The International Writers Magazine: Senegal
You can see us, in filthy dog-eared trousers or a bedraggled t-shirt which is three sizes too big and falls past our grotty knees.
The skin on our body is a patchwork of bruises and cuts and hasn’t known water or soap for weeks. The dissected tomato tin is symbolic of our existence; some of us carry it in our arms whilst others find a thin piece of twine to loop it round our necks and it bobs on our hip instead of a school satchel. The tin is our most prized possession. Today, you can see that mine is filled with a few small coins, five sugar cubes, and the half eaten end of a white baguette.
We don’t have parents to kiss us in the morning and wish us well on our way. No one tells us the importance of looking both ways before crossing the road. These are Western notions and have no pertinence here. And anyway, we look after each other. Sharing what we little food we have with the youngest, who could be two or three years old; as well as the oldest, who looks around fifteen, is common law to us. We give each other advice on where there a taps which run with clean drinking water, as well as the best positions to beg from as the morning traffic filters into the city.
If we need to travel from one side of Dakar to the other, we ride for free on the lap of a kind stranger in the Car Rapide, with the tomato tin between our knees and the breeze in our faces. If we see rich Lady, her arms dripping with gold jewellery and legs swathed in a fine blood red fabric, we surround her. Usually she stares blankly at us, we are nothing to her but urchins with itching rashes in our groins and bass notes resounding in our stomachs. Finally, after a few minutes, she will relent and unclip her purse. We only get 50CFA each, but at least it’s something.
Sometimes you come across a white person, and they are like a flower in the desert. We relentlessly pluck at their sleeves until they look into our mellowing eyes and their demeanour softens. Sometimes they buy us food instead of handing over money. Everyone knows that white people are the richest.
We skip down the road to find an abandoned rubber wheel. One of the smaller boys gets in it and we try to push him down the road, taking turns to be on the inside and laughing as he falls out. Being this free should be every child’s dream, roaming the streets without the reins of parental restraint. We cross roads blindly and stop to solicit money from strangers.
It is our lucky day when a man stops at the side of the road in his Mercedes. He never gets out his car; but thrusts buns and baguettes in brown paper bags to the throng of hands which pass through the window; not just ours, but other vagrants and old women from the street. Everyone pushes past each other to get their fingers on a light pastry meal, and the smaller children have to withdraw from the crowd for fear of getting trampled on. Then, the rich man speeds off, leaving us in the wake of the polluted road.
Most of us know our names, or have names made up for us. Fewer of us know our age or date of birth. Fewer still know where their families are or exactly why they were given up. We are orphans of Islam and the Qu’ranic teacher is our father, the Qu’ran is our older brother who we treat with the utmost respect. The other vagabonds who roam with us have become like younger siblings.
We have to go back to the teacher, or Marabout, when dusk falls. Some children choose to stay away if they haven’t collected the fixed sum of 350 CFA. Those that come back empty handed usually get a crack around the ear or a kick on the rear which aches for days after. I don’t like to watch when it happens, but it spurs us to be productive the next day.
In the evening we try to recite the phonetics of the Qu’ran, even though we cannot read or write. If you asked any of us what we want to be to, the answer would still be the same. We respect the Marabout, and only want to be like him.
© Natalie MacDonald Dec 2009
Natalie is in her final year of her degree in Creative Writing and Languages
Impressions of Senegal
could prepare in advance for my arrival to Leopold Serigne Senghor
airport in Senegal, West Africa.
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