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!
The children are ready, and Maison de la Gare is working to remove the obstacles
One of Maison de la Gare's objectives is to educate the begging talibé street children of Saint Louis, Senegal. Founder and president Issa Kouyaté has always believed that education is the key for these children. It is the key to hope for a better life in the future for themselves. And, educated talibés can also be a key factor in the fight to end forced begging in Senegal. The informed are less willing to suffer exploitation, of themselves or in society in general.
Arouna Kandé is a shining example of this. Despite experiencing the exploitation of forced begging since early childhood until just last year, Arouna has studied for years. He was first taught by Maison de la Gare teachers, and later enrolled in the public school system, sponsored by Maison de la Gare. He is far older than the other children in his grade who were never forced to deliver a daily quota of money to a corrupt marabout. But this does not discourage Arouna. He hopes to advance to high school next year and, later, to university. His career hope is to become a writer. He is determined to inform the people of Senegal and the broader world about forced begging and the talibé system, and to help bring this exploitative system to an end.
Bouri M'Bodj Diop has been a teacher at Maison de la Gare since 2011, instructing talibé students who already had learned some basic French language skills. Bouri is currently working to prepare a group of nineteen talibé boys for the formal education system. It was not difficult for her to identify potential candidates. Many children, conscious of Arouna's shining example, are excited to have a similar opportunity for a formal education. To encourage her candidates to take their opportunity for education seriously, Bouri has given each student a backpack, pencils, and a notebook. This sets them apart from the other Maison de la Gare students and provides some extra motivation. As each child arrives for class, ready to work, their backpacks are proudly displayed.
Preparation for school, and enrollment, is neither easy nor straightforward. Many of the children are of an age to be high school students, and yet they will have years of formal education ahead of them before high school becomes an option. And, they will likely be the only talibés in their school, as Arouna was. This could mean discrimination and ridicule. But, they know that Arouna did it. And, they know they will have his support and the encouragement of Maison de la Gare. So, they are keen to begin despite the challenges ahead.
Enrolling the children in school requires not just the educational preparation, but also organization of documents and acquiring necessary permissions. Most talibé children do not have documents of any kind. Birth certificates or other identity documents will be needed, and the permission of the marabout - who is legally recognized as a guardian in many cases - must be obtained. And, in the cases where parents are known in far off villages, their permission must be obtained. Often the parents and marabouts may not read or write themselves, let alone think school is a good idea.
If there is to be hope for enrollment of these children in September, Bouri and Issa must begin now, months ahead, to discuss with the marabouts the possibility of granting permission as well as a reduction in begging quotas for school days. The objective is always to avoid putting the child in conflict with his marabout. If there seems to be hope with the marabout, then the search for or creation of documents and photographs must begin. Visits to home villages may have to be made. Bouri thinks that more than half of her current charges will be ready for school this year. But, how many will have the opportunity to begin on time, given the challenges of enrollment?
Some of the talibés in the current preparatory class are ready to be freed from their marabouts. But this also presents complications. Sometimes being freed is automatic after a certain number of years of forced begging, ten for example. In other cases, at age 18. However, in most cases marabouts are reluctant to give up their sources of income or the "prestige" of having authority over a child, and they demand exorbitant bribes from the children in the form of a large final payment. Or, they will release them after age 18 but only if they return to their original villages, even if they have no families to return to. Unfortunately, despite the illegality of forced begging in Senegal, the authorities seem reluctant to intervene in these matters.
Another challenge for the talibés is that, once they are "freed" from forced begging and leave their daara, where will they live? Not yet having obtained the means to live an independent life, many children with the potential to be free remain in their daaras with their exploitative marabouts. The new Foyer de Transition in Maison de la Gare's centre is a solution for some of these boys. But, will the marabouts permit them to move in? If a child moves into the Maison de la Gare Foyer de Transition against the will of his marabout, all talibés from that daara will likely lose permission to attend Maison de la Gare programs at all.
Souleymane is ready for school, and excited to start. He is also "freed" from his marabout. However, he will likely have to return to the Gambia temporarily to officially end his marabout's authority over him. This trip will have its own dangers and complications for Souleymane. Will he be back to begin his formal education? As a trafficked talibé brought by his marabout from another country, will enrollment in Senegal's school system even be possible for him? If not, does he have any hope of for an education in his home town?
Maison de la Gare is helping the children navigate these challenges, to bring education to the talibés of Saint Louis.
Rowan and Arouna share the adventure of an incredible week ... of karate
Rowan and Arouna worked together on preparation of this report of karate’s arrival at Maison de la Gare and among the talibé children. First, in Rowan’s words:
"Well here I am in Senegal for the 4th time. And with my whole family, my little brother Robbie included. Robbie hasn’t ever travelled to Africa until now and, like me for years before I came, he has just been dying to come for years. Robbie decided he wanted to conduct his own special project, and suggested teaching karate to the talibé children. At the time, he could not possibly have known how successfully it would turn out. Last October Robbie had travelled to Ireland to compete in the world karate championships, and he won a bronze medal for Canada. He has been training in karate for years, and spends his evenings doing practically nothing else, seven days a week. Robbie is now a black belt and it is clear that karate is his true passion.
A week or so before the big trip, Robbie started to organize the collection of gi (traditional karate outfits). Using the logo "Karate Can Kick Poverty", he pasted posters in the Ottawa, Canada “dojos” of his home organization, Douvris. The karate community responded with nearly one hundred gi. After the long haul to get our family and all the karate equipment to Saint Louis, the real work began.
We found that karate instructors in Saint Louis follow the same code of ethics and morals as the creed that all the members of my brother Robbie’s dojo are committed to:
'My goal is to become the best person I can be. I will achieve this objective by disciplining my body and my mind, working to overcome obstacles that hinder my positive growth. I know this will take discipline. I am ready to make this commitment to myself in order to become the best person I can be and to share this progress with others.'
Looking ahead, Maison de la Gare will register talibés who want to practise this discipline in the Charles de Gaulle dojo. The master of this dojo is the lead coach of the national Senegalese karate team. Who knows what opportunities this could hold for the future!
But what are the talibés getting out of this? Well anyone who knows anything about talibés knows that they lead a hard life, and that they potentially face sexual abuse and other forms of street violence. Hopefully, with these new skills they will be better able to defend themselves and others. Talibés also grow up without parents in their lives. We often take for granted that our parents teach us to be respectful of others and ourselves. As much as I love these kids, they can be quite rude sometimes; with karate you don’t just learn fighting - you must learn respect. It is about disciplining your mind and body, and you can’t do one without the other. This is a new program for Maison de la Gare but I can see so much potential."
Arouna recounts this experience in his words, from the perspective of a talibé:
"Robbie Hughes is a 13 year old student in the 8th grade at Queen Elizabeth School in Ottawa, Canada. He has just made his first visit to Maison de la Gare as a volunteer, traveling with his mother Sonia, his big sister Rowan and his father Robin. Robbie has played a very important role at Maison de la Gare in helping young talibés in Saint Louis to improve their lives. His first objective was to provide karate classes for talibé children in the center. This is not only a welcome sports activity for them, but it gives them confidence, discipline and self-defense skills.
Robbie’s idea was to find a local karate master (a ‘sensei’) to teach at Maison de la Gare’s center in the mornings. With Noël Coly’s help, he invited several senseis to teach classes. He was looking for a sensei who had the same values and showed the same gentleness with the children as his karate master in Canada. Robbie identified some talibés who showed potential to advance in karate, with the objective of enrolling them in the dojo located Saint Louis’ Charles de Gaulle high school. The master of this dojo is the head coach of Senegal’s national karate team.
In educational terms, karate is a noble activity that encourages the development of the mind. And socially, it promotes mutual respect and fellowship among its practitioners.
After only four days working in Robbie’s classes, the children mastered the first karate positions. For many children, they had to learn the difference between left and right. But when they learned a new karate position, they never forget it. From the first day, Robbie earned great affection from the talibé children of Maison de la Gare.
Robbie, this young Canadian, has amazed us with his gentleness, his exemplary behavior as a person of strong values, and the openness of his big heart to children in extremely deprived circumstances. We thank Robbie’s dojo, Douvris, and everyone who is behind what Robbie did here, especially his mother Sonia who moved heaven and earth so that karate could become one of the sports activities of Maison de la Gare.”
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