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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Saliou's Shoes

In a small village in Africa there lived a woman of little means who awaited the birth of her second child. On the night of the full moon, during the harvest, the woman was visited by a prophet in her dreams. He told her he had been sent by Allah and spoke in an ancient tongue, pulling the words like ripe fruit from the koran he held in his hand. Her child, the prophet told her, would be a boy sent to earth to serve Allah. No harm would ever come to this child or her house if she allowed him to fulfill his purpose. When the child turned ten, she must let him go out into the world. The woman was frightened by the vision in her dream, but being a faithful servant of Allah, she took great pride in having been chosen as the vessel. The great rains came the night she birthed the child and she suffered greatly, but she did not complain about her gift, for that was how she saw him. The boy was kind and gentle. But he did not speak. It was said that if he glimpsed a person's soul through the window of the eyes, he would know all, good and evil, which lived within a person. Therefore, he was greatly revered in the small village.The woman took good care of the child until he went out into the world at the age of ten, as the prophet had predicted. The child was often seen in the village walking barefoot along the roads. One day he met a white man, who measured his bare feet and promised to buy him shoes. When the rains came, the man left, but returned one day and presented the boy with a beautiful box. Inside was a pair of leather sandles, and the man put them on the boy's feet. The shoes fit him perfectly and the man smiled brightly at the boy. The boy smiled back and looked deeply into the man's eyes before continuing his walk. The man watched him go. The boy stopped several children as he made his way through the village and asked them each to try on his beautiful new shoes. When he had found a little boy whose feet fit the shoes, he buckled them onto the child and walked away . .

I first met Saliou about two years ago, shortly after we came to Senegal. I pulled up to the bakery one morning and was about to open the car door when a small, smiling face appeared suddenly in the window. "Oh, hello", I said. He didn't respond, but hopped up onto the runner of the car and crossed his small arms carelessly at my open window, still smiling and cocking his head a bit to the left as though offering his cheek for a kiss. He then looked me straight in the eyes, an unusual intimacy for a Senegalese child to bestow upon a white person, especially an adult white person, and one he had yet to meet, officially. As he gave no sign of wanting to move, I suggested he get down so I could get out of the car. "Aaahhh," he said, drawing out the word, which I took to mean that he thought it was a good idea. He jumped down and made a sweeping gesture towards the bakery door, a gallant (and I realized later, practiced) move, as though it were his and he was inviting me inside. He was barefoot and his clothes were threadbare and stained. Judging from his height, I guessed he was about nine or ten. His eyes , which were bright and clear, seemed familiar somehow, and his mouth was unusually large (or was it just the effect of his easy smile?), the teeth square and slightly brown near the gum.

"What's your name?" I asked first in French, then in Wolof, when he didn't answer. He tapped one finger lightly on his chest and opened his eyes wide. "Yes, you, what's your name?" At this he looked up at me and then back to the ground. "Mangui tudou 'Ellen,' I offered. He closed his eyes firmly for several moments, the long lashes fluttering, as though he was considering what my name might look like before committing it to memory. Then he gathered the fingers of his right hand to his thumb and swept the fist towards his mouth, took my hand and pulled me towards the bakery door. "You're hungry, I guess," and there was that smile again and something like a grunt of relief. That was when I understood that, although this little boy could hear, he didn't, couldn't or refused to speak.

The yeasty smell of fresh-baked bread, creme-filled pasteries, egg-washed brioche and baked apples filled our noses, while Saliou's eyes feasted on the glass case filled with paper doilies proffering early morning delights as more were being pulled from the oven on large warm trays. We were greeted with friendly smiles and nods. No one seemed to be surprised that I was holding Saliou's hand (this child I had just met) and they all said hello to us as though we were a common, familiar sight. Saliou pointed enthusiastically at several pasteries, but as I only had one small coin, enough to buy a baguette, I said no, no, no to him. Throughout his persistance, he never stopped smiling. Once we were outside, I broke off a large piece of the warm bread and gave it to him. He nodded several times, held his hand up for a high-five and walked off. He stopped briefly at the edge of the parking lot and handed the bread to a little girl who was crying and pounding the ground with her fists as her mother re-tied her sarong which had blown off.

I saw Saliou frequently from that first day on, always on his way somewhere, always stopping to greet someone with a hug, a slap, a high-five. Everyone knew him. I began to notice that he had a perfunctory vocabulary of signs which he used to communicate with people. I also came to understand that he was able to speak, as he parroted words and phrases that he found amusing. "Sailou," I said one time, "your pockets are inside out." "Pockets. Inside. Out", he repeated, giggling as I tucked the empty white pouches back into their folds. Someone told me later that he did this on purpose to let people know he didn't have money for food, his very literal sign for empty pockets, pocket's empty.

Saliou would often spot me as I was going into the grocery store and help me do my shopping. He would throw his arms around my legs by way of a greeting, then take my hand. I'd tell him three things to go get and he'd return and dump them into the basket, smiling and proud. "What's next?" his eyes would plead. Or if Sunny and Jamie were with me, I'd make it a game of who could get their item fastest (without running) and off they'd go on the count of three. Saliou invariably won. On one such shopping day, we were waiting in line to check out when a french woman who was standing behind us said to Saliou, "little boy, you shouldn't be running around barefoot. Where are your shoes?" He looked at her, then at me and took my hand. Giving me a disdainful onceover, she loudly demanded, "why don't you buy him some shoes?" I didn't know what to say.

The next time I saw Saliou, I asked him on a whim to take me to meet his mother. I wanted to talk to his family, assuming he had one. I wanted to ask if I could buy him some shoes. "Ana Mama?" I asked him, pulling his arms gently from around my legs. "Ana?" he repeated. "Yes," I said. "Where is your mother?"

"Mama," he said and reached up and touched one of my breasts. "No, Salou!" and I batted his hand away instinctively and covered my chest. He seemed confused and hurt by this and I felt immediately ashamed, because, of course, this was the most basic and innocent sign for mother. The breast and underneath it, the heart. "I'm sorry," I told him. "It's alright. Let's go find Mama." Taking my hand, he walked hurriedly through the village along the main street and led me into the Cyber Cafe. He ran to a French woman behind the counter and she kissed him on the head.

"Bonjour Saliou," she said, winking at me. "What kind of trouble are you up to today?"

"Hello," I said and shook her hand. "Are you Saliou's mother?" I asked, thinking perhaps he was of mixed race or had been adopted (the same assumption the french woman had made about me in the grocery store). She laughed kindly and said no, that she knew the family and sometimes looked after Saliou. I wondered what she meant exactly and was about to ask when the phone rang and she indicated that she needed to take the call. She tossed Salou a piece of candy, which he put in his pocket before he led me outside.

"Saliou," I reprimanded, "I don't have time for this. Where is your Mama?" He frowned, mocking my expression and then spread his smile exaggeratedly, as if to say, 'chill out, lady' and pointed down the street. We now progressed slowly through the village as I waited each time he stopped to greet people he knew. His pockets began to fill up: a small box of matches, a tissue for his nose, a small toy car with the wheels missing, a clothes pin, the piece of candy, a coin or two. He finally stopped at a small fruit stand that I was familiar with. He sat down on the bench next to the Senegalease woman whom I had bought fruit from many times. She handed him a banana and playfully pinched him under the chin. "Ooowww" he said and entwined his arm through hers. I said hello and asked if she recognized me. "Of course," she said. "You like mandarines. How are you, Sourna si?" We exchanged pleasantries for a minute and then I ventured, "So, I didn't realize you were Saliou's mother?" She looked at Sailou who was looking for something under the table. "I'm not," she said, "but I've known Saliou since he was born. He is a very special child." I had heard him described this way many times before.

We had walked from one end of the village to the other by now and I was feeling exasperated, ready to abandon my idea of meeting Saliou's mother. He was leading me on a goose chase. I bought some mandarines, said goodbye and turned to make my way back through the village. Saliou caught up to me and began pulling me in the other direction. "Salou, this isn't a game." When he looked at me, the smile was gone. And in the absence of that smile, I saw for the first time ancient eyes that belonged not to a careless child, but to a burdened soul searching for small evidences of kindness. I looked away from those penetrating eyes, but I had seen it, the sorrow. I took his hand again and he led me towards the Art Centre. We entered the main breezeway where several young artists who were working on large paintings looked up at us. Salou turned to me and put his forefinger to his lips. Silence. I nodded. Yes, Salou, we must be silent.

He opened doors and walked with authority through a maze of studios until we reached the last one at the back of the building. He opened the door and inside were two Senegalese students working on life-sized paper mache figures and another in the corner rythmically gliding his hands across a Jembe drumb. And with them was Barbara, an Italian woman I had recently met and liked very much. Saliou ran to her and she picked him up and saddled him on her hip like a baby, his arms wound around her neck, his head neatly lying in the crook of her neck. And then I understood. Saliou had many mothers, women who took care of him in large and small ways. And when he had touched my breast earlier, he was letting me know I was one of them. When Saliou went over to play the drum with his friend, I asked Barbara how she knew him and she explained that his real mother worked for her and was a close friend. Barbara was putting Saliou's older sister through school and had paid for his education until the school refused to teach him. They couldn't provide the extra attention he needed.

"But, what's wrong with him exactly?" I asked.

"Nothing, technically speaking. No offense," Barbara said, "but you're not the first white person to take an interest in Saliou. He's been seen by an ear, nose and throat specialist, a speech therapist, a psychologist, has had brain tests, hearing tests, tests for learning impairments. You name it. Salou's father was an alchoholic before his mother left him and came to work for me, and although I don't know all the details, he must have seen and heard some pretty horrendous things at an early age. I think perhaps he has suffered a trauma, but there is nothing pysically wrong with him.

"But why is he always on the street, barefoot and dirty? Why does she neglect him? Why doesn't his mother take care of him? Why doesn't she buy him some shoes?" I was angry at this woman, even though I had never met her. As one mother to another, I hated her and I began to cry. It was then that Barbara told me the story, his mother's belief that he was sent to earth to serve Allah in some special way.

When I had finished talking with Barbara, Saliou walked me back through the village to my car. He held his two fists out and turned them, like he was turning a wheel, his way of letting me know he wanted to go for a ride. "No, Saliou," I said. "I can't take you to today. I have to get home and make dinner." As it was, I had spent much more time than I had planned. Sunny and Jamie would be waiting for me. I got in the car and he closed the door for me and as he did, he left greasy, black fingerprints on the white car door just below the window frame. Not smudges, but clearly visible traces of the lines and arcs of his unique and complex humanity. On the drive home, I thought about the incredible story that Barbara had told me and the many ways I've heard Saliou described: retarded, mute, an indigo child, special. And now an instrument of Allah. Was there any truth to his mother's story? Did she really have a vision? Did she really believe he was sent by Allah? Or was it a means of not having to take responibility for a child who didn't speak, a child who reminded her of pain. I would never know. I thought about his smile and how I would describe him. And one word came instantly. Free.