When I moved to Senegal in 2007 to work for a humanitarian organization, the first thing I did was hit the streets. Dakar, the capital, leans out into warm Atlantic breezes. It has a laid-back vibe that makes it a favorite destination.
Not far from the city center, it also has one of Africa’s biggest slums and its share of beggars. Street kids, many sent by their parents to study at religious boarding schools, tailed me, begging. Barefoot, swinging empty tomato-paste cans, the kids roamed the streets with a sixth sense for those with generous souls.
I’d wrestled with my conscience for years about whether to give money to panhandlers in West Africa. During a previous trip to Senegal, I’d met a man who pestered me for blocks with an elaborate and bizarre story about needing baby formula for his newborn. Yes, he said, we could go together to the hospital to see her. I finally bought him some. He promptly disappeared.
Had I been swindled? It sure felt like it. I was too trusting, I told myself.
So as I walked the streets of Dakar, I had my guard up. I knew I was a toubab (slang for “white person”), but I wasn’t going to be had again.
Near my apartment, on a major road, I passed a knot of young men in wheelchairs whom I took to be beggars. Head down, gait purposeful, I blew by them.
As the months went by, I’d often come across these men. At night, a few would wait outside a swish restaurant in my neighborhood. I’d see them on my early morning runs, near the nightclubs, waiting for stragglers. I’d also see them at an outdoor basketball court near my office. They’d sit on the concrete with their chairs upside down, tightening bolts and adjusting wheels, waiting until the pick-up games finished so they could play.
I’d linger and watch them warm up. They rolled the three-man weave, laughing and speakingWolof, the local language that sounds glottal and bouncy, like a child blowing bubbles in a bathtub. They played with speed, rolling down the court as fast as I could run, sometimes accidentally crashing into one another. Their lives would explode out of their chairs: razor blades for shaving, small mirrors, wrenches, coins, pens, documents. With every crash, I got a glimpse into their private lives.
A few weeks later I introduced myself to the French-speakers among them. They had heavily callused hands and crushing grips.
I started rebounding for them. They were jokesters, but attentive learners. When I’d share some advice from my playing days, they would clap, applauding my tips.
I started spending more time with them and eventually became something akin to an assistant coach.
The players quickly grew on me. I started referring to them as “my guys” to colleagues. For road games, they rented a rusted ndjaga ndiaye, a communal minibus. Mafall, who had the wingspan of a condor, scaled the back of the bus to tie wheelchairs to the roof. We all wedged in and clanked out of the city.
They leaned out and called to passersby. They sang and told jokes about each other. It was the most fun I’d had since I got to Dakar.
During one game on an outdoor court in Guédiawaye, a sandy slum that stank like an outhouse, it seemed our guys had met their match. The other team fouled hard, were good chair-handlers and sharpshooters. They talked a lot of trash.
Life on the street had toughened my players, and they didn’t back down. I was proud of them, but it looked grim. My guys steeled themselves and bore down. We escaped with a win and clattered out of the slum singing at full throat; it was a rolling party all the way home.
Toward the end of the season, Mafall invited me to where he lived, a lot behind a mosque. I found many of the players there, with their wives and children. I learned that most of them were born with disabilities. Most had small, basic rooms. Some had rigged up TVs. They shared the food they’d bought with the money they had collected during the day.
As Mafall and I chatted in his room, I knew something had changed. I was no longer just a toubab,and they were no longer beggars.
They were basketball players, my guys, and my friends.