By Joann Mackenzie
---- — Even the most intrepid of Peace Corps volunteers have been known to find the west African Republic of Senegal an unusually daunting challenge.
But to 27-year-old Gloucester native Richard Ross, the place felt a lot like home.
“When I was assigned to work in Senegal,” he says, “I felt like I’d won the Peace Corps lottery.”
As an urban agriculturist, Ross spent three years developing community projects in the Senegalese coastal city of St. Louis, which, like Gloucester, is an old island fishing port on the Atlantic.
“I’d tell people there that my mother looks out her kitchen window at fishing boats bobbing in the same ocean,” says Ross.
Ross is back on the other side of that ocean this summer, staying with his mother at her home on Rocky Neck, and running the ice cream shop next door, which he’s renamed “Kiss on the Neck.”
But while his business card identifies him as “scooper in charge,” the real scoop on Richard Ross is that he’s not just there to sell ice cream: he’s there to sell Senegal.
Right beside the ice cream counter is an eye catching display of colorful, casual, stylishly funky tote bags. The totes, which retail for $25, are recycled from commercial rice sacks which, says Ross, “are ubiquitous trash back in the streets of St. Louis.”
Refashioned by “‘Talibe boys — barefoot, penniless, aimless beggers” back in those streets, the totes have been a big hit with summer crowds on Rocky Neck. Combined with weekly sales at the Farmers Market and the Bookstore on Gloucester’s Main Street, the bags have generated thousands of dollars in sales, proceeds of which go straight back into a micro-investment manufacturing venture established in St. Louis by Ross and his Senegalese counterpart, Aris Faye.
“Every Peace Corps volunteer should have an Aris Faye” to essentially serve as a translator, says Ross. In a culture as complex as the deeply Muslim former French colony of Senegal, proficiency in the local language — in which Ross was immersion trained by the Peace Corps— does not guarantee that you “speak the same language,” as the locals. Faye, a native Senegalese, helped Ross do that. He also introduced him to the “Talibe boys” who would ultimately become his mission.
RIchard Ross’s grandfather, Nate Ross, also chose as his mission to help shape the lives of young boys. Not on foreign soil, but right here on Gloucester High School’s football turf, where he reigned for decades as a legendary coach and mentor. In photographs, there is a strong resemblance between grandfather and grandson, and Richard Ross likes to feel that he shares his grandfather’s instinct for spotting untapped potential.
In Senegal’s Talibe boys, he saw something of what his grandfather had seen in Gloucester High School’s young football players.
“These boys,” Richard says, “were just energy and creativity waiting to be tapped.”
Recruited from rural villages, ostensibly as disciples of Koranic study, Talibe boys are in fact forced to “beg in city streets” for their keep in Koranic schools — called daaras — which are run by religious teachers, called marabouts.
Once highly esteemed in African Muslim cultures, the Talibe system, Ross says, has been corrupted by marabouts who exploit the boys for personal gain. Increasingly the focus of scrutiny from human rights organizations for perpetuating poverty, the system nevertheless still thrives in modern Senegal, with some 50,000 talibe disciples under the age of 12 currently begging in the streets for their daaras; 30,000 of them in St. Louis alone.
“I just felt,” says Ross, “that it would be wrong for me to be there and not do something for them.”
That something turned out to be the tote bags. It was Aris Faye’s idea, says Ross, to put the boys’ scavenging skills to work sorting through street trash to find the best rice sacks. The Senegalese, he says, have an innate sense of style and color, and the rice sacks, which come printed with wild, whimsical, colorful patterns, brought out the fashionista in the Talibe boys.
Motivated by the prospect of earning —as opposed to begging for — money, the boys got busy, says Ross, “providing wonderful color schemes and designs — opening up all this creativity that had been locked, frozen, inaccessible to them.”
The need to serve, to make a difference, seems to run in his family’s DNA, says Ross. His older sister, Dr. Gabrielle Ross served in the Peace Corps, too, and is now executive director of Health Quarters, a Beverly-based nonprofit provider of reproductive health care and sexuality education. Their father, attorney Norman C. Ross, is a former city councilor. Their mother, Amy Bell Ross, is recently retired from her position as dean of the School of Business and Communications at Endicott College.
One of her cousins, Peter Bell, is a former president of CARE, while another, John Bell, is Gloucester’s former mayor. And when grandfather Nate wasn’t out on the football field, he was in City Hall, serving as councilman and as mayor as well.
While he would love to see Senegal-style on the American fashion map, Ross is aware that without an established manufacturing infrastructure, Senegal could go the way of other African nations who’ve struggled to meet the standards of western market demands.
Also, he’s more concerned with seeing the Talibe boys off the streets and learning life-sustaining skills. So proceeds from the sale of the Talibe’s street chic totes will not be reinvested in building a “Brand Africa” fashion label like U2 frontman Bono’s Edun couture line, but will go toward the purchase and maintenance of mills used to convert pearl millet into couscous, a hugely popular staple of the Senegalese dinner table.
It’s not glamorous, but it is very practical. And, for the Talibe boys, who already operate one mill, the enterprise is a new lease on a self-sustaining life.
Installed in the boys’ daara, the mill meets basic indigenous needs at a grass roots level and teach the boys rudimentary business skills.
Meanwhile, out at the Rocky Neck ice cream shop, customers keep scooping up the totes — and Ross, who hopes to return to Senegal after the summer ends, is waiting for a new shipment.
Joann Mackenzie can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3457, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.