This past month, I traveled and stayed for my first time in the third world. My wife and I visiting my stepdaughter, a Peace Corp volunteer, in Senegal.
It was an amazing, soulful trip into the unknown.
Independent of the reading or meditating I did in preparation, there was nothing that could prepare me for such a trip into a culture so unknown to me.
I figured I’d just roll with it, that I would understand in retrospect what I could, but that my short two week time in Africa would have no answers, just pose more questions. I figured that my body wouldn’t relax, my brain wouldn’t grapple with any great problems or learn a history I didn’t already know, but that I would challenge my spirit and come to appreciate what fortunes have determined my life.
While I haven’t had a lot of things given to me, the chance of birth to a middle-class American mother and father gave me opportunities beyond what the same middle-class upbringing offers the rest of the world. A middle-class rural lifestyle in Senegal challenges parents to cloth and feed the youth and there is little in the way of preparation for adulthood. Most of the young boys that my stepdaughter works with are from exactly this type of upbringing, their parents doing the one thing that is available to them to try and overcome the poverty of their lives, they send them to Koranic schools in the cities, it is here they become talibe (an Arabic word meaning disciple). Some of the schools are harsh in disciplining the boys and enforce high begging quotas in order to support the school, others allow the boys to govern themselves and the begging requirements are for food.
The respect the boys have for one another and the way they look to my stepdaughter, a fluent Pulaar speaker, the native tongue of most of rural Senegal, for lovingkindness suggests that this system is not an abomination of poor parenting but the best the parents think they can do — while at the same time it takes a bit of the child out of these boys every time they have to beg or answer to a religious leader that forces memorization and loyalty instead of free-thinking and love.
To see the world as these boys see it, barefoot-talibe.com is the photo project being run by two Peace Corp volunteers with cameras donated by friends and family. I know these kids will capture the heartbeat of Senegal, their perspective, like mine, is forever changed by the interplay of the complexities of the (often romanticized) “simple life.”
Justin Harnish is the Development Director for Women of the World and the Chief Strategist for Heroic Life Path where this article was originally published.