Insa winked at us from the corner of the cybercafe. This cybercafe was barely a month old, the first in St. Louis. The French proprietor, Eddie, hadnít quite gotten it all together yet. Two of four machines worked. Gregg and I were working offline, keying in our dispatches, and dripping sweat. This precocious-looking kid sat fanning himself with one of his worn-out green flip-flops, watching us work.
We had arranged to meet Tanguy, our Belgian motorcyclist friend, in St Louis. The three of us would hang out until the Baaba Maal concert five days later. St Louis is a pleasant enough place to unpack your bags for a little awhile. Dilapidated buildings are at once charming and depressing, characteristic of colonial towns. As it is low tourist season in Senegal, the few tourists that do pass through end up targets for over-anxious street vendors, aggressive touts, and packs of young street beggars wearing rags and holding out tin cans for handouts.
Iím not sure when or how Tanguy met Insa, but by the second day, wherever Tanguy went Insa followed. Insa knew the street characters. Like a little body-guard, he advised Tanguy who he should or shouldnít trust, who was crooked, who was straight. In return, Tanguy bought Insa food to eat but more significantly, offered him companionship. During our stay, we too ended up becoming involved in Insaís life, making us confront our limits as travellers.
Insa is only 13 yrs old but in so many ways, older than adults I know. He is skinny, slightly undersized, but looks generally healthy with bright eyes. He attends Koran school for one hour at night and the rest of the time he spends roaming in the streets of St. Louis. His parents gave him away to a marabout-friend (marabout = Muslim holy man) who in return honor of the friendship, was to provide Insa a place to stay, food to eat, and an education on the teachings of the Koran. Though his parents live in a nearby village, Insa has not seen them for six years. He does not know if he has any brothers or sisters, or if his parents would recognize him if he were to turn up one day.
We were told that it is fairly common practice for parents with limited means to give away their children to be educated and cared for by a marabout. It was perhaps the only way to give their child opportunities they themselves could not afford. We were told this tradition is taken more seriously, that marabouts take on their responsibility more dutifully. Not so here. Insa would tell us that he does not go "home" because his marabout will demand that he pay to sleep there, or beat him if he has no money. Though we sometimes didn't know what to make of Insa's stories, judging by how many other kids were also living off the streets, Insaís situation was not unique.