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.
A handful still live in Zongo, including 15-year-old Assou and his twin brother, Etsevi. The threats are real. Assou says people try to rob him “very often.”
“Even this morning,” he said, explaining that a friend stole the tools he uses to detach metal parts for recycling. “It was someone I trusted. I asked him to watch over my things. When I came back he refused to give it back.”
It’s safer now that he’s 15, he said.
“We are a little older now. When you’re younger or alone they can come to you and beat you,” he said. “As soon as they notice you start making money, they attack you.”
Jerome Combes, country director of a Swiss international child protection organization called Terre des Hommes, said Amagan is successful because the kids can trust Osseni.
“It’s the best way for the children to find a solution, to be helped by people like themselves, because they know the situation,” he said. “You have to build confidence with the children. You have to accept that it will take months or years. It’s patience and follow-up that will win over the children.”
Combes, who is French, is helping Amagan’s kids enroll in literacy classes and has given advice about marketing and public relations. They are working on a website and Facebook page. He said it’s rare that an organization in a developing country is built from the ground up. He applauds Osseni’s work and says it can be a model for others, but also says that the best way to help the children is through education and job training.
“It will be hard for these children to make a living from drums or dance. Maybe one or two will manage to do that,” he said. “The main issue after that is the training they have. They have to keep this in mind. It’s good to strengthen the troupe and tour. Great. But in terms of protection, these children should all be in professional training and should all have literacy classes. This is a crucial point.”
Many of the children have limited reading and writing skills. And regarding travel, few have a passport, a national identification card or even a birth certificate.
Assou has learned how to carve wood to make jewelry boxes and other gifts. His brother makes shoes and sandals. The items are sold in the storefront but the children can sell their work in the streets as well — as other Togolese hawkers do.
When Assou looks to the future, despite his tough situation, he thinks about assisting others.
“One day I might get my own house and open my own shop,” Assou said. “Eventually, we want to be able to help other kids in our situation.”