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Monday, February 16, 2009

The Breakfast Club

I have always wondered what it would be like to have a large family, a house bustling with kids, forever in my way and yet catching me on the brink of losing my patience with some antic that brings me back to laughter. I have that family in my life right now, although I know they have only been lent to me. They are not mine to keep. I call them 'The Breakfast Club"-- seven Senegalese children ranging in age from 4 to 14 who live behind our rented house on the beach. They are the various children and grandchildren of Barbakar, the guardian of our property. It's hard to say how old Barbakar is, but I'm guessing he must be in his seventies. He is tall and lean, with deep, blood-shot eyes that betray his hardships and a thin smile that attempts to overcome them. He is responsible for feeding, housing and caring for over 20 people who live with him in his small but clean house. There is constant activity emanating from those walls, people coming and going, hellos and goodbyes at the door, waving down the street to so and so, arguing amongst themselves. The din that reaches our ears is another language altogether, one mixed with foreign words and unfamiliar intonations. Sometimes it is soothing, other times disconcerting. In the interior courtyard, there are several stray cats and 10 goats that help dispose of fish carcasses, food scraps and all sorts of household debris. There are two wobbly newborn goats who I call "thing one" and "thing two" and when they bleat for their mother's milk, you'd swear you were hearing a small child's cry. Sometimes it is. Either way, my adrenaline flows and I have no way of knowing if I am responding to animal or human stress.
Who lives in Barbakar's house? His family tree is a complicated one to decipher. Each time I try to figure it out, I get lost in the labyrinth of his relations. All I know is that he's in the middle somewhere, growing old in the hot sun, providing shade to the others and spreading roots that can barely be contained. If you ask any of these children how they are related to the others they will tell you "he is my brother" or "she is my sister," although it isn't true. They also have no idea how old they are or on what day, in what month or in what year they were born. What for us is a an identifying piece of information engraved in our memory, is to them birth facts recorded in a family ledger. Because the Muslim religion condones polygamy, Barbakar has at least two wives that we know of, one of whom lives with him. Two of the oldest children are his by this wife, two appear to belong to the wife's sister, who abandoned them, and the rest are grand-children or second cousins as best we can figure. None of these details matters to any of them. They share a roof and a life and so they are family. 
Their infiltration into our own small family came about gradually. In the beginning we would glimpse them all hiding behind our fence, too shy to be seen, but young enough to be heard. Their whispers would turn to screeching laughter once we turned our heads. They would run away but always come back in the afternoon, this time walking on the beach in front of our house, pointedly ignoring us. I spoke to the oldest one, Aysa, on a day when the others weren't around and asked her to come up the stairs. She shook our hands and smiled at Sunny and Jamie and left. Somehow that small gesture broke the barrier and served, in her mind, as an invitation to put the games aside and enter our lives. She is the steward, the responsible party, the leader of the pack. These children, though always clean and well-mannered, do not attend school and are left to their own devices during the day. For a 14 year old, Aysa manages very well, caring for these children, dressing, feeding and commanding good behavior. But she is still a child and I love to see that side of her, her bright laughter when she occasionally lets go of her responsibilities. But even when she plays, braiding Barbie's hair or putting the doll's small clothes back on the right way, I can see that this is not really fun for her, but rather her need to keep things orderly, her constant attempt to put things right.
Besides Aysa, according to age, the children are: Sorna, Bou, Alisahn, Nabu, Leinda, and little Djimba who is exactly Sunny's height and size. I call them The Breakfast Club, because shortly after we met Aysa, she began bringing them over every morning on the early side. They would shake our hands and then we would all sit quietly outside, taking each other in, not quite awake or comfortable with each other, culturally or linguistically. I began offering them whatever we had leftover from our breakfast: heals of bread, pieces of cheese, half a fruit, butter, jam, cereal, milk. The food would disappear within minutes and they would wake up a bit, relieved to have food in their stomachs, and the day would unfold. Over time, the silent handshakes were replaced by big smiles and small touches and eventually hugs and kisses. Once afraid to cross the threshold, they now enter without knocking. Like any friendship, time brings about deeper levels of feeling and familiarity, expectations and habit. After three months of knowing them, the once shy, silent group now moves in and out of our house individually, with total ease and confidence. They are always here. There are games, books being read, walks on the beach, fish and crabs brought back and dissected, hair being braided, clothes being washed, songs being sung, running, jumping, dancing, cuts to be healed. Jamie and Sunny have welcomed them as much, if not more, than Richard and I. They share more easily, dare more often, give without hesitation. The few occasions that they have been invited into Barbakar's home have given them an understanding of otherness, of basic needs barely being met. It's not so complicated for my own children to recognize that their friends don't have what they have and because they love them, they want to help. Sunny and Jamie, who once refused to share that last cookie between them, now hand that cookie to someone else. They have given these children their own toys, clothes and simpler things like unusual shells, rocks or flowers. There is an easy give and take that I love. Sometimes, Aysa will ask me to give her oil, flour and sugar. But she returns later that day with the Madeleines or beignets that she has baked for us. We often play Senegalese music for them on our ipod and they try to teach us impossibly limber dance moves, arms and legs flailing in all directions. Like any family, there are also lines that get crossed, barriers that are tested and must be re-established. There is always a point in the day when I tell them its time for them to go home. But before that time comes, we all mark the end of our day with a walk on the beach before the sun goes down and that's when I feel this family the most. I never know who will take my hand, who will bring me a whelk's shell, where we will go, what tomorrow will bring.
Our egos, as privileged people, tend to derive great satisfaction from helping those less fortunate by giving them what we think is missing from their lives. In most cases, foreigners who visit Senegal (or any impoverished country) feel the need to give money, to buy them what we think they need. They will ask, and because we feel something akin to survivor guilt, we will give. I've learned that this is a dangerous habit, solving only a need in ourselves to fix what feels uncomfortable. Money has little value here and the gesture is soon forgotten. It is spent too quickly because it is already owed and when it becomes expected, it becomes poisonous. What we have built with these children--relationships, love, trust--feels more like human currency and the rewards have been pure and numerous, not just for them, but more unexpectedly for us. They have given us a return to basic ways of relating, taught us that our worlds are divergent and similar at the same time, helped us to eclipse our cultural differences, and reminded us how to love each other a little bit better with a lot less complication.
Photo #1 Left to right: Aysa, Sunny, Sorna, Alisahn, Jamie, Bou
Photo #2 Jamie & Bou
For those of you on Facebook, look for more photos of The Breakfast Club on my page.

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