Zombie talibe in the north

In order to explain this story a bit of contextual background needs to be provided.

The majority of people in Senegal are muslim and the way it is divided up is by brotherhood. Meaning that generations ago an influential religious person organized a group of people after having or perhaps claiming to have some divine experience. The funniest one is the Black Jesus sect, one religious leader was born with a birth mark of a cross on his forehead and everyone called him Black Jesus, there’s even a beach Dakar named after him. There are four or five main brotherhoods. The current leaders of these different brotherhoods are called maribou, each brotherhood has many maribou which are spread throughout the country. One of the redeeming characteristics of this country (it isn’t this way everywhere in Africa) is that you can walk into anyone’s house/compound and be fed, use the bathroom, or get water. As part of this communal aspect if you have too many children in your house you can send one of them to live in the house of a relative or some one wealthier in the village. This occurs fairly often and another option families have is to send them to the local maribou, where they will become students of the Koran, these students are called talibe. If a talibe is lucky and finds a good maribou he will be well fed and be taught to read Arabic but the vast majority are sent by the maribou into the street to beg in order to pay there way. Supposedly some maribou beat the talibe if they come home without enough money. Being charitable is required by Islam which means many people give to talibe so the children aren’t begging in vain. Talibe are all over the country, roaming in small group, ready at a moments notice to chase down a foreigner and follow them for 10 or 20 feet asking for change. One last thing to note is that because children can be sent off to live with other families and because of the communal way society is all children have to listen to adults and all adults are in charge of raising children which includes disciplining them.

There is a bird park in the north of the country, close to the border of Mauritania called Park Djoudj where thousand of pelicans lay their eggs in November, they hatch in December and go off somewhere else at the end of January. Margaret’s been wanting to go for years so we went mid-January. You have to travel through the beautiful old colonial city, St Louis, to get to the park, we arrived just before noon, other volunteers serving in St. Louis vaguely explained that public transport would leave a round-point at one in the afternoon to get to the park, we asked around to see if some one local knew where the bus left from but no one understood what we were talking about when mentioning the park name so we called the owner of a motel near the park to get clearer instructions. Chiekh, the owner, happened to be in town so we met up, he told us he would be heading back so we could get a ride with him though we felt bad since we reserved a room at the only other place in town. Prior to meeting him we were a little stressed trying to figure out how we were going to get 60k north of that city so we didn’t have time to get lunch or look around.

We were told we had a couple of hours so we crossed the long bridge into the old colonial section and went for a beer and lunch. The restaurants there are nice, the city is on the water, and it’s a definite step up from Dakar. Heading back towards the bridge to cross back over, Margaret got some cashews and a talibe approached us, I waved him away as I do the rest but he kept sticking his bowl in front of us. The woman and her friends selling cashews shooed him away but he kept following us as we started to cross the bridge. A group of teenage girl and a middle aged adult man were in our vicinity, the girls started to laugh as he pursued us with great determination and the man scolded the boy. A couple feet later the man got frustrated that the boy didn’t listen (as previously stated all children have to listen to adults when they are told to do something, it’s the system here) and yanked his ear and spanked him as we walked ahead, naturally we were disturbed the situation but happy the child was no longer in pursuit of us. From the distance a repetitive moan could be heard and it became louder and louder. Soon the man who disciplined the child was again walking near us on the bridge and the child was once again trying to make his through the crowd to get to us. When he did reach us, I tried to make light of the situation by zigzagging side to side to block him from getting in front of us while the child continued his fake crying. Margaret told me to stop and the talibe got in front of us and kept putting his bowl and himself in our path to block us. Now people on both sides were trying to help us and appease him as we approached the other end of the bridge. The man that spanked him just walked on; another shout to the boy in Wolof “How much do you want? Just tell me and I’ll give it to you.” The talibe responded to nothing; it was as if he were possessed. We crossed through the round-point and entered a boutique where we met Cheikh earlier to wait for him. The boy was still hovering over us, another group of talibe approached, saw the situation and scolded him, they told him to leave us alone. One of the boys in the group told us to take him back to France (they assumed we were French) with us, that that’s what he wanted though the two boys had exchanged no words. The group moved on, the boutique owner told the boy to leave, Cheikh then arrived and we stopped to buy fruit as we were going to make our own dinner and breakfast at the hotel. The fruit vendor started shoving the child lightly but we were followed around the corner as we left the busy intersection. Sensing that his opportunity to receive money from us was ending, he skirted past me and grabbed Margaret’s arm so I yelled at him saying that you don’t grab people, Cheikh noticed he was following us and told him to scram. A couple feet later a piece of cardboard flew in front past us and hit the ground and the boy yelled the street phrase kids use often in Wolof saying “go f*** your mother”. It took me a moment to figure out what happened, by then Cheikh was chasing the boy across the street into a chained lot with a guard. The talibe ducked under the chain and ran, Cheikh hopped over it but by that time the guard sitting in a chair caught the talibe without even getting up as the child ran right in front of him. Cheikh gave him a whack across the face, turned the boy around in the guards’ hands and smacked his bum a couple more times. Someone said enough, Cheikh walked away and the child picked up his begging bowl walked out of the gate into the nearest grass where he collapsed on to his knees and started to sob.

The entire episode left us cringing. What was wrong with the child that he would stalk us for as long as he did and not acknowledge anybody that spoke to them? How badly was he brainwashed by the maribu? He seemed to snap out of his zombie-ish state when he cursed and threw something at us. Was the child too harshly disciplined? It disturbed us that we were least bothered by the child getting beaten (which I assume probably bothers you, the reader most) feeling vindicated that a child shouldn’t throw things or swear at people older than him. I must emphasize that this is how children are disciplined here, that’s the worst beating I’ve seen and it really wasn’t bad. I’ve heard other volunteers say they’ve seen parent dole out nasty, abusive beatings but I haven’t seen anything more than a couple of smacks.

Hundreds of mother and baby pelicans huddled together

An hour or so later we left St. Louis, an hour after that we were at the hotel at Park Djoudj. We got our room, unpacked, and still there was a lingering sour taste in the air from the events several hours earlier. The hotel was beautiful, the pool was lined with palm trees, each room on the outside had a bird painted largely on it with its Latin name, and there was greenery all over the courtyard: I talk to the guy behind the counter about getting to the park, he told us just to take our car in the morning since it’s seven kilometers away, I explained that we didn’t have a car and he said we get a ride some how in the morning. We ended up going out there with the car that the guides were going there in. Before departing on our boat tour through the Senegalese everglades, three scout warthogs trotted towards the edge of the river that was filled with pelicans. A bit later the three went back into the tall grass and fifteen minutes later came out with six adult warthogs and a litter of babies (I really wanted to take one of the babies and have that be my village pet but I wouldn’t dare mess with a group of warthogs or break the law by stealing a wild animal from a national park) As we got closer to our boat more and more group of pelicans flew overhead to land in the pond. They flew and landed in a series one behind the other which looked like old footage of warplanes landing in a series of twenty or so. According to our guide these pelicans spend the night in Mauritania and cross the border in the morning. We were the only two tourists at that time so we got into a big boat with a guide. The week before I toured through the mangroves in the salty river delta I live on where I saw what I thought to be lots of bird, it was nothing compared to this river. The birds were flying overhead and landing in front of us. Hundreds were perched along the side path, some sitting on the water were gigantic, their large wing span displayed as they flew off when our boat buzzed by. We rounded a corner and the guide turned the boat around while simultaneously killing the motor, the boat drifted backward into a corner of lily pads, he quietly pointed out the very close adult crocodile facing away from us on the edge of land (I included a photo of this in my previous post). We went forward a bit; stopped where a two year old croc was laying (it looked as though a full size one had been shrunken down, it was much smaller than what I expected a two year old would be). At the same time komo dragon-looking lizard was approaching slowly as its four fat legs dragged its large body across the mud. I was hoping the two were going to face off since the mini croc wasn’t moving and the lizard seemed to be heading right for it. We left before impact, not far away was the spot where the pelican eggs are laid, I would estimate around five hundred baby pelicans (they have black feathers then) and mothers were perched on a bald spot of mud. The boat ride wasn’t very long, possibly an hour or so but we saw a lot in a short time span.

Here is where the male pelicans land coming in from Mauritania

Stepping back on to land the guide remembered we hitchhiked in and stopped a car as it was leaving to ask if it would give us a ride back to the hotel. On the way in we asked if he was going all the way to St. Louis, he said he was but going to stop in another city for an hour on the way. We quickly packed and paid, the guy almost took off without us but I stopped him in time. The city we went to was the site of another volunteer and wouldn’t you know it the house he stopped to go into was next to the one the volunteer lived in. We went to the house and chatted with the volunteer only to realize we didn’t grab our bags from the car and the guy had driven off. We were a little worried but we called the guy, he said how long he’d be then called back to say he’d be a while longer and actually showed up. We let out our breath acknowledging how rookie a mistake that was on our part to leave our bags in the car of a total stranger. We had a quick lunch in St. Louis and were on our way back to Dakar after not too long. The Dakar traffic is always bad but something strange was happening with one lane being blocked off and lots of police standing guard. We all laughed when it turned out to be the president’s pimped out stretch limo Mercedes stopped and blocking a lane because of a flat tire. The license plate is PR, which stands for présidente de la republic. It was a whirlwind trip jammed pack full of stories and adventure and took lees than 48 hours.

Some of the other wild life in the park

Since then the entire group of volunteers I started with had a training on the technical work we’ll be doing. The agriculture volunteers learned techniques for growing in the poor soil and dry climate. The business volunteers (myself included) listened to speakers on a multitude of subjects. It lasted for the entire month of February and ran over into March a bit. I’ll take some time to write about that.


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