Three talibé children who ran from their daaras
Night rounds, and rescue - By day the neighbourhood of Langue de Barbarie, across the bridge from the island of Saint Louis, is bustling with activity. The streets are filled with merchants, fishermen and their families, livestock, cars and horse-drawn carts and carriages. But by night, the streets of Langue de Barbarie are quiet and dark. Only a few lights remain on in the houses densely packed along the roadsides. It was into this silence at 1:00 a.m. in the morning that I went with Issa Kouyaté, the president of Maison de la Gare, and his close associate Idrissa Diallo of Univers de l'enfant on a night walk in the search for runaway talibé children.
Issa estimates that, on any given night, there are a hundred runaway talibé children sleeping on the streets of Saint Louis. The reasons that the boys run away are numerous and complex. It could be that they had not managed to meet their daily begging quota and were afraid of the repercussions from their marabouts (Quranic teachers), or that they were running from physical abuse in their daara.
On this particular night (and, sadly, on most nights) runaways were not difficult to find. Early on our night walk, Issa and Idrissa found two boys huddled and sleeping in a small enclosure under a tarpaulin on the side of one of the streets.
The boys, 7 or 8 years old, wouldn’t move. Issa gently pulled the first boy, Gallo, out of the enclosure. Gallo was very surprised to be woken up in the night, but said very little. The second boy, Rasoul, screamed loudly when Issa tried to retrieve him (I learned later that he was afraid of being returned to his daara). Within seconds the street came alive with about twenty neighbours surrounding the scene, yelling and demanding to know what Issa and Idrissa were up to. For myself as an observer not speaking much Wolof, it was a very tense scene. I can only imagine how frightening the whole incident must have been to the two boys.
Issa and Idrissa explained what they were doing, and the crowd eventually dispersed and returned to their homes. Issa and Idrissa reassured Gallo and Rasoul that they were not going to return them to their daaras and that they would bring them somewhere safe to sleep and eat. Barefoot and in silent obedience, the boys walked back to Issa’s apartment through the again deserted streets.
Rasoul, Gallo and Malick- Arriving at Issa’s apartment, Rasoul and Gallo each chose a mattress and went immediately to sleep. There was another young boy there named Malick who was already asleep. Malick, approximately 6 years old, had been sleeping on the street for a week when someone brought him to Maison de la Gare. The marabouts are required to contact the Ministry of Justice as soon as a child goes missing. However, this is rarely done by marabouts who are aware they are mistreating the children and want to avoid investigation.
The next morning Rasoul, Gallo and Malick received new clothes at Maison de la Gare's center and then were brought to the AEMO office (Educational Action in Open Environments) of the Ministry of Justice to be registered and to begin inquiries into their cases.
Rasoul, we learned, came from Fouta in northern Senegal. His parents were contacted after his daara had been identified and the reason he ran away had been established. Rasoul's father arrived the next day to take him home. His father appeared shocked to learn of the treatment that Rasoul had been subjected to in his daara.
Gallo was very quiet and we almost never saw him smile or express any emotion. He seemed terribly serious and we could only guess what had led him to run from his daara. Despite multiple attempts, he wouldn’t open up to anyone.
Malick in contrast had a spark in his eyes and frequently smiled with great enthusiasm. Although he seemed happy, he had fresh wounds on his back from being beaten. Malick took us to see where his daara was, but stayed hidden in a corner store with Issa while Idrissa went to investigate. Malick was forthcoming with his story and explained that it was the junior marabout, 16 or 17 years old, who had been beating him. Malick did not want to return to live in his daara.
When Malick’s junior marabout was summoned to the Ministry of Justice for a formal investigation, we were shocked to learn that he was Malick’s biological brother. This junior marabout was adamant that Malick should return to his daara and that their family not be contacted.
Malick had come to Saint Louis from the Gambia and, when the investigation was completed, his parents were contacted. As Malick's desire to return home was clear, the Ministry of Justice prepared a decision ordering his return. In such cases, Idrissa, Issa or a Maison de la Gare staff member will accompany the child to his home or the parents will come to get the child in Saint Louis.
Gallo’s time with Maison de la Gare did not have such a happy ending. Two days after we had found him in Langue de Barbarie, Gallo ran away from Maison de la Gare's center. Issa and Idrissa went searching for him the following nights, particularly near the bus station where many talibés run to get transport to Dakar. Gallo has not been found, and we never learned what he was running from.
Hope for the runaways - In Maison de la Gare's centre, it is easy to quickly forget the tough realities faced by the talibé children and to get lost in the moment when enjoying a game or a laugh. For these boys, the center is a place of hope where they are able to seek refuge, be cared for and know that they are not alone.
However, the challenges of the talibés' lives are enormous, and even more so for runaways. Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch documented the continuing abuses. While the work to address the issues of talibé boys begging can seem insurmountable, the efforts and commitment of Maison de la Gare and many other national and international organizations are inspiring. We invite committed volunteers to join us in this effort.
For a powerful video about Maison de la Gare's work on behalf of the runaway talibés, please click on this link.
James Zumwalt, the U.S. Ambassador to Senegal, visits Maison de la Gare
On Thursday, May 21, 2015, the American ambassador to Senegal continued a tradition. As his predecessor Louis Lukens had done in 2014, Ambassador James P. Zumwalt honored Maison de la Gare with his presence, deeply concerned as Ambassador Lukens had been about the situation of the begging talibé street children. This visit reinforces a cooperative relationship that has developed over the years with the strong involvement of Peace Corps volunteers in support of Maison de la Gare efforts, especially agricultural apprenticeship and recovering children sleeping in the streets in "night rounds". Maison de la Gare's president, Issa Kouyaté, had previously been invited to participate in the U.S. State Department's International Visitors Leadership Program during the month of May, and so could not be present during the ambassador's visit.
The tour was organized by Ms Ndeye Diodio Calloga, a legal intern with Maison de la Gare. It began with a visit to the daara Thierno Yoro Ba in the Diamagueune district of Saint Louis. Once at the daara, the ambassador and his delegation were able to see the reality the talibé children's everyday life. Maison de la Gare team members like Bathe Ndong and Abou Sy make regular tours of local daaras for cleaning, disinfection and repair. The Thierno Yoro Ba daara has benefited from these services.
The Ambassador had an extensive discussion with the marabout, the person responsible for the daara, who explained that for him what is important is the children's well-being. That is why he is not opposed to the help and the activities that Maison de la Gare provides for the children. The ambassador also spoke with the marabout at length about his working methods, his helpers and how he cares for the children, to better understand the daara system and the marabouts' perspective.
The tour continued in Maison de la Gare's center in Balacos. Nurse Binta Coly presented the infirmary to the ambassador describing the services it offers to children, the most common diseases that are encountered and some of the more serious cases. The ambassador then visited the library and computer room, the different classrooms and the emergency shelter.
To complete the visit, the ambassador and his delegation met with the entire Maison de la Gare staff. Noël Coly made a presentation of the situation of talibé children in the Saint Louis region and of Maison de la Gare's work. He also described the worst forms of abuse suffered by children. Then the other team members presented the short and long-term projects which Maison de la Gare has planned to improve the lives of the talibé children and give them hope.
The talibé children were all very touched that the ambassador of the United States wanted to visit them, despite his busy schedule. They expressed their pleasure and thanked Ambassador Zumwalt by their innocent smiles, full of life. The discussions were very emotional, and the ambassador and his delegation were moved by the questions that were raised and by the drawings that they were given as a gesture of appreciation.
A sincere thank you to everyone who makes this work possible by your faithful financial support.
A smile in adversity to inspire us all
Rod LeRoy recalls: "I first met Amadou in Maison de la Gare's then-new library in January of 2012. He, in common with many young talibés, was enthralled by the pictures in the books and by the stories read to them by staff and volunteers. Amadou stood out, however ... he was intently studying a book held upside down. Taken with his beaming smile, I had no idea at that moment of the difficult life that he had endured."
The youngest of eight siblings, with four sisters and three brothers, Amadou was entrusted to a Saint-Louis daara by his family in Kolda, in Casamance in the south of Senegal. This was in 2005 when he was only five years old. Issa Kouyaté, Maison de la Gare's president, first became aware of Amadou's situation in 2010 through other children from his daara. He reports that Amadou "lived in a daara where the Koranic teacher demanded, in addition to the money which had to be paid each day, charcoal, rice and sugar as well as water needed for the daara. After running away and living on the streets for six months, Amadou was found in Dakar and returned to his parents in Casamance. However, they sent him back to Saint Louis to another daara that was equally bad. Amadou ran away for another two months and began to get into serious trouble associating with children living in the streets."
It was in January 2012 that Amadou, then 12 years old, committed himself fully to Maison de la Gare's programs. He explored the books in the library, participated enthusiastically in regular soccer matches, and involved himself in all of Maison de la Gare's other activities. Many of Maison de la Gare's international volunteers got to know him well, and their caring and support helped him enormously on his way.
Most importantly, Amadou began attending French literacy classes regularly. He applied himself diligently for three years working with teacher Bouri Mbodj, progressing from a base of no spoken French and no written language skills to an impressive level of competence in both reading and writing. Bouri writes "Amadou is a brilliant student. Despite his experience subjected to extreme exploitation, he studied for three years at Maison de la Gare. Now he has returned to his home village to continue his studies. He is in the sixth level and is a disciplined and courageous student."
It was on October 13th, 2014 that Amadou left Saint Louis to return to his family in Kolda. His father had registered him in formal schooling there, with Maison de la Gare's help. After brave farewells and a final spin on Arouna's bicycle, Amadou walked away to catch the bus home.
Issa stays in regular contact with Amadou and his family. To no one's surprise, he is thriving in school and has finished his first year at the top of his class. Speaking with Amadou just before he left, it was clear that this move was his personal decision. He hopes to complete his education, and then return to Saint Louis to live and work. There is no doubt that this exceptionally kind, gifted and determined young man will succeed in realizing his potential and making a major contribution to his community.
A motivating gift to the talibés from Ottawa Fury FC
The Ottawa Fury FC soccer team of Ottawa, Canada recently advanced to the North American Soccer League (NASL). To celebrate they updated their logo and, as a result, had to find a home for much of their older uniforms and equipment. When team members learned about the talibé children's passionate love of soccer from their equipment manager and former player Adrian LeRoy, they decided to donate all of their surplus equipment to these children. In April 2015, bags loaded with over 125 kilos of jerseys, team vests, goalie gloves and deflated soccer balls were delivered to Saint Louis, Senegal. This is a report of the first outing of some of this equipment.
Maison de la Gare's sports animator Kalidou, who is himself a talibé, organizes soccer tournaments one or two mornings a week. This is a highlight for the talibé children who spend much of their lives begging on the street and have very little space in their lives to simply be children. They adore soccer, and forget everything else while they are playing.
Thursday mornings, the children know that there is a good chance of a soccer match, and they drift into Maison de la Gare's welcoming center between 9 and about 10:30 in the morning. On this occasion Kalidou organized the teams and, with the help of staff members Abdou, Bathe and Noël, distributed coloured vests to the different team members. The children were thrilled with this linkage to a professional soccer team, and very proud to be dressed in team colours. The designated goalies were very happy with their professional goalie gloves, and displayed these proudly.
Over 100 children left the center at around 10:30 a.m. parading through the streets to a nearby sandy lot, many of them still carrying their begging bowls. Once there, Kalidou and Abdou organized the younger children into four teams, each with 11 players and four to ten replacements. Two teams, red and blue, were in the junior category, with the boys typically between 4 and 8 years old. Few of the boys know their age or birthday exactly, so these groupings always involve a bit of guesswork. The boys 9 to 12 years old were organized into green and blue teams. Older boys age 13 and above played in the full-size pitch at the other end of the lot.
The play is marvelous to see. In bare feet, the children commit themselves totally to the game, playing with energy and skill that you would expect of much older youth. There are many exciting and even passionate moments but, under Kalidou's watchful eye, the rules of the game are pretty well respected. In the junior category, it was a clear win for blue over red, with a score of 1 to 0. In the intermediate category, however, regular time ended in a tie, and the winner was settled in a best of five shoot-out. The result was a blue victory over yellow, 4 to 3.
The reality of these boys' cruel lives is indicated by the prizes. The winning team in each of the junior and intermediate categories receives a prize of 10,000 CFA francs to distribute among the 20 or so team members. To put this in perspective, these boys are typically required to pay their marabout 500 francs each a day (about $1), money that they must obtain by begging. When they play soccer, they have to take several hours from begging and the resulting shortfall can earn them severe beatings. The incentive allows many of them to have a slight respite from begging, helping to open more and more of them to some of the possibilities of a normal childhood.
Thank you to Ottawa Fury FC for your contribution, and to everyone whose support makes possible Maison de la Gare's programs for these children.
Heartwarming observations of a "fly on the wall"This is an accidental report. On a recent visit to Saint Louis, I was amazed on my first morning at Maison de la Gare's centre to see 124 talibé children arrive over the course of a few hours. They washed their clothes, took showers, watered the garden, got various cuts, bruises and other medical concerns looked after, read books in the library, and in general just hung out. Later in the morning, many got ready for their thrice weekly karate classes. It all seemed so normal, a safe refuge from their days of begging, a place where they can be cared for, take care of themselves and, for many of them, discover possibilities for a richer life.
I started taking photos, and soon realized that this peaceful scene is itself a story that needs to be told. Maison de la Gare's signature programs, in particular literacy and math classes, take place in the afternoons when the three teachers are present to teach up to 50 children each. However, more and more children are coming to the center in the mornings, taking a break from begging to feel cared for and safe for a few hours.
On that Friday morning I saw children drifting in one at a time, stopping to give Noël or Abdou their name and daara. Somehow, this recording of the children's presence is a very reassuring thing for them, recognizing and respecting their importance as individuals.
After arriving, many children migrate quickly to the showers and toilets, and to the large basin where they can wash their clothes. Others just find a comfortable place to hang out. Bathe, the activities manager, keeps an eye on everyone and helps out where he can. Binta, one of the center's nurses, is always available in the mornings in the infirmary to care for the many children who line up seeking medical attention. I couldn't help smiling as a couple of the younger talibés energetically supported her by sweeping away the day's dust and sand.
Other young talibé children found a role helping Bathe in the garden, watering the new pepper plant seedlings. Many other children filled the library, exploring books and connecting on the internet. At around 11, the children involved in karate training began to get ready in their gi, their white karate outfits, and soon about 30 of them were going diligently through their katas under the supervision of a junior sensei while many other children watched.
Children came and went throughout the morning, begging bowls in hand, clearly comfortable in this refuge from their hard lives on the streets. Maison de la Gare adds a rich new dimension to their difficult lives, and a light of hope for a better future.
It is you, our faithful donors, who make this possible. We are grateful for your continued support; it changes lives!
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