A Letter From My Friend Cori, Who Is In Africa

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Subject: bread and fishes in The Gambia

Dear All-

Let me start right off by saying that there is now a baby donkey in a small village in the middle of the smallest country in Africa named after me. (The donkey, not the country. The country already has a name – The Gambia.)
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I was travelling through The Gambia with a remarkable kid named Ousman. He’s about twenty, although he doesn’t know for sure. He was homeless – on the streets – from the age of about four to fourteen. The Gambia is a primarily Muslim country – and in their religious tradition are holy men called “marabouts.” They teach the Koran to young boys – often sent to them by parents too poor to take care of them. The boys, called “talibes” or “almudos”, learn Arabic and literally memorize the Koran under the marabout. In exchange, they go out on the streets and beg for food and money, which they take back to the marabout, his family, and the older talibes. They carry around these big old empty tomato cans, and beg people to put little scoops of cooked rice in them. When they have enough, they take it back to the marabout.

The boys sleep on the streets, on cardboard, or whatever they can find. They are filthy, starving – and in desperate need of so many things. Many do not even have shoes – and their little toes are so cut up and often almost falling off. But here’s the remarkable thing – their spirits are so open and sweet and lovely – despite what they have to go through just to stay alive. It’s different from any other street child culture I’ve ever seen. They share food, they’re kind to each other, they’re honest. As my friend Brian put it:

“These children do not fit the streetkid stereotype. Not only do they seem singularly unaffected by circumstances that should reduce them to brutalized, cynical, criminally oriented urchins, but they seem to be remarkably well balanced and sane. This is not just a shallow first impression. It was strengthened over time as I grew to know the almudos better. How does this come about? Here we have children who are separated from their parents, who have to beg for their food and other basic necessities in the city streets, who have no access to medical care or facilities to keep themselves clean, have to beg a certain amount of money every day and sleep on the bare ground at night. They should be alienated, antisocial, depressed and potentially violent. It is clear they are none of these things. This is an important mystery.”

Ousman’s life changed when he met the man who wrote the above – Brian Horne. A Canadian who was in the Gambia working in 1994, Brian saw the conditions of the almudos and set out to change them. He started a feeding program for the boys in one city and took in a few himself and sent them to school. He had to go to their parents and promise to care for them in order to get permission for them to leave their Koranic study under the marabouts. Of course, this did not sit well with the marabouts. When Brian went to talk to Ousman’s parents, not only did his father (who is a marabout himself) say “no” but also he said he would kill Ousman if he went to school. Ousman told me how his heart broke when he watched from a side alley as his best friend Idi, formerly a street boy like him, now all dressed up in a school uniform, going to “where people learn.” Ousman said “he looked so nice and clean. And he had once been just like me.”

Ousman was sent away from the city, to another marabout, to get away from the bad influence of Brian. But the image of Idi in his uniform would not go away. When Ousman was fourteen, he ran away from his marabout to go to school. He begged everyday to get enough money for his school fees. He talked his way into the second grade, even though he was so much older than the other kids. He taught himself English, the only one in his rather large extended family to learn it so far. After a few years on his own, he got back in touch with Brian – who put him in touch with me.

Ousman is now in high school – and at about twenty, much older than the other kids. He wants to come to the US for school – or actually almost anywhere but there. There’s no college in the Gambia and Ousman desperately wants a good education – specifically to go to journalism school. One day we were reading a Gambian newspaper together and noticed an article about stolen cows that said “The police were called in to shit light on the issue.” When I pointed it out to Ousman, we both agreed it wasn’t a typo – the journalist really thought that was the correct term. Ousman said (after we laughed for ten straight minutes), “See! That was written by our TOP national journalist! That will be what happens to me if I stay in The Gambia for school! I too will think that you’re supposed to shit light on issues!”

His goal is to become a photojournalist and cover children’s rights issues. He spent hours taking photos with my camera of the little talibe boys on the street – talking to them, telling them how he used to be just like them. They looked at him like he was an alien – so clean in his new clothes (my husband’s old shirt), speaking English to me. Ousman told me so many stories of when he was a talibe on the streets – how he didn’t bathe for years (and when you see the kids, you believe it), how he had finally filled his rice pot one day with food begged from a “rich Embassy house” and been attacked by a dog – the hot rice spilled out on his leg and burned him so badly he still had scars. A kind man took him to the hospital and paid for everything – they cleaned him up and gave him food and were so nice he was almost glad for the burns.

Ousman was also beaten constantly when he was a talibe (as most of them are) but especially because he is left-handed and refused to write the Koran with his right hand. (The left hand is considered unclean.) His stubborness, which caused him so much trouble, is also the thing that saved his life. He is just a kid who has so much drive and love and innate belief in himself – I wouldn’t be surprised if he is the one to bring a revolution in his country toward the treatment of the talibes. His goal now is to document his experiences and those of the other talibes – especially the ones still on the street. He’s bugging me for a digital camera (just like an american teenager!) so he can post the photos of the kids on the blog he has started. (There are internet cafes in even the remotest places on this planet!)

One of my most poignant memories from this whole trip is buying loaves of french bread and cans of sardines with Ousman and feeding all the talibes we could find. It was so sweet, especially because Ousman remembered that sardines was what Brian had bought and fed him so long ago – when he was starving on the streets. For him to be able to feed the talibes now was a very powerful healing act. The symbolism of the fish and bread wasn’t lost on either of us. Just being there felt like a miracle.

I’m helping him write a young adult novel now about his experiences called “Bringing Water”. The title comes from an incident just after Ousman was born – his father didn’t announce his birth, because he was so small they didn’t think he would live. An old man “gifted with sight” as Ousman says, went to see him and then went to his father and said “Why haven’t you announced this child’s birth?” When told by Ousman’s father that he didn’t think Ousman would live, the old man said “You’re wrong. One day this child will bring water.” That’s a Gambian saying for “bringing something of great value.”

So, Pam R, your father’s Sony Vaio is now helping Ousman tell his story and “bring water.” He cried when I gave it to him, unable to take in the idea that this amazing thing, this computer was his. He carries it with him everywhere – and now knows how to use every function. You’ll be the first to get the book.

Now Ousman’s father has come to grudgingly support him – even be a bit proud of him. His mother has supported him all along and is a really remarkable woman. I went to visit Ousman’s family – I’ve been paying his school and living expenses for the last three years and have become his “American mom.” The whole family turned out to greet me – they rushed to my car, singing and laughing and calling my name. It was my birthday on my last night there and all eighteen kids and three wives serenaded me with a Happy Birthday tune that sounded roughly like the one we know. : )

I’m now looking for sponsors to help Ousman’s brothers and sisters get into school. For the first time, his father has agreed that Ousman’s sister (a brilliant little girl) can actually receive an education. School is so inexpensive there by our standards, but is definitely out of reach for them. Let me know if you’d like to help out. I don’t have the exact amounts yet, but it will be very very low-cost – and every dime will go to the kids’ school, medical, and food expenses. (I have photos of all of the kids!)

Ousman’s father still has talibes of his own, but Ousman put his foot down and said that they could not go out and beg. Instead, he has been budgeting his own food allowance to cover enough rice for the whole family every month. (My husband had no idea he was helping buy rice for an entire compound. Neither did I, but I think it will pay off when Ousman graduates college and can help his family on his own. This is about changing an entire lineage and will take a little time.)

Ousman took me to his family’s ancestral village (they live in the relatively large city of Serekunda, but are from a tiny village originally). It was a two day trek involving three bush taxis, an overcrowded ferry (where I luckily managed to avoid both a stampede and an overzealous riot cop), a donkey cart, a short walk, and finally a horse ride into the village. Swathed in full Muslim dress (fuschia is SUCH a lovely color for a burka) and suffering through innumerable red dust storms, by the time I arrived I looked like some kind of crazed Arabic chimney sweep who found a really good sale on hot pink cotton-poly blend.

The people in the village were amazing. They killed a chicken for me (presenting it like a fine wine for my approval) and then we stayed up late in the night with the village elders, listening to my IPOD and talking about Iraq and Halliburton and the differences between Muslims and Christians, Americans and Africans. And what we had in common – which apparently is a love of bad 70’s music. (See earlier comment re: my IPOD.) I broke out my food stash, and shared salmon, instant oatmeal, and Folger’s coffee packets. They gave me attaya, which is like green-tea espresso. Highly addictive.

Late at night, after the moon rose over the huts and they all laughed at me for wanting a photo of it (“do you not have the moon in America?”), we were all feeling very happy and one-love-like. That’s when it was agreed that the next donkey born in the village would bear my name. (There was a running joke about how much I love donkeys, and how I wouldn’t let any of the donkey cart drivers beat them when they drove us.) Since Ousman’s family name is Cham and my maiden name is Chambers, it was decided that the newest donkey to the village would be named “Cori Cham-bers.” So there you have it. Immortality – or however long a donkey’s lifespan is in a desert village in Africa.

Thanks for reading!

Your Friend on the Continent,

Cori

PS – Ultimately, Brian had to leave the country because of his opposition to the marabouts. He still supports four of the boys – they’re all in high school now. It’s through him that I met Ousman. You can order his beautiful books about his experiences or just check out his excellent website all about street kids, especially almudos/talibes) If you want to contact him to learn more about almudos/talibes – his email address is on the site, tell him you’re a friend of mine. He’s a truly good man.
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