It’s a tough life for a kid.
SENEGAL, West Africa—It’s a tough life for a kid.
You wake in the darkness before dawn and roll off a wooden pallet – one
of the “beds” you share with 30 other boys on the dirt floor of a
grimy, three-room dwelling.
You rub your eyes, eat something – if there’s anything to eat – and
begin chanting verses from the Quran, Islam’s holy book. You have no
idea what the Arabic words mean, but you chant them over and over. You
remember the day your mother brought you to this place and handed you
over to the “serigne” (suh-REEN), your Muslim teacher.
“I don’t want to see him again until he knows the Quran,” she had told
the serigne, following custom. With tears in her eyes, she pried your
trembling fingers loose from her hand and hurried away.
You were 5 years old. You won’t see her again for a decade or more – if ever.
The chanting done, you set out into the sandy streets of Yoff, a
sprawling section of Dakar, capital of the West African nation of
Senegal. Carrying an empty tomato can, you spend much of the day
begging under the white-hot sun. People drop sugar cubes, food or
perhaps a coin or two into your can, fulfilling their duty as Muslims
to give alms to the poor. If you return without a full can, you risk a
caning across your back.
Tomorrow will be the same – and the day after that.
You are a “talibe” (TAL-ee-bay), which means “student.” The word comes
from the same Arabic root word as “Taliban,” the radical Islamic
“students” who ruled Afghanistan before being overthrown in 2001. In
theory, you are a student of the Quran, learning to be a servant of
Islam through poverty and humility.
In reality, you are a beggar.
Just hug ’em
Thousands of ragged talibes wander the streets of Senegal. Community
leaders push to end the talibe system from time to time, but it remains
entrenched in Senegalese Muslim society. Some talibes are treated
relatively well by their serigne teachers; others are neglected or
Do poverty-stricken parents give young sons to be talibes for religious
reasons – or because they are too poor to feed another child?
“They say it’s religious,” answers a Senegalese Baptist layman who
ministers to talibes through a church in Dakar. “But it’s hunger.”
On this day, however, the talibe boys of Yoff are in for a pleasant
surprise. As they trickle back from begging, they get a warm welcome
from regular visitors: Southern Baptist missionaries Cal McIntire and
David and Cheryl Johnson. With the missionaries are a group of student
volunteers from Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Mo.
The Southwest volunteers, assisted by some laughing talibe boys and
other neighborhood kids, set about hauling buckets of gravel and broken
rock into the dormitory to sprinkle across the dirt floor. Then they
spread sand and wet concrete over the top. When it dries, the boys have
a clean surface on which to lay the new foam sleeping pallets their
visitors have brought.
Later, the boys drop their filthy clothes into buckets of boiling
water. Standing naked behind sheets, they bashfully submit to medicated
treatment – repeated over three days – of the scabies that ravages
their skin. The contagious skin disease, spread by mites, flourishes on
seldom-washed skin and clothing, causing agonizing itching and pain.
The volunteers fight back tears as they gently apply the soap and
medication to the boys’ disfigured skin. When they’re done, they hand
out new clothes and bags with toothbrushes and other basics.
“These kids are in pretty bad shape, health-wise,” David Johnson says.
“In addition to malnutrition, they have all kinds of skin problems –
mostly from sleeping in the sand.”
They also crave attention and love. They come running whenever
McIntire, an easygoing guy with a ready smile, visits their
“The little ones almost never have anyone just hold them,” explains
McIntire, rubbing the back of a talibe boy clinging to his neck. “David
and I do that as much as we can – just hold ’em and hug ’em.” While
they work to improve living conditions for the talibes, the Southwest
students also participate in the “ministry of touch.”
“I did a lot of picking little kids up, putting them on my shoulders,
lifting them high in the air and stuff,” says volunteer Jarrod
Easterwood, age 22. “I loved it, just spending time with the kids.
That’s what they love. They don’t get a whole lot of it.”
As good as such ministry feels, it’s not just feel-good ministry.
McIntire is missionary strategy coordinator for the 150,000 Lebou
(LAY-boo) people of West Africa, who live mostly in Senegal. Islamic
and traditionally fishermen, the Lebou settled the coastal peninsula,
where bustling Dakar now sits, centuries ago. More than 18,000 of them
live in Yoff.
Through working with the talibes – who have special significance to the
greater community – and other children’s ministries, McIntire and his
co-workers have won many Lebou friends in Yoff. On this day, at least
10 neighborhood residents passing by pronounce blessings on the
missionaries and volunteers for helping the talibe.
“We ‘love on’ the kids in order to share Jesus with the parents,”
McIntire explains. “We’re able to come in and do more of what we want
to do after we do something like this. The people here know we care
There are only a handful of Christian believers among the Lebou so far,
but the first Lebou home fellowship recently began – in Yoff. McIntire
hopes to see four or five more meeting by the end of this year.
One day, the talibes may be liberated from their service. Meanwhile, the Lebou are hearing about the liberating love of Christ.