at a local Daara [Qur’anic school]. At best, those that are actually given any sort of “education” memorize lengthy portions of the Qur’an in Arabic-sometimes all of it.
None of the Talibe boys understand a word of Arabic.
In the Senegalese culture, it is polite and expected to shake the hand of each person that you greet. When entering a room, this means going around to shake every person’s hand-even if there are thirty. It’s a custom so deeply ingrained in the culture that small children will offer their hands as a greeting by the time they take their first, teetering steps.
The Talibe boys that wander throughout this filthy city arrive in Dakar as young as three and four years of age. Can you imagine the confused terror of a little boy that has been abruptly wrenched away from everything that is familiar to him? A little boy that wakes up on a Tuesday morning and suddenly finds himself without a family. Without a home. Without anyone to remember his favorite food or his middle name or the stuffed animal he could never fall asleep without. Now, even that is gone. He owns nothing but the clothes on his back, and those are quickly taken away and replaced with rags to make him look as poor as he is before he begins to beg. His shoes are confiscated, and quickly his little feet become bloodied and calloused as he tearfully attempts to collect the dollar a day that his Marabout [the Islamic cult leader that now owns him] demands. He doesn’t speak any French-and quickly finds that his tribal language prevents him from communicating with much of the city.
It’s a city that refuses to speak to him in any language. Overnight, he has become invisible. His first day in Dakar, he does what comes as naturally as breathing-dutifully offers his tiny right hand to greet a man on the street. Without hesitation, the man passes him by-indifferent to the bewildered child with the outstretched arm.
This has never happened before. But now it happens again, and again, and again-until finally he understands. No one wants to touch him. He is unwanted. He is an outcast-treated as though he had insisted on being born. And the Talibe boy stops offering his hand.
These are boys that don’t know how old they are-children that have no idea when they were born and would never
have a birthday party even if they did. Children that lay awake at night desperately trying to remember the faces of the families that sold them-faces blurred by the passing of time. Little boys that wake up crying for moms that aren’t there to rock them back to sleep.
Today Michelle, Ted and I went to volunteer at a church that works with the Talibe. Two remarkable women named Jane and Antoinette open the doors of their church every morning for about five hours, and play the part of surrogate Mothers to hundreds of boys. They start by making a millet cereal that feeds the first 35 that show up. Each child receives a number on his arm in magic marker-indicating his place in line for one of two showers. There are games, and wash tubs for the kids to scrub their tattered clothes. Both Jane and Antoinette spend the better part of their time cleaning and bandaging cuts and scrapes, lancing abscesses, doling out vitamins, treating malaria-trying desperately to stem the waves of human suffering that beat relentlessly at their door.
They’ve been doing it for thirteen years.
I wish you could see what I saw today. Little boys that are invisible to the rest of the world-boys that wander the city with blank expressions, miserably begging for spare coins-those same boys came alive when they walked through that door. Broad grins crept across gaunt faces as child after child lit up like Christmas walking across the threshhold. Jane and Antoinette mandate that each boy that walks in greet them with a handshake-restoring the dignity that is stripped from them everywhere else. In a world that refuses to see much less touch the boys, Jane and Antoinette kiss scabies covered elbows and knees. They laugh with them, tease them, lecture them, and expect them to do chores. Chores, I might add, that the boys seemed thrilled to do. Each child I met today was incredibly well behaved-grateful, it seemed, to have somewhere to belong. Even if only for a few short hours.
Most of the boys that come speak Pulaar. Jane and Antoinette play tapes that story through the Bible in Pulaar all day at the church-so ironically, though the boys can recite lengthy portions of the Qur’an in Arabic, what they are learning is the Bible.
I played Jenga with a four year old little boy named Samba. He sat down beside me tentatively-and I smiled and put my hand on his back. He looked startled-his sweet face softened with longing as he shifted uncomfortably on the gravel. Then slowly, he began to inch his tiny hand towards mine-until finally his fingers were tightly wrapped around my pinky.
Tears sprang to my eyes as I wondered how long it had been since someone touched him.
I wish this story resolved, but it doesn’t. This is simply what I saw today. Today, through Jane and Antoinette, I saw Jesus. Loving the unlovely-the ones that nobody else wants. Ignoring the filth in our lives and taking our hands anyways. Kissing, cleaning, healing the ugly, festered pieces of our hearts. Redeeming what was lost and giving us a new identity as His. Freely.
May I be to others what He has been to me.