Senegal’s Street Children Turn Trauma into Art in Africa’s Biggest Exhibition

Young boys who were forced to beg on the streets for Islamic teachers have turned their suffering into art, as they join more than 1,000 artists showing their work at Africa’s biggest and oldest biennale art exhibition in Senegal this month.

Some 50,000 child beggars known as talibe live in religious schools called daaras in the West African nation, according to rights groups, who say some were trafficked from neighboring countries and many are beaten and abused.

“Being in the daara was like being in prison,” read one caption for an image of a sorrowful eye peering through a row of fingers. “My friend’s hands represent the feeling of being locked up.”

All of the photographs in the “Look at me” exhibition – which is part of the Dakar Biennale, known as Dak’Art, founded in the 1990s – were taken by and of street children living in a nearby shelter run by Samusocial, a charity.

A teenager looks at his photograph displayed at the “Look at me” exhibition, Dakar, Senegal, May 11, 2018.

Most children who come through the shelter are former talibe, while others escaped forced labor or family disputes, said Samusocial, which provides medical care and shelter while attempting to reunite them with their families.

“For me, the color red is like pain,” said another caption, describing a photograph of a boy, known as D.D., wrapped in a colored cloth. “I put it in the background because it’s in the past.”

In plastic sandals and bright T-shirts, the boys walked down the street together to visit the exhibition. They gazed wide-eyed at the photos printed larger than they are.

“I am happy,” said D.D., 16, who worked in a sewing shop for several years where he was regularly beaten. “I didn’t expect to see this,” he said of his photograph.

Samusocial often uses art and music to help the children build confidence and open up, said director of operations Isabelle Diouf.

A photograph of a former child beggar displayed at the “Look at me” exhibition, Dakar, Senegal, May 3, 2018.

“These children need beautiful things. It takes them out of the realities of the street a little and makes them want to move forward,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Spanish photographer Javier Acebal, who worked with the children on the exhibit, said he hopes it will change viewers’ perceptions of beggars.

“When you’re walking down the street you think you know about these children, but in fact you know nothing,” he said. “They say they want to be like normal kids. I hope people start to think about that.”

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