I think one of the hardest things I’ve had to accept about living in Senegal is that, just when you think you’ve seen the worst of all possible living conditions, you are confronted with an even harsher reality. Yesterday I went on another “causerie” in Dakar. This time we went to a different slum area-this one we call, “le savon.” Here, in the middle of Dakar, is a full-blown soap making operation. Giant cauldrons of lye boil at astronomical temperatures throughout “le savon.” This coupled with an unforgiving sun makes “le savon” a good fifteen degrees hotter than the rest of Dakar. My eyes and skin burned. The smoke coming from the smoldering coal was suffocating. Breathing was a battle. The causerie hadn’t even begun, and I could not wait to get out…
And people live there. Men, women and children all contribute to the soap making operation. Between the boiling vats of lye and other chemicals-rusty tin panels are assembled into “shelters” for the families that inhabit “le savon.” For them, there is little to no relief from the brutal air that circulates through their “community.”
The causeries always leave me feeling angry, wracked with guilt and defeated. My anger is directed at the young people I know (in the States and Europe)-who were lucky enough to have infinite opportunities, but choose to waste them. My anger is directed at those who take their physical and mental health for granted. And most of all, my anger is self-directed; because I know that I am guilty as well.
The feeling of defeat comes when you look around, and there are so many young faces, smiling and joking, in spite of their situation-then you look in their eyes and there is the same sense of sadness and exhaustion that their parents have. And then you realize that maybe they don’t see a way out. And they know their reality better; they live in it.
One can only hope that at least the children, born into this environment, will enroll in school, and at least have some chance to make it out. This was the purpose of our causerie-to talk about the importance of education. On the bright side, there was a better turn out for this causerie than “le mecanicien.” There were at least fifteen to twenty girls who came to listen-and even a couple boys.
It was actually the two boys who left a lasting impression on me. They both stayed until the end of the discussion and continued to ask questions…
Their stories are similar, and all too familiar, here in Dakar. They were both forced to find work before completing elementary school. Now, in their late teens or early twenties, how do they go back? Even if they desperately want to-it seems to be a logistical impossibility. They have to work during the day, and a twenty year old can hardly re-enter the fourth grade…
I don’t know what the solution is. But I do know that we can’t give up.