The circus was in town! Okay, not in a Ringling Bros./Barnum & Bailey fashion, but a local troupe was hired by the Rotary Club of Almadies to help raise funds for a truly worthy cause. I decided to take two of my finer students as my guests to reward them for their volunteer efforts around campus and this was - by far - one of the most memorable experiences I've had in Dakar.
We were greeted at the door by a man on stilts and then deftly avoided a unicycle rider (or did he deftly avoid us?!) as we mingled with other guests before taking our seats. There were approximately 250 people of all ages in the audience. The performance was held in a recently renovated open-air theatre.
The "emcee" of the circus was a buffoon-like clown who was ably assisted by a mime sidekick. Unlike the colorful clowns in the U.S., these gentlemen - as well as the entire troupe - were dressed in black and white, including black and white face paint. The buffoon was approximately 6 feet, 5 inches tall including his incredibly spiked out hair. His worthy companion was 5 feet, 9 inches at most which obviously made for a series of running gags wherein the shorter clown would "shadow" the bigger clown while performing outlandish mimics of the emcee.
The first act of the circus consisted of high flying acrobatics, as teams of two or three African gymnasts performed. They were accompanied by a live band of traditional-style West African musicians. I have to admit this was the first time I had heard more than a smattering a "real" Dakar music as most of the streets are filled with African hip-hop or contemporary American style music and it was much more pleasant than the African hip-hop and contemporary music.
There was a break for intermission as we settled in to a collasal feast, which becomes all the more essential to this story. The beneficiary of this event was The Empire De Enfants, a home for street children. Whatever image you just conjured with regard to the phrase "street children" pales in comparison to the actual stories and conditions faced by these children, as I was soon to learn...
After the intermission, the next component of the evening's entertainment was a documentary film about these street children. In the rural areas of Senegal, where people have never seen a city, parents are often persuaded to allow their children to attend "Koranic" schools in Dakar. Children as young as four years old are then sent to the city where - at 6:00pm each evening - they are essentially let loose on the streets with buckets and sent begging for spare change in order to eat. Each child is responsible for collecting approximately $1.50 per day - with the funds turned over to their "teacher." The children often do not bathe since they have learned dirtier children look more needy.
Enter Anta Mbow - a native Senegalese woman who spent many years in France. Anta has a deep, hoarse voice reminiscent of a blues singer playing for spare change in a Mississippi fish fry. Her voice seems to lend authenticity to the plight of the children. Mbow and a partner took over the formerly abandoned open-air theatre and turned it into a home for the street children. The documentary film showed the children painting the walls, repairing broken walls and working hard to make this their new home and school. The ultimate goal is to "re-introduce" these children into a family environment. It takes a great deal of convincing to even get the street children to come into the Empire de Enfants because they have learned not to trust adults.
Needless to say, the Koranic teachers are not happy; fear and punishment are their primary sources of motivation to keep the street children in check. Therefore a guard must be posted at the Empire 24/7 to protect the children. After the film, Mbow detailed the story of one particular guard who was especially vigilant in making sure the teachers do not attempt to kidnap the children back into a live of servitude. This particular guard was formerly a street child himself.
After the documentary, there was an auction of children's artwork. The artwork was developed for a project to sell holiday cards to help raise funds for the Empire de Enfants. The auction was absolutely the highlight of the evening...
There was a happy young man, about six or seven years old, sitting just a few seats away from us who quickly grasped the concept of "bidding" after his mother allowed him to raise a hand on one of the items. Even though his parents appeared to be fairly well off, I don't think they could have imagined how much they would be spending that night as a direct result of his enthusiasm for the remainder of the night! The mother finally had to physically restrain the child, who was laughing hysterically as he would sneak a hand up in an attempt to keep the bidding going. Others in the audience would outbid the young child, but our hero would always find a way to continue to run up the bids - with a little help and a wink/nod from the auctioneer. All told, the auction raised over $400 from selling ten pieces of children's artwork. Nice job, young man...
After another set of acrobatics, the audience was treated to a performance by the street children. They gathered in a choir format and sang a couple of songs for the audience. They were out of tune, out of beat and rarely stood in a straight line but the idea that 30 young children who just a few months before might have been sleeping on the streets could now be coordinated into a chorus was enough to bring the house down.
The evening concluded with a fireworks show, but I think the greater "light" came the following week when the Rotary Almadies Club announced they had raised approximately $8,000 for the Empire de Enfants. This will cover approximately 2 months of operating expenses and was twice the targeted amount.