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Homeless kids in Lome perform for education and skills to build lives.
LOME, Togo — Life hasn’t given Assou Dagnon reason to smile. His father died in a motorcycle crash and his mother’s income from selling goods in the market wasn’t enough, so he took to the streets. He was 10 years old.
Now 15, dreaming about returning to school perks him up. He has a sixth-grade education in one of the poorest countries in the world.
But then there’s dancing. He performs with a drum-and-dance troupe composed of street kids like himself, some of whom were orphaned and many of whom still earn money picking through garbage to sell recyclable metals.
The group’s goals include literacy and computer training for each child and workshops to learn trades like carpentry. They recently opened a store to sell their woodworks. And the confidence-building performances — during which Assou and his twin brother dance and walk on stilts — help them succeed.
“There is great joy. We are at peace,” Assou said about how it feels to perform. “The only thing that can match the joys that we feel is afterward when we sit and talk about our life and future. We try to discuss our life before, how it is now, and what it is going to be later.”
Leading those discussions is Souleman Osseni, who founded the troupe because he’s experienced the difficulties of growing up on the streets of Lome, Togo’s capital city on the border of Ghana.
Osseni, 23, the “grand frere,” or big brother, decided to help kids who find themselves in “Zongo,” a trash dump and slum where young children — either orphaned or from broken homes — try to earn money from recyclables.
He knows that dreams of attending school or traveling overseas to dance are too easily dashed in places like Zongo, where violence and sexual abuse are common. And that’s in addition to deplorable sanitation and the constant threat of malaria.
“I found a solution to the problem,” he said.
Osseni, who left the streets by learning to sculpt wood, noticed at night that kids from Zongo would go to nearby bars to beg for donations. They sometimes danced to the club music and patrons threw them coins. So he started the dance team and held mandatory practice sessions each evening.
He didn’t have any long-term plan, he said, he just wanted to give some kids a chance.
“These kids in the street now are good — they just need an opportunity,” he said. “They don’t have psychologists to talk to. I told them ‘when you’re dancing and performing, take out your frustration.’”
“That way, they’d be too tired to go to bars and to other dangerous places,” he said.
Today, the group consists of 30 mostly teenagers and a handful who are as young as 7. The younger kids can’t perform and must attend school. Amagan, the group’s name, also places them in safe homes. The name was chosen because it is a herb reputed to have healing powers.
The group has become a formal, legal organization with a volunteer board of directors, and they’ve decided to limit enrollment to 30. They earn money performing at special events like weddings. They recently leased practice space that also houses their storefront. Some of the kids sleep there, too.