We were maybe a little shy toward each other for a few minutes. But they looked at you and something touched your heart. Besides, they don’t really care if your French isn’t perfect.
At the Koranic school, the girls sat separate from the boys, and that one boy recited only some of the Koran but he had memorized the whole thing by the time he was 11 years old.
I looked around and wondered who to talk to, there were so many youth, and the room became very noisy quickly. I took a few pictures, smirking at the stark contrast between my fair-skinned classmates and the rich darkness of the young students. The smiles sparkled the same.
Someone tapped me on the shoulder and I turned around. A group of young women looked at me. Their leader asked me my name. We talked about school and what they might do when they grow up. They all say they’re going to university, and a lot of them want to be teachers. A few girls ask me to take pictures with their cell phones.
They wanted to teach me a dance.
Every girl wanted to teach that dance to all the Toubabs. And they laughed every time we did it.
That first evening in the village near Saint-Louis, the kids were all dressed in traditional clothes and makeup. One of the teachers played a metal bowl as a drum, and little ones took turns dancing in front of the crowd. A few of us danced, too. A bunch of us watched a little boy wearing a green boubou with a white turban. His eyebrows were painted white. He fought sleep while we laughed at him.
A young woman made eye contact with me and we smiled at each other and exchanged names. I asked her about school and what she did during the day. She told me that she helped her mom make dinner and take care of the siblings. We took pictures and we look like friends.
All the village kids sang and clapped, and the rest of us clapped along.
One day in Saint-Louis, Natalie and I were on an errand to buy some bug repellent, because mosquitoes had attacked me the week before in Dakar and it was only a matter of time before malaria ravaged my body. We stopped by a pharmacy that told us to come back in an hour because they didn’t have any in stock at the time and were ordering some from another store. That was convenient because we wanted to go exploring that day. We crossed a bridge onto the fisherman’s island, photographing just about everything we saw. It was a bright, sunny day, like most of the days there. We walked to a less busy part of the island toward some houses along the beach. As we neared the coast a group of kids saw us and we started playing with them. A family invited us into their yard within a wall, where we got to look at their water well and talk about what we were studying. For the most part, I avoided the adult conversation and continued taking pictures of the children. There was a little boy wearing a yellow shirt with a puppy on it, and he made angry-looking, monkey-froggie faces and somehow immediately became one of my favorites.
One day at the village we got to teach the students. I sat at a table of 10-to-11-year olds, and their teacher instructed them to draw a cylinder with a length of 5cm and a radius of 2cm. So, that’s what I taught them. I used a can to demonstrate the height and to show them that they needed to double the radius. Reaching back into my basic geometry days was hard enough, and having to do it in French was an especially fun challenge. But I repeated myself three times, and when I asked them if they understood, they said yes. So I believed them.
Whenever I asked the girls if they were married, they always giggled. Then I asked how old they were and some of them were 13 or 14, and maybe I met a 15-year old. They can get married at 16, and it’s no more being a kid after that.
After class at the village we were standing in the courtyard and some of us were swinging the kids around. Two little girls were hanging off the arms of one of my classmates, and we couldn’t explain that they needed to take turns. One of them didn’t talk, but I took her and swung her around in a circle until I got dizzy and let her land gently in the sand. She let me spin her about five times until it was time for us to leave. It was cool knowing what she wanted without her having to tell me with words. She just took my hands, and I whirled her around.
There was another day of teaching the kids and there was the best recess I’ve ever had, with relay races and balancing water on one’s head and potato-sack races and wrestling. They taught us a few things about running in the sand, but I think they taught us more about how to be gracious losers and entertainers at the same time. They made us laugh, and through our follies and falls and spilt water and goofs, we returned the favor.
Then there was the evening our guys (and Britt) played soccer against the village team and while the village kids chanted and clapped in solidarity for their team, we bit our nails and winced and cheered whenever we got even a little bit close to scoring a goal. We lost 4-1, but we sang and danced together afterward and maybe I taught some boys how to wink.
The last night at the village we watched all the boys strip down to their underwear and tie their t-shirts around their loins like a sumo diaper so they could show us wrestle. It happened so suddenly and it shocked us, but it was all business to them.
It was during this last night that I noticed more kids had runny noses; I noticed their clammy hands and remembered a few kids with conjunctivitis. There was talk of bedbugs and lice, but it seemed that those were the least of the problems they were better off not knowing. Sometimes I wish I didn’t know about them.
I cried on the way back to the bus that evening. A young lady walked with me, and we talked about her family, that her dad was working in the Ivory Coast. She was 14, and she didn’t have to say she missed her father; that she even talked about it was enough of an indication. I asked if he visited often, and she said every month. We hugged goodbye, and I told her to go to university and become anything she wanted. I told her I’d miss her, and I thanked her for being friends.
It was sad to go, not so much because I didn’t know if I was ever going to see them again, but I wondered how many of those children would live to see the next year. What’s so inspiring is that they weren’t even worried about that. They gave us hugs and showed us how disciplined they were and sang anthems with great pride. They searched our souls with sincere eyes and reached out to us. They trusted us when we weren’t so sure about ourselves. I was so concerned about their future, the conditions of their country, but they focused on their present circumstances. If they could smile and laugh and cheer, so could we. They lived in the moment, and we were blessed enough to have them share that moment with us.