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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.)