Issa meets two of Maison de la Gare's first volunteers in Canada
"During the summer of 2008 in the early days of Maison de la Gare, I met two young people who were very committed to social justice. They worked with me in a centre for the begging talibé street children in Saint Louis, meeting the children's needs for education, health care, arts and sport activities, and food. This was at the time of the first steps of a project that would expand over the years to become a model for protection of vulnerable children in Saint Louis.
I recently met Lisa LeRoy and Zoë Richard-Fortier again six years later in Canada, their home country, and was able to thank them for the work that they had done in Saint Louis.
My meeting with these two young Canadians had a great impact on me, reinforcing my commitment to join those fighting for the rights of children and human rights in general. Maison de la Gare was created by a group of young Senegalese who committed themselves body and soul to changing the fate of talibé children and to fighting against the exploitation and abuse that these children suffer.
Since the early days when Zoë and Lisa marked Maison de la Gare with their commitment and dedication, they have never stopped holding our work in their hearts. Thanks to a trip that I made to participate in a fellowship program in New York, I was able to visit Canada to reconnect with these two people, and with many others who have supported our efforts over the years. These meetings made me realize more than ever that real friends are for life, and that they continue to support us and our work with their persistent efforts in their own countries.
Zoë and Lisa, with their families, friends and people around the country, have organized events and support that generate substantial funds to allow us to respect our commitments to the talibé children. Reinforcing their personal commitments to children in vulnerable situations, I'll share with you that Lisa has become a lawyer advocating for the rights of children, and Zoë a psychologist serving children affected by family breakdown and other challenges.
In Canada I made presentations at two churches, in Montreal and Ottawa. Many people came to listen and to understand the situation of the talibé children. They asked many questions and also suggested ideas about how to meet the needs of these children. At Cedar Park United Church in Montreal, the community that has given so much support to Maison de la Gare over the years was warmly welcoming. And, I finally got the chance to meet the Hornby/Desrochers family who have supported our initiatives for years and have inspired me with their unwavering commitment.
Two people touched me deeply with their emotional presentations, from their hearts, of the situation of the talibé street children. At their church in Ottawa, Sonia LeRoy and Rowan Hughes spoke of their determination to never stop supporting our efforts until these children are no longer begging in the streets. With her wisdom, Rowan affirmed that the place of the children is with their families. She said that she had been lucky to have two parents who love her and care for her, but that she could just as easily been born into the situation of the talibés. Her words touched the hearts of everyone in the church.
Zoë and Lisa were pioneers among the generations of volunteers who have come to Senegal and have made an enormous difference in the lives and prospects of the talibé street children. They both are planning to return, to share their skills and knowledge with us.
Thank you with all my heart, all our friends in Canada, for opening your doors to me and giving me strength and encouragement to continue this work!"
Paige is GlobalGiving's Champion for Customer Bliss in our office in Washington, DC. During a trip to Senegal, she had the chance to visit some of GlobalGiving's projects. Here is her postcard from the field.
I had been in Senegal for 2 weeks and everywhere I went, not matter the size of the city, I met Talibe boys. It breaks your heart to see the kids begging, but even more so how natural it is to miss them. Talibe are part of the Senegalese scenery.
Upon my arrival in Saint Louis, Issa, the charismatic, superhero leader of this project, greeted me and led me to the beautiful haven that is Maison de la Gare. It was just around the time the boys start streaming in from the street, and the home was slowly filling with wrestling, cleaning, and giggling adolescent boys. And that’s when it hits you! These are the same boys tugging on your dress and sleeves around the country. Now, in the Maison, they’re no longer part of the scenery.
Like any good superhero, Issa has an origin story. Upon moving to Saint Louis, he started making food for the people in his community. One day a woman came to him and said “what you’re doing is great, but I have a better idea. You should make food for the talibe boys in the city.” He decided, why not try it, and went to the old ferry building to bring the kids food. A day later there were over 100 kids waiting for the sandwich. And after that hundreds more. “Clearly this was a problem,” Issa tells me, and frankly, the rest is history! Years and a whole new location later, the program has expanded into not only a nutrition program, but now a healthcare, education, urban farming, computer literacy, hygiene, and advocacy program.
Most importantly the boys have a voice here. For example, they’re looking at building a new craft/workshop building because the boys want to be able to sell the wonderful crafts they’ve learned to make, helping them to have an income outside of begging.
When a boy wants to devote more time to school, Issa negotiates with their Marabout to allow it. I met at least three boys who were either in school now, or on their way to it. One of them helps Issa with the younger boys in the evenings after coming back from class.
Everywhere were loud, smiling kids. One of them turned to me “What is your name?” “Paige” “You need a Senegalese name!” “Can you give me one?” He thought for a moment, “Penda!”
Hi my name is Penda and I believe Maison de la Gare is making a huge difference in the life of Talibe boys.
Medications for Life
An important part of the vision for Maison de la Gare is a medical clinic to support the health of the talibé children. The clinic provides a base from which volunteers and staff can venture into the community to deliver health care to talibé children in their daaras and on the streets, while spreading the word among the talibés that help is available and building local confidence in Maison de la Gare.
Construction of the clinic was made possible by a grant from the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives and donation of architectural drawings by the Canadian firm Civitas. International volunteers involved in the medical program often make valuable contributions of medical supplies, and the on-going cost of medical supplies purchased in Senegal is funded by the United Nations anti-slavery fund, the Global Fund for Children, and other international donors. Critically, many of the essential drugs and medications for the clinic's pharmacy are provided by the Health Partners International Canada, an NGO, and are transported to Senegal on a regular basis by partners travelling from Canada.
Conditions in the daaras where the children are forced to live lead to serious medical issues. Cramped quarters spread disease and parasites. Unsanitary conditions are responsible for frequent infections. Poor hygiene and malnutrition cause multiple disorders. Tooth abscesses are frequent. Nurse Binta Coly explains that the children do not have their health care needs met by their marabouts and they rely on Maison de la Gare to treat common burns, cuts, parasites, infections and disease.
The nurses understand that talibés who come to Maison de la Gare for medical attention spread the word in their communities and daaras. Such word of mouth brings even more children to Maison de la Gare for care. But, not all children are able to come to the centre for help, Binta points out. Sometimes it is too far for the kids to walk, or they are too sick to travel. In these cases, Binta or medical volunteers walk to the daara to deliver treatment. If the child's condition is more serious than can be addressed on site, he will be transported to the hospital. Several children per month, on average, require such hospitalization. In these cases, Maison de la Gare pays the hospital bills to ensure the children receive the care they need.
When a talibé who is regularly involved in Maison de la Gare’s programs, Mamadou Diao, broke his leg badly in two places, the staff took him directly to the hospital for treatment. His leg healed badly and an infection developed, not surprising given the children's living conditions. Since that time Nurses Binta and Anta have cared for him daily to ensure his successful recovery.
The nurses comment that what often starts as a simple scrape or cut quickly can become infected, given the unsanitary conditions these children return to each night. Furthermore, most of the kids don't have shoes. So, a cut on a foot does not stand a chance of healing cleanly unless treated immediately, with dressings reapplied daily. Many of the cases that the Maison de la Gare nurses see are already infected and need antibiotic treatment. A simple cut for a talibé can lead to loss of limb or even loss of life if left unattended.
Maison de la Gare is fortunate to benefit from the participation of international volunteers in the medical program. Volunteers work at the clinic side by side with Binta and Anta. One of the great benefits of volunteer participation is the possibility to expand medical outreach to visit more children in more daaras. Even volunteers with medical training can be unfamiliar with some of the medical issues common to the talibes. Before volunteers venture out into the community, nurse Binta Coly instructs them on the common issues encountered in the field and proper uses of medications, and ensures that they are properly equipped.
Some of the older talibés accompany the medical excursion groups, leading them to the daaras of children in need. A few of these older boys have become familiar with the methods of treatment for common talibé ailments, and have begun to participate in health care activities themselves. They are developing a keen interest in health care and are acquiring useful skills as well as providing valuable assistance.
The staff and volunteers alike are sensitive to the fact that talibé children crave recognition and affection. Sometime children present themselves at the clinic or in the daaras without clear health care needs. In these situations, Binta says that it is still important to treat them with respect and affection. She will clean the "pretend wound" knowing that she is treating a wounded spirit, sending away a smiling, satisfied talibé. The talibé children of Saint Louis are coming to know they can rely on Maison de la Gare.
A photo-essay by Jack Wang
In a previous article, Jack recounted his serendipitous encounter with Maison de la Gare following a chance meeting with Thaddaeus Lister, a former volunteer, on the plane to Africa. In this earlier article, Jack celebrated “Discovering the Talibés” with an album of moving photographs. The photos here provide a glimpse of Maison de la Gare during a typical day.
“Maison de la Gare” is the place that largely defined my Senegalese experience. I worked closely with the founder Issa Kouyaté to photo-document his daily activities to promote his work and the MDG centre. Maison de la Gare, founded in Saint Louis in 2007, is a non-governmental and not-for-profit organization dedicated to helping the talibés. The word “talibé” describes students, always boys, who are studying the Koran and begging for a living.
Maison de la Gare’s garden grows its own vegetables, aiming to help some of the talibé become self-sufficient. The centre opens to talibé children from 10 a.m. each day, and the children come to play in the courtyard, receive medical treatment, have a shower and take classes in the evening. Volunteers regularly check the boy’s clothing; not surprisingly fleas are often found, sometimes with 100s of eggs. The infected clothes are treated with bleach that kills the eggs, and soapy water that kills the fleas.
I met one teenage boy who came to the centre with a broken lip after having been beaten by his marabout ... not an uncommon occurrence. He received medical treatment immediately from a volunteer.
On one day, I followed a team of volunteers as they installed mosquito nets that had been donated by UNICEF in the daaras where the boys live. I also attended a meeting where Issa met with representatives of the local government and other organizations to plan together actions to help the talibés.
Issa regularly received phone calls from local authorities or the police asking him to collect runaway talibés. In one case I witnessed, Issa subsequently contacted a relative of one of these boys to come to collect him. Often the children stay in Issa’s apartment until he can find a suitable placement for them. In the picture here, the child’s father came from Dakar the next afternoon to take him home. Often, however, the placement is more difficult and takes much longer.
Thursday is the kid’s favourite day, because it is sports day when the centre organizes football matches.
The centre offers classes every evening to educate the talibé children. Volunteers prepare a simple meal for them. Lots of talibé children have practically not eaten the whole day. Thus, they are particularly excited to receive clean, fresh baguette snacks from the centre so they don’t need to beg for this food on the streets.
It is a humble centre with a big heart. Maison de la Gare has deeply inspired me.
A magical connection for the talibé children
In April 2013 astronaut Chris Hadfield was commander of the International Space Station. As Chris Hadfield was tweeting his amazing “postcards from space”, photos of our planet taken from his vantage point on the ISS, volunteer Sonia LeRoy was showing them to the talibé children, who were amazed. They particularly loved the photos of Dakar at night and the Sahara, taken from space. When Chris Hadfield learned of the talibés and their interest in his photos, he was excited to meet the kids.
Chris Hadfield is a great proponent of advance preparation and contingency planning. It is in that spirit that there was not only a plan for the call, but also a back up plan, and a back up for the back-up plan. As it turned out, all that planning was needed.
After viewing Youtube videos of Chris Hadfield’s December 2012 Soyuz launch, footage of his spacewalks and more photos from space, the talibés considered questions that they wanted to ask him. He received the written list of these questions in advance via email.
The day of the call, the internet at Maison de la Gare’s centre was not working. Half an hour before the planned Skype connection, fourteen talibés eager to connect with Chris Hadfield packed into taxis for the trip to a local hotel that had a WiFi connection.
The children gathered round the computer in anticipation. They viewed the space ship launch one more time, and reviewed their questions. At the designated time, the Skype call from Chris Hadfield began. Rowan Hughes, a Canadian volunteer who had done much to organize the call, asked the first question to encourage the talibés to follow suit.
Talibé Arouna Kandé, clearly nervous and excited, asked his question (in French): “What made you think you could do something that so few people have ever done?” Chris Hadfield addressed Arouna directly by name as he replied that, as a nine year old boy, he knew his dream of going to space was likely impossible. Yet, he nevertheless kept hold of that dream by focusing on the things in his life he could control that would bring him closer to his goal, and not the impossible. He said “Shape your daily decisions toward your dream. Turn yourself into your dream one small decision at a time. And, celebrate the progress of every small change within yourself.”
After Arouna’s question was answered, Skype failed several times. Fortunately, thanks to advance preparations and Chris Hadfield’s patience and familiarity with unreliable communications when making calls from the International Space Station, the call continued via Skype chat.
Chris Hadfield answered each of the talibé’s questions, emailed earlier, in sequence. The manner in which he responded to the questions was amazingly relevant to the talibé’s own lives. One child asked: “When you are afraid, how do you get over it?” Chris Hadfield replied: “I look to the very core of what I fear. Not the general fear, but the real root of it. And then I work to understand that root fear, the real basis of what I fear. And, I practice how to avoid that fear, and how to best react if I do encounter that fear. I practice it over and over. Then, when it really happens, I am not so scared and I respond better.”
The children soaked up Chris Hadfield’s advice, recognizing its significance for them. His parting advice is excellent for us all: “Practice and learn to make good decisions in your life. After all, we are the result of our decisions.”
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