Senegalese Circus

Senegal is home to some 100,000 child beggars, some of whom were abused and ran away and joined the circus.

Senegal is home to some 100,000 child beggars, called talibés, who were sent to cities to study the Koran but are instead forced to beg for money and food in the streets. If they fail to meet the daily quota set by their teachers, or commit other minor offenses, they are often beaten and chained. 

A network of safe homes offer protection for those who manage to escape. For one group of misfits – Senegal’s one and only circus troupe – the homes also serve as breeding grounds for talent. 

The troupe, called Sencirk, was founded by Modou Touré, 31, who was sent to a Koranic school at age 7, where he was abused for learning the Koran too slowly. 

He ran away to Senegal’s capital, Dakar, where he lived on the streets for years before finding refuge at a shelter. One day, two Swedish circus performers came to teach the children acrobatics, and Touré fell in love. They quickly took notice of Touré’s dedication and later brought him to Sweden for three months to train. 

He has since toured with professional circus troupes around the world and established his own circus tent in Dakar. 

Circus, Touré said, has helped him overcome his trauma. He used to struggle with making eye contact and being touched, and he would sometimes hit his head against a wall. Now he can control his energy and emotions and has the capacity to help others facing similar struggles. 

“Circus is my therapy,” he said. 

His troupe, which includes other former talibés and street kids, conducts regular free workshops at talibé rescue homes and women’s shelters to provide entertainment and identify talent. 

“It gives them confidence and helps them battle their demons,” he said. “And it shows them they can go from the streets to making a living in the circus.”

Youssouf, 14, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, ran away from his Koranic school because he was restrained and whipped each time he improperly recited the Koran. He escaped to Empire des Enfants – the same shelter that housed Touré as a child – where he discovered the art of circus. 

If he ever makes it home, he said he plans to teach circus to the kids in his neighborhood. 

“I love everything about circus,” he said. “It helps me learn and it makes me aware.”

One day, he’d like to join Sencirk as a full-time performer, he said. 

Out of both necessity and the desire to preserve what they call the “Africanness” of their shows, Sencirk uses locally found materials to make their equipment, such as trapezes, safety mats and juggling balls. 

Sencirk’s performances are especially unique. While Western circus shows often center their plots around vague themes such as “beauty” and “transformation”, Sencirk shares personal stories that other West Africans can relate to. One performance, for example, portrays the draws and dangers of clandestine migration to Europe – an issue that impacts nearly everyone in the region, as many have lost family and friends to the treacherous journey. Another shared the experience of living as a talibé runaway. 

But if Sencirk were to ever claim a vague theme, it would be “resilience”: their community was built on shared trauma and strengthened by their ability to overcome it together.

Published in the BBC:

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