Innocence Melts Obstinacy

by Leita Kaldi (Senegal 1993-96)

This essay won the 1997 Moritz Thomsen Award for Best Short Work about the Peace Corps Experience

IN THE MARKETPLACE OF DAKAR, Senegal, amid the welter of vegetables, chickens, dried fish and shouting women, a small boy leans against a crumbling wall staring into space.

His bare toes knead the sand; the rags he wears flop around his skinny frame. A gang of older boys push and shove their way past him, turning to jeer. The boy leaps into a ninja position, hands like scissors, knees bent on rigid legs. He must have studied the nearby movie poster where a ninja film had been showing. His eyes are fierce and belong to the world of warriors. The older boys laugh and walk on as the child glares after them balefully. His dirt-colored pants have two rips down the back.

At the back of his neck, a tender hollow lies between the two tendons. The sight of that babyish nape brings tears to my eyes.

Keeping the boy in sight, I cross the dirt road to a stall where used clothes hang, and ask the vendor for a pair of children’s shorts, cheap, 200 francs. He drags out a cardboard box full of clothes and flings a pair of white denim shorts onto the counter.

“Four hundred francs!” he barks.

We haggle about the price for a few minutes before I give him a long look and tell him I’ll be right back. I find the boy and I ask him to come with me. He stares at me for a moment, then docilely puts his hand in mine.

I wonder briefly what I’m doing as I lead the child across the crowded street. I should mind my business instead of making a fool of myself, I think. But I am propelled by an instinct stronger than my fear of embarrassment. Some sort of truth has me in its irresistible grasp. I can make no mistake.

I present the boy to the shopkeeper.

“Look at this child,” I say and turn to the boy around by his bony shoulders so that the shopkeeper can see his ripped shorts. “He roams the marketplace like this, nearly naked. Are you not ashamed? He is one of your sons. Senegalese people tell me that children belong to everyone. So he belongs to you, though you may not know his name. How can you argue with me over the price of these shorts?”

The shopkeeper squeezes his eyes shut and clenches his jaw, as if I were trying to pull his teeth.

“Eh bien, ” he growls. “All right!” He throws the shorts at me. “Take them.”

“Merci,” I smile. “Merci.” I hold the shorts against the boy’s hips. Perfect fit. He takes them, smiles up at me, revealing a gap where his front teeth should be. His permanent ones have not grown in yet.

He dashes away, waving the shorts above his head. He stops to jump high into the air and click his bare heels together. The boy turns to wave before he disappears into an alley.

The shopkeeper has been watching the boy, too. He shakes his head slowly and closes the flaps of the cardboard box. “It takes so little,” he muses, “to make a child happy.”

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