Morgan Mahdavi - General Care Projects in Senegal
One of the most touching experiences of my life was the day Kaboo, a child (known as a talibe) whose family had abandoned him to a religious leader, said he wanted me to be his mother. I was 18 years old at the time and the hot midday sun of Saint Louis had put me in a state that no would could ever call maternal. Cranky and sweating from the days walk to one of the farthest daaras (place where talibe live) and having dealt with a particularly stressful case of scabies on a boy’s leg, I was embarrassed with my appearance and just wanted to go home.
Then enters Kaboo, his skinny little legs, feet turned out, marching in smiling as he always does, immediately causing me to do the same. I crouch and spread my arms to him and he scampers over turning his back up against my front as I wrap my arms around his tiny frame. “Kaboo” he turns his big brown eyes to meet mine. “Danga mar?” He nods his head with those big teeth that cause us all to call him lapin or rabbit. I stand up and stretch my open hand to take his. We walk to the kitchen and I lift him up to sit next to the sink. I hand him the cup and turn on the water. He reaches over, filling his cup brings it back ti his head which feels too big for his tiny body, so much that I’m always afraid he will topple over. “Naan.” I tell him and he lifts the cup to his mouth to awkwardly drink, as his teeth get in the way. “Bakhna?” He nods and I help him hop down.
We walk hand in hand back into the office where Touba Diop, the president of the center sits in his chair, hunched over mountains of papers spread haphazardly over his desk and onto the floor, a common sight. Kaboo starts talking to Touba in Wolof, their native language in his young voice. Touba scrunches up his nose and his eyes start to sparkle as they always do when he laughs, another common sight. Kaboo continues and I hear Mariama, my Senegalese name, mentioned multiple times. “Quoi? Qu’est qu’il t’a dit?” I demand. The smile fades from Touba’s face, but never from his eyes “Il espere que tu es sa mere.” He wishes you were his mom.
Over the following months, our relationship fluctuated like that of a mother and child. Although I initially felt a level of ownership and protectiveness, he was the smallest talibe with very possibly the biggest personality. He had the ability to march into a conversation being held in any language by people 3 or 4 times his age and take control. He knew everyone adored him and used that to his advantage, to get peanuts from us, or an extra cup on Fridays when we gave bread and milk.
He was inconsistent in distributing love, some days would come running up to me and hug my leg, others squealing and hiding the moment he saw me. On such days, I always chased after him, assuming it was what he wanted. Usually when caught, he would laugh and kick, trying to break free. But there were days where upon being caught, he would become aggressive and violent, as though feeling threatened by my closeness. I saw the same change of love and hate towards other volunteers, Senegalese and foreign.
The Senegalese volunteers would tell me about how he spoke, with an air of someone much older and how the size of his teeth affected his speech. The words he used and his style of speech commanded respect and he often spoke down to us when we would speak to him in French, as he only spoke in Wolof. “I don’t speak toubab (Wolof for white person).” He would reply in a haughty tone, leaving the volunteer who translated rolling with laughter. When asked his age one day, Kaboo replied 100, the next day, 15 and a few days later 26. He always replied in the surest of manner and walked away leaving his audience always hooting.
But everyone knew there was another side to Kaboo. He was a talibe, a child whose parents have given them up to a life of begging and studying the Qu’ran, a life of beatings and bare feet, scratches and sleeping in the sand. I always wondered as I watched him march away in his way, so sure and straight forward, how he does it. How does someone so small, so fragile survive in this world that most people can’t even watch.
One day I invited Kaboo to my house. Initially I thought it a joke, so when he perked up and asked me where I live, I was almost taken aback. I had never heard of anyone inviting a talibe over and I couldn’t imagine that the marabout (religious leader, keeper of the talibe) would allow him to spend lunch with a toubab. I told him Cite Niakh (the name of my neighborhood) and he asked when. I told him Friday. The volunteer translating for us smiled and told me he’d be here. So Friday came and I forgot about the invitation to my little friend.
I left early from the center that day and made my way home by myself. Lost in thought about the day, I almost overlooked two boys sleeping on the stoop across from my front door, a fairly normal sight with so many talibe around. I did a double take, having noticed one of the two to be particularly small. There he was. I picked Kaboo up, laying his head across my shoulder, and woke Cherif, an older talibe from the same daara as Kaboo who I had recently shown my house. I walked them into my room, waking my roommate who had stayed home sick that day. Her eyes grew when she saw what I held in my arms. “Wha-?” “I found them sleeping in front of the house” I lay Kaboo down and told Cherif “Togol” and stepped out to tell the family about our surprise guests. My host mom told me that she had seen them; they stopped by nearly an hour earlier and asked for Mariama. When my mom said I wasn’t home they turned and left without saying a word.
I turned back to the room to apologize to Isabelle for the disturbance when she was sick to find Isabelle and Cherif snuggled together on my bed with her laptop open to Disney’s Sword in the Stone in English, as Kaboo slept next to them, legs dangling off the bed.
An hour later, when called to “Kai lek” we paused the movie and turned to a still sound asleep Kaboo wondering what to do. Cherif, being hungry after the long walk, I’m sure, started pushing and pinching him and yelling his name. I pushed him off telling him “Takhawal” and took Kaboo into my lap. I gently said his name, tapping his face and moving him around until he finally opened his eyes. He blinked a couple times and surveyed the room, then turned back to me and closed them again. I repeated his name telling him in broken Wolof that it was time to eat. He wrapped his arms around my neck and laid his face against my shoulder. I stood up and carried him to the sink, gently placing him on his feet and helping him wash his hands. I dried his hands of black water and took him to the living room to place him next to me around the communal plate of rice and fish.
As we all repeated Bon Appetite, I looked at Kaboo. For all his inconsistencies and food stealing, his proud voice and attention loving, I saw Kaboo for what he really was- a young boy who needed a family. I smiled at the idea that he could look at me as a mother and then again at the afternoon I had just had. Kaboo will never be my son and I will never be his mother, but I hope Kaboo knows how much he taught me, as only a young child can teach an older one. He taught me about strength, about pride, about confidence, trust and love. He showed me that I am capable of maternal love towards someone who is not my son. I hope that Kaboo will never forget me, because I know that I will never forget him.