All it took was the sound of sticks hitting the empty gas container for the village to come alive. Under the moonlight, the snot trails of the emaciated children were hidden; only illuminated were their smiles as they danced, only audible were their laughs through the steady thumping of tam-tams.
I spent five days with these children in the village of Mboumbaye, about 40 minutes by taxi outside of St. Louis, Senegal’s second largest city. As three Toubab visitors, we were treated as honored guests and offered soda pops, sumptuous meals, and steaming cups of attaya. The children, who claimed to be between three and seventeen, and attend the local public French primary school, looked younger than their years and spoke only Wolof. They watched us unremittingly—while we read, when we spoke English to one another, as we walked across the pristine and untouched beaches. Always, they asked us to dance, to sit with them, to wrestle, to play.
Children around the world have the same smiles, the same giggles when tickled, the same resourcefulness with their surroundings, but these children have significantly different futures than ones in Dakar or the United States. Most will never leave the village, and if they do it will be in search of work and wealth outside the local fishing trade. After my brief stint in the welcoming village, I described the difficulties I had encountered to an American friend. I washed myself in a bucket over the same hole in which the entire village relieved themselves; the tiny malodorous outdoor closet had a way of making you feel dirtier as you exited. I caught myself remarking on the unique nature of my “sufferings,” bragging of how few people have lived through the “hardships” I have successfully experienced. I viewed the entire week with the ethnocentrism of my social cadre and background. In reality, the majority of the world’s population not just survives but prospers without running water or electricity. My young friends will encounter larger challenges than their lack of infrastructure or facilities.
It was distressing to observe the effect of my presence. The meager stipend given to our family for hosting us for the week was thoroughly appreciated by the entire village, and the small gifts of sugar and tea were almost completely used by the time of our departure. Though our program director in Dakar stressed the nature of the stipend not as payment but as appreciation for the family’s welcome—their terranga—it was clear that our presence offered more than simply a cultural benefit. Mboumbaye was made up of mostly women and children. Most of the men had migrated to Zuigenchor or Dakar in search of work, and the young adult women travel to the cities to work as maids. The remaining inhabits had a clear order which was difficult to penetrate from the outside, particularly due to the communication limitations and language barrier. Poverty was evident, in the unchanged outfits of clothes barely held together, but we were shielded from it as much as possible.
We tried to contribute to the village activities. Our attempt at watering the onion fields turned into a photo opportunity; our visit to the Lagune des Barbaries and the eco-village became a tourist excursion to see rare birds; we purchased vegetables at the women’s market to benefit the local economy. The entire rural visit made me rather uneasy and uncomfortable. The villagers had no real idea why we had come, and we felt little purpose. While I understand that experiencing different faconnes de vivre adds to perspective and refines priorities, I felt that I was on display. Bubbly conversations between teenagers would stop entirely while the entire group turned to stare. The villagers and I, we were both aware that this was a situation with borders, an outsider coming to briefly observe, be of little use, and leave forever with no durable impression.
The children danced before we came and will dance without us, but I hope they enjoyed watching the Americans try mbaalax moves with them under the moonlight.