Interacting with talibés, an interview with Trevon Rainford

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Trevon in Ouakam, a neighborhood of Dakar

To be honest, I don’t remember the first time I met Trevon Rainford. He just kind of seemed to pop up here and there, plus he had a great Instagram feed that I started following. Unfortunately, right about the time that I realized how cool he was and the cool things he was doing as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ouakam, it was nearing the end of his time in Senegal.

Two things stand out in my mind about Trevon. First, although it was obvious that he was miles (and miles and miles) ahead of me as a runner, he was always encouraging and friendly when our running paths would cross. Second, he interacted with talibé boys in such a kind, respectful manner that it truly impacted and challenged me.

I asked him if he’d agree to an interview so that I could get a better understanding of his view of the talibé world and how those of us who are shocked, then numbed, then shocked, then numbed by it can make a positive difference in these boys’ lives.

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Talibés studying the Quran

Trevon, thanks for agreeing to this. Let’s jump right in. What brought you to Senegal?
I was invited to Senegal to work as a Community Economic Development (CED) Agent for Peace Corps Senegal, West Africa.

For those who don’t know, how would you explain the talibé system?
It’s a system in Senegal where boy children leave their families to study the Quran (typically in larger cities like Dakar or Saint-Louis) with a marabout (their teacher) inside a daara (which is the school for the talibé boys) where they often live as well.

What are their living conditions like?
Some daaras are state regulated but many talibés live in dilapidated shacks, sleep on the ground, and lack suitable resources to keep them warm during the cold season and cool during hot and raining season.

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Talibés watching a soccer match, part of the Annual Talibé Day that Trevon organized

What’s expected of them?
Again, the kids are sent from their families to learn the Quran, taught by their entrusted teacher (marabout). Many marabouts cannot support these children and require them to walk around the city for hours in search of food and money. This is supposed to assist with their cost of living as well as teach humility.

Do you remember your first encounter with a talibé
Yes, the first time I truly interacted with a talibé at my site was during my daily walk to the bus stop. He did the typical (cut you off and force you to be face to face with him, no eye-contact hand gesture, and asked me for money). I gave him about 50CFA and asked him his name. I told him my name and that I now lived here. I also told him that I thought we should be friends.

From that day forward, each time he saw me he raced towards me screaming my name asking me where I was off to and only periodically asked me for money. It was never a big deal if I couldn’t give him money. He continued to acknowledge me every day and even introduced me to his other friends.

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Annual Talibé Day activities

For many of us who live in Senegal as expats, we don’t know how to interact with talibé boys. From your experiences, what are things you’ve seen expats do that were good? 
I’ve seen a few expats simply acknowledge the kids, which means a lot. Getting to know a kid and spend even 60 seconds asking him questions and explaining that you may not always have money or food for them but that you want to be friends with them will normally create a genuine bond.

Remembering that they are KIDS is what helped me engage with them. I also always thought about the realization that it must feel awful for kids, or anyone, to be shunned away, when they are just following directions and doing what they’re told.

Side note: If you’re ever feeling adventurous, jumping into one of their sporadic soccer games on the street will throw them for a loop and instantly give you cool points! Haha.

I know some people give money, food, clothing, shoes, medicine, etc… Do you think these are useful or does it ‘all get taken away by the marabout‘? 
I have given all of the above. Whether or not each gift benefited the children, I cannot tell you. I haven’t heard of food and medicine being a regretful purchase, but I have heard of issues with giving large amounts of money and shoes. For other reasons, I would also stay clear of giving bulk quantities of medicines.

Personally, I prefer to give the children food face-to-face. More often than not, they will eat the food right away and you can see that your purchase is indeed going to their well being. If the food is something that can be divided into portions easily, I would recommend doing that before hand and then giving each person their fair share. Lots of people give the oldest the food to split up and I haven’t heard of many problems with this, but at times there may be some arguing that goes on with this method and can be easily avoided if the food were to be split up beforehand.

Are there things you would suggest we not give talibés?
I would suggest not giving large bills, or anything too expensive. Personally, I haven’t had a good experience with giving shoes.

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Trevon with the chefs preparing meals for the talibés

Let’s talk about just plain ol’ goofing around with the talibés. I mean, we’re talking about kids here. They love to play. How did you engage them?
Exactly my point! Most people forget that talibés are kids and treat them with contempt. Again, I got to know them and engaged in conversation with them every chance I had. We even high-fived one another during my runs and danced in the streets for a few seconds on occasion. But being consistent with greetings and asking them how they were each day was the least I could do and really created a bond between us.

Also, learning a few Wolof or Pulaar words/phrases are pretty essential, as many talibés don’t know French.

Tell us about the Annual Talibé Day you organized.
I just wanted the kids to get to be kids for a day and also raise awareness for talibés’ rights in the Ouakam community. The event was held last March and we had over 100 attendees who joined in a prayer and breakfast followed by activities and lunch. I felt the event was a huge success as the kids ate extremely well the entire day, played and won their soccer games, and were baffled by the amount of resources we were able to donate to their daara, thanks to the event’s sponsors.

Any final thoughts to share?
These kids are just kids doing what they’re told. I would ask that everyone remembers this before they pass judgment on them or shun them.

Thank you, Trevon. Best of luck on your new paths.

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Trevon helping with the Annual Talibé Day meal

All photos courtesy of Trevon Rainford.

For more information on Peace Corps/Senegal talibé projects, you can join https://www.facebook.com/groups/pcsenegaltalibe/ or contact Timothy Van Vliet.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions reflected in this post do not represent the position of the Peace Corps.)

Raising a baby, à la sénégalaise

With Tantie Marietou

With Tantie Marietou

Questions I’ve asked my Senegalese friends along the way and their answers. Of course, as is any culture, parenting differs form family to family. But these glimpses into parenting Senegalese style were interesting. And I’m learning a lot!

When can I start carrying my baby on my back?
Our 19-year-old Senegalese babysitter told me I could start carrying Pape on my back at three months of age. A mom of three told me that most people wait until the baby is one month old, but that she waited until almost two months for her kids. And a mom of four boys told me starting at one week old! I’m wondering if that had to do with her needing to keep up with all her older kiddos…

I put Ndeye on my back for the first time at five weeks old and it worked great. She fussed and cried a bit at first and Marietou told me not to leave her tied on too long if she didn’t like it, but within three minutes she was asleep! She napped really well the rest of the day and Marietou said it’s because being tied on my back relaxes the babies ‘like a massage’ but that since it’s a new experience for her, it also made her tired.

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With Maman Ndeye

How do you cut their fingernails?
Give them a basket or something woven that’s a little rough to play with. That will file them down.

How often should I nurse my baby?
Anytime they want to eat! If she’s hungry, feed her. If you’re not sure if she’s hungry but she’s fussy, try feeding her.

What should moms eat to increase their milk supply?
One mother told me to she ate oatmeal or millet everyday. Another told me raw peanuts worked for her.

Several women have told me I should be eating more in general. “Eat for the baby, not for you. Once the baby is eating solids, then you can go back to eating normally.”

When do you start feeding babies solid foods?
Anytime. Whenever. Some moms now wait until six months because it’s what’s being taught in the cities, but in the village they start babies on mushy boiled rice or millet earlier. Starter solids also include butternut or pumpkin type squashes and mashed potatoes.

What do you do if breastfed babies are constipated?
Eat a couple oranges or drink oj. It will have a laxative effect on baby.

Or give the baby a spoonful of honey and milk. (This is where American jaws drop to the floor.)

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With Tantie Oureye

How can you help babies sleep better?
Give them a warm bath and then massage them with karité shea butter. As you massage them, gently stretch their arms and legs and move them around. This builds muscle strength and control (and has the added benefit of making the baby tired) and also helps relax for better sleep.

(I didn’t have karité on hand, but my friend did about a ten-minute massage/gentle stretching for Ndeye and she fell asleep quickly afterwards.)

Do you put babies to sleep on their backs or stomachs?
Either one, whichever the baby seems to prefer. Putting them on their stomachs may cause stomach aches or discomfort, but some babies really sleep better that way.

How do you get babies to nap when there are other kids making noise around them?
Put the baby on your back until she falls asleep, then transfer her on to a bed. Have a young child sit in the room with the baby until she wakes up. This child can be sure no one else comes in the room, that the baby doesn’t roll off the bed and also bring the baby to you when she wakes up.

(I so cannot imagine my son helping to watch over a baby to help her stay asleep!)

How do you get toddlers to nap?
This one got me laughed at. “We don’t make them nap. If they’re tired, they’ll sleep.”

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I’d say he needed this nap.

So my shopping list now includes karité for massages and raw peanuts!

My 15 seconds of BBC radio fame

So the BBC World Service called me today. Not exactly every day that I can say that.

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They were doing a programme on Ebola in Senegal and Nigeria and I guess found this blog and asked me to be a part of the discussion. However, there was just a wee little mix-up about the time of this live broadcast, so at about 4:22pm I was suddenly and crazily grabbing the kids, my laptop and charge cord and hauling it across the street to our friends’ house where their nanny could watch Thing 1 while I put Thing 2 in a carrier. She amazingly fell right to sleep just in time for sound checks with the BBC. I guess it is kind of old hat for her

photoListen to the episode here.

At 10 mins 50 sec they tried to go to me with a question, but Senegal internet had other plans and Skyped dropped the call.

But you can hear my little clips from 13:15 to 14:05 and from 16:07 to 18:02.

Fortunately you don’t hear bébé Ndeye waking up from her nap just a minute later!

The nutshell version of what I said is that the Senegalese people are relieved but still concerned about Ebola. They stepped up and took responsibility for themselves and listened to health officials, not giving in to panic.

And at 38:30 they talked with our good friend, Dr Tabitha Kieviet who is doing amazing work at Keru Yakaar clinic here in Dakar.

What Can We Learn About Ebola Treatment From Nigeria and Senegal

Nigeria has been declared Ebola-free by the World Health Organisation after going six weeks with no new cases. Nigeria won praise for its swift response after a Liberian diplomat brought the disease there in July. The outbreak has killed more than 4,500 people in West Africa, mostly in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. The World Health Organisation also said Senegal is free of Ebola – after a case of the disease occurred in late August. What can we learn from Nigeria and Senegal in how they treated Ebola? What is life on the ground in Nigeria and Senegal? Do people trust the information from WHO?

Listen to the episode here.

There’s always next year…

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Taken about halfway up the lighthouse path

“22 more days!”

It seems I’ve earned a reputation as ‘that girl who’s doing the hot season countdown’. I thought everyone did it, to be honest! But people have brought it up enough times in the past week for me to realize not all are quite as (fill in the blank with a nice adjective for someone who is overly-organized) as I am in this regard.

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The African Renaissance Monument from the top of the lighthouse

On the bright-as-Senegal-sun side, we’ve just recently discovered a very enjoyable hot season activity.

Can you believe this is in Dakar?

Can you believe this is in Dakar?

This morning I met up with some new friends to run/walk the Phare des Mamelles lighthouse, which according to Senegalese geography textbooks is one of the two ‘mountains’ of Dakar. I arrived before Stina and Annie, my Swedish running mates, so did a little warm-up on my own.

They were nice and went easy on me... but not too easy!

They were nice and went easy on me… but not too easy!

It was gorgeous.
It was so quiet.
It was peaceful.
It was so green.
It was so un-Dakar.

So calm.

So calm.

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Taken on the first lap… but I was still smiling at the end!

“Where could I donate that?” – Autumn 2014

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As hot season comes to an end (it will – I promise!) and you start to swap out your warm-weather clothes, you may feel the urge to do some serious cleaning out and decluttering around the house. Perfect timing!

If you find yourself looking at a pile of stuff thinking, “Who could use this?” or “Where could I donate that?”, this list is for you! I’ve compiled a list of 20+ local organizations and projects that are in need of non-financial donations and many of the items could be in that ever-growing pile sitting in front of you…

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You can download the PDF below to find a good home for everything from can openers to cloth diapers, cleaning supplies to children’s books!

Download the PDF list for Autumn 2014

The list includes current donation requests from Keru Yakaar (House of Hope) Clinic, Orphanage Lac Rose, Animal Rescue League of Dakar, The Beer-Sheba Agricultural Project, La Pouponniere de Dakar, L’Ecole Renaissance des Sourds and other great initiatives in and around Dakar.

Please share the list with anyone you think may be interested.

I plan on updating the list every six months, so if you know of a project or organization that may want to be included in the next round, just let me know. Thanks!

I’m not saying it’s hot…

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I’m saying…

“Such perfect weather for watching bread dough rise.”

“Just think how much money we’re saving by not using the hot water heater for showers!”

“Pumpking spice latte? No, thank you. I’d rather suck on these ice cubes.”

“My hair looks so interesting in 94% humidity.”

“What beautiful condensation drops covering my glass and pooling on the coaster.”

“Why yes, I will have another mango popsicle.”

“Red-faced and sweaty is the new black.”

“Would you look at that? The thermometer has risen to the challenge of registering higher than yesterday!”

Missionary 101

My family in Cote d'Ivoire

My family in Cote d’Ivoire

A while back, my friend Erin suggested I write a post on missionaries.  Who are they? What do they do? Why do they do it? 

For those outside the missionary community, it’s not a very easy concept to understand.

As the daughter of missionaries, I think I’m in a good position to share some insights and hopefully some understanding too.

Having grown up surrounded by ‘uncles and aunts’, I have a deep admiration for missionaries, but find that I can also be very critical of them. What can I say? I’ve known some great ones who set the bar very high. ;)

Of course, this post will feature lots of generalizations and all are from my viewpoint, so not everyone will agree. But here it goes…

Trying to explain a missionary is like trying to explain a doctor.

  • Some are great at what they do. Others aren’t so good. And some are downright bad.
  • Some are very specialized (working in a small village, for example). Others work across regions (or, in my parents’ case, 80+ countries).
  • Some spend their days working among people and others in an office setting.
  • Some are great and passionate and hardworking and humble. Others are tired, selfish, overwhelmed and have forgotten why they started down this path in the first place.

What a missionary actually does from the time they wake up in the morning until they go to sleep at night can be as varied as what a neurosurgeon in NYC does in comparison to a general practitioner in Longview, Texas. It totally depends on the person, their actual job and their context.

So what do missionaries have in common?

Outdated clothes.

Kidding, kidding. I’m kidding. Actually some of the most stylish women I know are missionaries. They’ve found aspects of the Senegalese clothing culture that suit them and have created a personalized hybrid that’s beautiful.

My first taille-basse outfit. Rockin' the wax print and puffy sleeves.

My first taille-basse outfit. Rockin’ the wax print and puffy sleeves.

Missionaries are people who have known the love of God in their lives so powerfully that they want to share it with others. Some missionaries do this by staying in the same place they grew up, but others move across the globe to do so. Those are the ones I’m talking about here.

How does someone become a missionary?

The first step to becoming what is called a ‘career missionary’ is finding out that such a thing exists. The second is feeling like God may be inviting you to go that route… wherever on the globe it might end up! Steps 3 thru 116 in the process are usually finding an mission organization that appeals to you and then a long series of very in-depth questionnaires, interviews, personality tests and even medical tests. If you’re going to be sent overseas to represent God and an organization, that organization wants to be sure they know every.single.thing about you. And that they like it, en plus.

Once a person passes all these very lengthy stages, they may then enter a time of fundraising and enlisting people to pray for them as they go. There’s also usually a pretty intense training period that may include cultural introduction, team-building and learning how to kill and butcher a chicken or use a squatty-potty, depending where in the world you’ll be moving.

Missionary dictionary
MK: Missionary Kid, now more commonly called a TCK
TCK: Third Culture Kid
Stateside or Home Assignment: a period of time in which the missionary goes back to their home country to reconnect with their family, friends and churches… and usually gain 20lbs.
Sending church: a church that endorses the work a missionary is doing and generally supports them financially
Supporters: individuals that endorse the work a missionary is doing and generally support them financially
Prayer supporters: people who pray for missionaries and their work

What is a missionary’s ‘day job’ then?

They may be translating the Bible into another language, working in a health clinic, teaching English, setting up desert irrigation or counseling families in crisis… or even doing accounting and bookkeeping for their organization. Whatever their job is, their purpose is to share the message of God’s love for all people.

What challenges do missionaries face?

Since many rely on financial support from churches or individuals, there’s a constant underlying (or surface!) stress over money. Many missionaries live by faith, which is a difficult but beautiful thing. The next time you find yourself talking to missionary, ask them to tell you about a time God provided for their needs. I have no tips for getting them to stop talking once this topic is introduced. ;)

All parents worry about their kids. In addition to the usual concerns about raising little ones, missionaries also worry that their TCKs (Third Culture Kids: children who were raised in a culture outside of their parents’ culture) may grow up speaking their ‘native’ language with a foreign accent, not know how to flush an American-style toilet, or not recognize their grandparents at the airport…

My brother and our pet monkey

Some missionaries feel they can’t take vacations or even go to nice restaurants because everything gets run through the filter of ‘What would our supporters think if they knew we were spending money on this?’ (Here’s my two centimes if you are one of these supporters: Most of these missionaries are very in need of a break and some rest. Encourage them to do so and not feel guilty.)

Culture shock, learning a new language, adapting to a new culture, fitting back into your home culture and going through reverse culture shock… these are continual challenges missionaries face.

In their hardest moments, missionaries ask themselves, “Is it worth it?” Was uprooting my family, moving across the globe to a place where I’ll never fully fit in to share a message that doesn’t seem to be getting through really the right decision?

JennStill have questions? Senegal Daily is happy to provide you with a new limited-time feature called ‘Ask a Missionary’!

Write your questions in the comments below and one of my favorite missionaries, Jenn DeAtley is ready to answer them over on her awesome blog.

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