Friday, December 12, 2014

How to React to Talibés: 7 Tips for Peace Corps Volunteers

Talibé children in Senegal and the flood of issues connected to them – from health to human rights and child protection – have become my world for the past year and a half. I almost can’t even remember what it was like to first arrive in country and see these scruffy kids everywhere with their begging bowls. It’s hard to remember how much research I had to do and how many visits I had to make to daaras* in Kolda before the complexities of the talibé system really sunk in. And there’s always more to learn.

In the beginning, I understood that talibés were being exploited, forced to beg for change on the streets to “support” their marabout and his daara. I didn’t understand why a society could allow this, though. And I didn’t know if this was a facet of the culture I was supposed to respectfully ignore – or if many Senegalese actually felt the way I felt.

I can now answer that question: yes, many do feel the same way. But “Africans don’t have the culture of denunciation,” as a radio journalist in Kolda explained to me once. Layers of tradition, respect for religious leaders, and poverty have prevented most people from speaking out for many years. That is changing now, little by little.

The hardest part for me now is to remember how I used to feel about talibés, these sometimes sweet and sometimes abrasive, world-weary boys roaming the streets. But when I read back through my old journals, I remember: I was intimidated, overwhelmed and a little irritated. I didn’t know what to think about these kids because I didn’t understand the whole system – but they wouldn’t leave me alone, and they were making my transition into this new culture even harder.

It wasn’t until I sat through a presentation by former PCV (and talibé guru) Hadiel Mohamed a few months into my service in early 2013, and then followed up by pestering her with a million questions, that I understood how to look at the issue and how to keep my compassion front and center when dealing with them. Now by working with SeneGAD**, I’m hoping to pass that perspective on to as many people as possible, because honestly: it doesn’t come naturally. I still have to work at it every day.

Abrasive or confrontational kids getting up in your space will inspire negative feelings or reactions if you don’t train yourself. And that’s okay – you just have to recognize why you’re feeling these things and know what to do.

So how do you train yourself to look at talibé kid with a different mentality? How should we react?

Here are 7 tips on how to handle talibés:

1.  Remind yourself, when you see them, that these kids never had a real childhood. They’ve been treated differently from other kids and exploited – sometimes abused – since age 4 or 5. They are children forced into the role of adults, finding food and caring for themselves. They are often uneducated and their future might look pretty bleak. Whatever attitude they project at you is a defense mechanism they’ve learned to survive a very harsh life.

2.  If you feel angry or annoyed at what these boys say or do to you, try to redirect your anger towards the system and the adults who have put them into this life and made them act this way. Use that anger as fuel towards building projects that can help. It’s not the fault of the children.

3.  The best response to a talibé’s demand for money is to greet him. Remind him that you’re a person, he’s a person. Shake his hand, ask his name and where he’s from.

4.  If a talibé keeps asking for money and you don’t want to give, here are some things you can say: “Sorry, I don’t have change.” Or “Next time, inshallah!” If you want to make a joke out of it, you can add, “Sorry man, I’m really not ‘noosing’ these days… Times are rough!” (Noos is a Wolof and Pulaar expression meaning having fun and having money.) Phrasing things this way won’t harm anyone and will make talibé feel acknowledged. Simply saying “no” or refusing to give is not how the culture works here. These kids won’t understand your deeper motivations behind this – they’ll just assume you are stingy, rude, or don’t care about them.

5.  See a big pack of talibés coming your way? This used to intimidate me and I’d try to avoid it, but now I try to look at is as another chance to remind them that we don’t think they’re invisible or distasteful. Give them a smile and a greeting, or at least a wave and eye contact, as you walk through. You don’t have to stop and be surrounded – that acknowledgement is enough.

6.  If a talibé insults you or makes a joke at your expense, either ignore it or make a joke back. Getting angry will not result in behavior change.

7.  Give something once in a while! There are countless debates over whether it’s an act of compassion or simply “fuels a bad system” to give to talibés. After all this time working with them, I’ve decided that it’s better to give every now and then. (Small things – candies, food, change now and then, cheap shoes if they have none.) Why? Because these are little kids who have had no say in the turn their lives took. Why not help them scrape by for the day, even if that doesn’t “change the system” or any grand gesture? It does make a lonely child happy for a moment at least. Maybe it will help them meet their quota and keep them out of trouble. And it makes them more inclined to trust and like you.

Most importantly, remember these are at-risk kids who most likely have no mentor to guide them through life. Who knows what little push from you could sway things in one direction or another?

*Daaras = schools where talibés live and study the Koran under tutelage of a marabout

**SeneGAD = Senegal’s Gender and Development group for Peace Corps Volunteers, focused on gender equality and youth empowerment