Maison de la Gare

Maison de la Gare's mission is to achieve integration of the begging talibe street children into formal schooling and productive participation in Senegalese society. Tens of thousands of talibe children beg on the streets of Senegal for 6 to 10 hours each day for their food and for money to give the "teacher" or Marabout who controls them. They live in unconscionable conditions in "daaras", without access to running water, rudimentary hygiene or nurture, often without shelter and subject to severe abuse. Human Rights Watch published a widely distributed description of this situation in 2010, "Off the Backs of the Children". Maison de la Gare is acting with t...
Apr 4, 2014

What Keeps Bringing Me Back to Maison de la Gare

Sonia with begging talibe children in Saint Louis
Sonia with begging talibe children in Saint Louis

I have been travelling to Saint Louis, Senegal, since 2010 as a volunteer and to support Maison de la Gare as a partner.  My father and I do this together. He is a retired scientist and business leader and I work as a financial planner, developing retirement strategies and managing risk for Canadians.  We seemed far from an obvious fit for having something to offer children forced to beg for hours each day in a country far from our home.  But, we kept returning; there was always something more we knew we could do to help, and in 2012 my teenage daughter joined us as a volunteer as well.  I am currently planning my sixth journey to serve the children of Maison de la Gare, again with my father and daughter.

I thought my first trip to Senegal would be my one and only opportunity to contribute in some way to Maison de la Gare and the talibé children.  We brought with us badly needed medical and school supplies.  We visited the daaras to deliver medical care, I taught some French classes, I helped make improvements at the centre, and I tried to show the children that I saw them and valued them.

But I had not been prepared for the overwhelming sense of being completely present and alive that interaction with these beautiful, resilient children gave me.  I had expected to give, not to receive.  And, I could not have anticipated how the grace and dignity with which these children approach the challenges of their unimaginably difficult circumstances would inspire me.

So many of the children begging on the streets, poorly clothed and often shoeless, were of an age with my own son, and my nephews.  I was overwhelmed by a sense that, but for the grace of God, these could be my own kids.  I felt that the chance of being born in Canada to a nurturing family and the opportunity to become educated and build a good life, insulated from challenges such as existed here, did not give me any more right to such a life than these children also had.  It was just chance.  And, I was uplifted by the possibilities that Maison de la Gare could offer these boys; it could be their chance.

I could NOT just do what I could one time, and then forget these beautiful faces, and the possibility they might have for a successful future if only they could also have the chance.  I knew I would be back.

I learned from Issa Kouyaté, Maison de la Gare's indomitable founder and driving force, about the complexity of the forced begging situation in Senegal.  He also educated me about his vision for Maison de la Gare, and its mission to provide hope and opportunity to the children trapped in a life of forced begging, while always working toward some day ending forced begging in Senegal.  I determined to find a way to support Issa and Maison de la Gare and to help implement his important and unique vision.

On subsequent visits, we supported Issa in making his vision reality.  First, he described his hope to build an apprenticeship program, to teach the older kids who had little hope of entering the public school system a viable trade.  We found donors, and several sewing machines were soon in action.  Issa also wanted a garden oasis for the centre, that the children could tend and learn from, and that could provide nourishment for body and soul.  Once I understood Issa's vision, I was able to make a garden plan with the help of local agriculturalists.  When we returned to Canada, a generous donation made it possible to implement the garden plan.  On our next return to Maison de la Gare, seedlings were sprouting, fruit trees were taking root, a first crop of mint and peppers had been harvested, and the children were the ones making it happen.  It was their garden.

Then there was an opportunity to build a medical clinic with the help of a grant from the Canadian Embassy in Senegal.  A medical clinic has also long been part of Issa's vision.  We assisted with the grant application, and found a architect in Ottawa willing to provide required plans at the last minute as a donation to the project.  We arrived back in Saint Louis as the clinic's construction was wrapping up.  As I helped paint the walls and ceilings, talibé children watched and then quietly picked up paint brushes to join in.  They took such pride in painting bright colours carefully and precisely.  It was clear that they understood this place was for them.

As more and more children arrived each day for classes, to be fed, for medical care, and for soccer tournaments, the need for funding expanded.  The Global Fund for Children, GlobalGiving, and the United Nations Anti-Slavery Fund became important partners.  We became better at fundraising, and volunteers from far and wide began to come more regularly, touched as we were by the resilience and hope of these amazing children.

On another visit, my daughter's first, our goal was to help Maison de la Gare expand the library that had been made possible by a generous donation from Sweden.  This time we arrived with books instead of medicine in our bags.  My teenage daughter invited the talibé children to get involved organizing the new books.  Then, she showed them how to set up a gmail address and write an email.  She connected them with her classmates back home in Ottawa, Canada, and a new window to the world had been opened for these children of two very different worlds.

My personal relationships with some of the talibé children have deepened significantly, thanks to on-going emails, Facebook chats and Skype video.  Every day I think of them.  I wonder, is Arouna able to find enough time and peace in his long, hard day to complete his homework?  Did Mamadou have success with the newest crop of melons in the garden?  Who knew Souleymane has the voice of an angel (I saw it posted on YouTube)?  Is Oumar's pain easing from losing his father, then his home and the rest of his family?  Is Kalidou attending classes?  How are those two little four year old boys who are always together, holding hands, adjusting to forced begging and no family?  Who got to play on the Maison de la Gare soccer team this week?  Are they happy?  Are they healthy?

The talibé children of Maison de la Gare are never far from my heart.  I am thankful each day for Issa Kouyaté's dedication, and for the team at Maison de la Gare.  Because of them, these kids are not alone and they don't just have hope for a better life, they have a family after all.

Caring for Djibi
Caring for Djibi's badly infected foot
Preparing plans for the garden in MDG
Preparing plans for the garden in MDG's center
At dinner with teacher Bouri Mbodj and her family
At dinner with teacher Bouri Mbodj and her family
Treating an eye infection in a Saint Louis daara
Treating an eye infection in a Saint Louis daara
Sonia painting Maison de la Gare
Sonia painting Maison de la Gare's new infirmary
Rowan labeling books in MDG library with Kalidou
Rowan labeling books in MDG library with Kalidou
With Arouna in front of his school
With Arouna in front of his school
Hanging out with talibe children in a daara
Hanging out with talibe children in a daara

Links:

Mar 14, 2014

A Swiss Volunteer's Unique Contribution

Francesca painting new mural on MDG entrance
Francesca painting new mural on MDG entrance

Maison de la Gare Arts Program

I lived a wonderful month of exchange and discovery in Saint Louis.

When I left home, I didn't know exactly where I'd be going, and I especially had no idea of how precious these children were that I would encounter, the talibés. Gradually, as they say there nank nank, I discovered who they are, the difficult conditions in which they live, and how much Maison de la Gare helps them every day.

Following the night in their daaras, the children came early in the mornings to Maison de la Gare's center to take a shower and clean their clothes. There, I began to help them a little bit, especially the smaller ones who were less skilled. After that, it was time for the infirmary. Playing and walking without shoes in the streets, the children often hurt themselves, in particular because their skin is delicate because of their poor hygiene. After a few days Lydie, another volunteer, taught me how to treat the most common injuries. This allowed me to get to know the children better. I admired their courage when they allowed severe injuries to be treated without complaining. And I loved responding to the smaller children's requests for bandages on wounds that had already healed, an excuse for them to experience a little bit of affection.

For the rest of the time before the teachers started teaching French and math lessons in the afternoon, I worked with the children doing drawings with different techniques and making colourful bracelets. It was often not easy to keep their attention because they are very active. However the attention that they committed to this activity was rewarded each time with wonderful pieces of art and a great sense of satisfaction. With the children and other Maison de la Gare staff and volunteers, Abdoul, Lydie, Aladji and Mapaté, we decorated the exterior wall of the center with an enormous, colourful mural. In fact this was a lot of work, but to see the result was pure joy!

My stay in Senegal was great thanks to all the people whom I met there. My host family welcomed me as if I were in my own home, and they introduced me to much of their culture. Maison de la Gare's staff and Issa, the director, were always available to support me. They are really a good and efficient team working with great dedication to improve the situation of the talibé children. And of course there were children, with their vivacity (and dances!). When I was with them, I wasn't aware of time passing and I found the strong bonds among them to be thrilling. It makes me wonder even more how society can ignore these children.

When I arrived, I intended to stay at Maison de la Gare for just three weeks, and then to use my last week to discover another city. However, I ended spending the entire time there, feeling that this was the minimum needed to fully appreciate this experience.

 _______

This report is dedicated to the memory of Mbaye Kâ, a perfect child to my eyes with a deep voice and a beautiful smile missing two teeth. He had a sweet and wild character with wise eyes so wonderful and true that it’s difficult to explain in words. Although he was small, he almost always won when wrestling with his friends. This little 7 year old boy died of malaria in December 2013. May his beauty still be with us and may the earth be light for him.

Francesca with her art students
Francesca with her art students
Caring for a talibe in MDG infirmary
Caring for a talibe in MDG infirmary
Animating art activities in the library
Animating art activities in the library
Amadou Diao making a bracelet in Francesca
Amadou Diao making a bracelet in Francesca's class
Mbaye Ka, a talibe child precious to Francesca
Mbaye Ka, a talibe child precious to Francesca
Finished mural, welcoming children to the center
Finished mural, welcoming children to the center

Links:

Feb 21, 2014

Excursion to Bango

Bouri explains importance of water, source of life
Bouri explains importance of water, source of life

A step towards a balanced and healthy life

Maison de la Gare works to give the talibé children a better understanding of their environment and of the world beyond their lives in their daaras and on the streets.  Thanks to the support of Maison de la Gare's international partners, excursions are included in the curriculum of the children who come to the organization's center in Saint Louis, and this allows them to feel involved in the broader Senegalese community.  Such excursions are particularly valuable for these children who live in very difficult circumstances and are not able to take charge of their own learning.

In this context Bouri MBodj, a teacher in Maison de la Gare's center, organized a field trip to Bango on the banks of the Senegal River so that the children could experience the amazing diversity of this place that is only a few tens of kilometers from Saint Louis.

For many of these children, this was the first time that they had had such an experience.  Bango is one of the extensions of the Saint Louis region, stretching northward on the right bank of the Senegal River.   The area has been populated over time by the Peulh community, but it is also important for all Senegalese.  The largest military training center in Senegal is in Bango, and half of the country's fruit crop comes from this region.  The Bango region is particularly notable for its biodiversity, reflecting both the close proximity of the Senegal River and the open spaces which have been preserved for natural vegetation and animals such as monkeys, warthogs and hippopotamuses.  Mangrove trees are found along the river, together with the great variety of aquatic species which they harbour.

After completing our visit, we spent time with the children to help them to understand and retain what they had learned about this area and its environment.  They learned the meaning and significance of words and concepts including mangroves, fish nests, riverbed, and degradation of arable areas.  The correct answers which the children gave to Bouri and to Bineta Coly, MDG's nurse who had accompanied them, showed that they had learned well from this experience.

And after the explanations, we took action!  We illustrated the value of nature during a session on tooth brushing - information for example on the type of wood to be used.  There are species around us that can heal the body without a lot of expense, such as the "kad" fruit tree that produces tamarind and of which the wood bleeds a fluid that hardens the enamel of teeth.  Many children took advantage of twigs from this tree to brush their teeth.

At the end of the day, we celebrated with a well-earned lunch break, and all of the children returned to Saint Louis with some positive ideas and a better understanding of the environment that they live in.

It was a wonderful day for children and young people of Maison de la Gare's center!  Please help us with your donations to make more such excursions possible.

A change of scenery to see the mangroves
A change of scenery to see the mangroves
Questions, answers!  What nature can provide.
Questions, answers! What nature can provide.
Time for action in a tooth-brushing session!
Time for action in a tooth-brushing session!
Answering questions from Bineta Coly, MDG nurse
Answering questions from Bineta Coly, MDG nurse
Talibe Kalidou Balde helps prepare the meal
Talibe Kalidou Balde helps prepare the meal
We appreciate our lunch break on the river bank
We appreciate our lunch break on the river bank

Links:

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