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Assane's story

Assane Diallo is a 10-year-old shoe-shine boy in Ziguinchor, the capital of Senegal's southern region. Like hundreds of other children from the north of Senegal, he has fled not war, but a bad agricultural policy. The French Government is trying to get the Toucouleur people to grow rice. But their Futa Toro region is too dry and the result is that the Toucouleur, traditionally nomadic cattle herders, are becoming more impoverished.

I come from the village of Bronkagne in the Futa Toro. I used to work photo of assane for my Uncle Demba cultivating rice, tilling the soil and sowing rice seeds. But we didn't produce enough and he sent me away.

Uncle Demba told me that it would be hard in the city. But it will be good for me whether or not I bring him back money one day. 'With travel you gain experience,' he said. It is good for a child to know suffering. Then I will appreciate life when I am older. That is the Toucouleur way.

Of course I was scared to leave but I also wanted to go. I am proud that he has sent me. I hope I make lots of money. I hope I can come back to my village and give all my relatives presents. And I'll be wearing jeans and sneakers. I already have this nice T-shirt .

In the village I just wore rags. Sometimes there wasn't enough food to eat. We worked very hard but there was never enough rain. And rice needs lots of rain. Still, we Toucouleur always find a way to survive. If we can't make money from farming then we go out and become traders. That is what my family wants me to do.

I already did it last year. I went to the town of Bakel for three months between the sowing and harvesting seasons. I sold baobab and bissap juice on the street for a market woman. I came back to Brokagne with new clothes and gave my uncle money. He was very happy with me. That's why he wanted me to go again this year.

My aim in life is to be a big trader. As my father died when I was a baby, Uncle Demba inherited his land instead. So now his sons will inherit it from him, not me. That is why I must be a trader. I want to travel to Bangkok and bring back textiles and jewellery to sell here. Then with the profits I will open my own store. That is what we Toucouleur do. If you go to any town in Senegal you will find us with our little stores. My friend's uncle has a big store in New York.

I am now on the third step to my life goal. The first step was working for my uncle cultivating rice. The second step was selling drinks on the street. Now the third step is being a shoe-shine boy. It is not easy. You have to find people who look like they have a little extra cash and convince them that they need their shoes shined. And sometimes they won't pay you. They say 'Oh, I don't have the change, I'll pay you next time,' and you never see them again. They also won't pay if you get any shoe polish on their socks.

That's why I don't want to do this for long. I want to learn how to repair shoes. Then I can work for the older boys who are shoe traders. They go to Dakar [Senegal's capital] and bring back broken shoes which we younger boys repair for them. I have already begun helping to repair shoes and my friends are impressed at how fast I am learning.

So my fourth step will be repairing shoes and my fifth step will be to be a shoe trader like the older boys. But when I go to Dakar I won't just bring back broken shoes. I will bring all sorts of things. That is how I will get rich.

I don't need to go school. What can I learn there? I know children who went to school. Their family paid for the fees and the uniforms and now they are educated. But you see them sitting around. Now they are useless to their families. They don't know anything about farming or trading or making money. Even though I have never been to school, I can count and quickly give the correct change. I also know how to bargain with customers and always make a profit.

The only thing I need to learn is to read and write. But I have started. People from ENDA [a Dakar-based agency] teach me and my friends every Tuesday evening. That's good because it doesn't mess up our work schedule.

My friends told me that a white woman came to talk to them once and told them it is bad that children have to work. She said she would put them all in school but she never came back, and I am glad. If anyone tries to put me in school I will run away. I wouldn't be making any money. Then I would be ashamed ever to go back to my village.

Assane was interviewed by David Hecht Photo by David Hecht.

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