It is the middle of the night. Silence reigns. A the sheep bellows, he can be heard throughout the cartier. Still dark, the first call to prayer sings out over the city, echoed infinite times in every direction. Then, with the first crack of dawn, song birds begin their morning ritual. At first just a few voices, rising gradually to a sustained cacophony. The darkness softens, children's voices join the birds as talibés spill out the doors of their daaras to check the night's new garbage piles for something to eat or sell before they begin another day of forced begging. As the mourning doves join the choir, mothers bang open shutters, water is splashed onto the streets, morning cooking fires are lit, sputter and crackle. Saint Louis wakes to meet the day.
As the sun rises over the Senegal River, the waters rush underneath the Pont Faidhebe, the rhythmic thunder broken by the purr of pirogue motors heading to the sea and the slap of bare talibé feet hurrying across the pedestrian walk. More talibés splash at the shore, playing, looking for clams or fish, calling out victoriously when a catch is made. Further along the rue Principal, traffic begins to thicken, taxi honks, calls of greeting, swishes of horses tails, and the crack of horse whips multiply.
As children walk up the alley toward the Maison de la Gare Centre, the bustling sounds of the street recede and laughter and childish voices begin to fill the air, growing louder as the gate is approached. Out in the city talibés are rarely heard laughing, they have work to do, collecting money for their marabouts, or to feed themselves. Tears and harsh words are common. It is not a happy chore. But, at Maison de la Gare, laughter sounds natural, children can be children. If only for a brief respite.
Inside the centre a karate class is beginning. Japanese instructions are called and answered. A different kind of work, but this time it is a labour of love. A gift to themselves: Passion. Yoi. Ich. Ni. Sun. Japanese gives way to Wolof as an explanation is offered and understood. Os. Back to Japanese. After class, roll call. Mohamed. Os. Ahmadou. Os. Mamadou. Os. Seydou. Os. Pride and confidence ring out with every response. An amazing sound from a talibé.
At midday, the call to prayer rings out across the city again. The voices of the imams in each mosque separate, but linked, calling out to the faithful. As the call is answered, the bustle of the city diminishes perceptibly, one by one and in small groups, some slip into mosques, others roll out mats if they have them, and yet others kneel down in a quiet corner or on the sidewalk, more or less out of the way of those who do not pause to pray.
As the afternoon advances, a soccer game breaks out at Maison de la Gare. The laughter is now accompanied by happy shouts, calls for the ball, and triumphant declarations. As the winners are announced, screams of joy, singing, chants of the name of the talibé child who scored the winning point. The celebratory noises take a very long time to die down. Such joy only occurs for these children here, at moments such as this. Why not draw it out. These sounds will ring in their hearts for hours to come. Until the versement (begging quota) must be delivered and all joy dies.
As the teachers arrive at the Centre, sounds of play diminish, replaced by classroom words of learning. Scratches of chalk on chalkboards and tablets. Scraping of bench legs on floors. Quiet shuffling as a child shifts over to make room for a latecomer. All are welcome to join at any time. Each new entry is never a disruption. It is a triumph.
Another call to prayer. Another reminder, along with the hopeful faces of the children in class, that God is here.
Maison de la Gare's gate clangs shut for the night. The sound is now more quiet, somehow sadder, as night descends. Hundreds of little bare feet reluctantly walk away toward the road, kicking at the sand, leaving love behind until morning comes again and the Maison de la Gare gates open once more.
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