Boubacar is about ten years old. He has scraped legs and wears oversized shirts that hang like dresses. He visits my house almost every evening, a nightly trick-or-treater, calling at the door, “sakur almudo,” (which I gather to be Arabic for—essentially—“trick or treat”). The homeowners he visits either tell him to bug off, or invite him inside to fill his jack-o-lantern—in this case, his emptied tomato can—with leftover food. He then recites a thank-you prayer in Arabic, to which the hosts reply “Amin, amin,” (like “Amen”).
I say that Boubacar is “about” ten years old because even he doesn’t know his real age. He is a Peter Pan, stuck in glassy-eyed childhood, malnourished and physically stunted. He has been denied access to school, knows little French, and speaks only his maternal tongue Pulaar. Boubacar is a talibé, meaning his parents willingly loaned him to a religious leader so he could lead the life of a street beggar, nominally learning the Koran, sleeping on the floor of a religious school, and combing the city for coins and food scraps.
Boubacar will someday outgrow talibé-hood, and enter adult life without having had any schooling, rendering him unqualified for most occupations except hustling and stealing. The talibé system has played a cruel maturation trick on him, as he visibly grows yet remains mentally young.
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Like Boubacar, most Senegalese children blush when I ask them their birthdays. Of those that remember, they retrieve the cold numbers from the recesses of their minds, as if they had warily memorized the digits of Pi. Many of them do not have birth certificates, or else had the documents fabricated by village authorities years after they were born so that they could attend school.
To them, age is an approximation, a birthday an arbitrary series of numbers conjured to correspond to one’s physical size. Age isn’t an all-encompassing identity to most Senegalese people, it seems, as it is in the States.
I remember turning seventeen, and feeling like it was such a landmark, perhaps because at that point I could read Seventeen Magazine and finally get all the references. At seventeen, I felt I had achieved the perfect balance of being on the cusp of adulthood without having to give up any of my youthful proclivities. I considered myself wholly different from my friends who were sixteen, and from those who were eighteen.
In the United States, age is cultural numbers game, compelling some to lie and still others to self-punish. Consider the societal trauma created around turning thirty. While it has no inherent meaning beyond being a number, “30” somehow inspires in Americans a referendum on career progress, the specter of marriage, and the destructive preoccupation on what it means to be “old.” We repeat this ridiculous mindfuck for ages forty, fifty, and so forth.
There is a certain freedom in Senegal around not having to lie about one’s age; after all, if you are truly uncertain of your age, you cannot lie about it. Birthdays often pass uncelebrated, partly because this is a less affluent, less “me-centered” society, and also because life is not seen as a series of ticks on the age-o-meter.
Even adults have a loose relationship to their ages, citing the age they think they are, yet conceding that it has been manipulated in official documents. Many kids have a real age and a “school age.” My host brother Mamadou, 19, was adopted and started school a few years late. In order to remain on the right educational track, his “school age”—the age on his official school documents—is 14, putting him in the same class as my 14-year-old brother Lamine. This manipulation of age is not exactly seen as dishonest; it is simply an adjustment made to allow life to go on.
Certainly, Senegalese people still feel age-related pressures, such as a need to get married and have kids. Yet these are less numerically based and more inspired by a general comparison against one’s peers and relatives.
The fact of becoming old is understandably celebrated here. Senegal’s age structure is, like most developing countries where healthcare is lacking, severely bottom-heavy: 43% of the population is under 14 while only 3% of the population is over the age of 65 (contrasted with 20%/13% for the U.S.) Elders are revered and rare. When my parents recently visited, my community acknowledged it as a great honor.
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Boubacar, in all likelihood, will not be one of the few who makes it past 65. His physical health and educational immaturity pigeonhole him into the massive youth bracket. The international community has condemned the child slavery-like situation to which boys like Boubacar are subjected. The Senegalese government has formally banned the practice, though it remains unabated in far-flung regions like Kolda.
I think back to when I first met Boubacar many months ago, on the dirt pathway outside of my house as I helped my host mother sell bean sandwiches at night. He, his friends, and I dared each other to dance, laughing and childlike, showing off moves in the pitch-blackness. I hope he will always retain his youthfulness, in the best sense of the word.