Visit to MDG of the Ambassador of the United States, Lewis Lukens
On Thursday, January 23, 2014, Maison de la Gare was honored to receive the visit of Mr. Lewis Lukens, Ambassador of the United States to Senegal. Upon his arrival in Senegal, Mr. Lukens was shocked by the situation of begging talibé street children. To combat this scourge, Mr. Lukens invited other foreign ambassadors to Senegal to discuss this problem with him, and to act. He subsequently organized a round table with local organizations working for children, including Maison de la Gare, to find with them practical avenues for improving the situation. Thus, Ambassador Lukens has given himself a second mission in Senegal in addition to his diplomatic role ... to help to improve the lives of the talibé street children. In this context, he travelled to Saint Louis to visit Maison de la Gare and to see and experience this organization's struggle on behalf of the talibé children.
It was around 5:30 in the afternoon that Mr. Lukens entered the gates of Maison de la Gare's Saint Louis center, accompanied by Ms. Elisabeth El Khodary, his economic, commercial and policy attaché. He was warmly welcomed to the center by MDG's president, Issa Kouyaté. The talibé children in the center were amazed to see such an important personage coming to enquire into their lives and situation. Seeing the intense involvement of the children in their activities, Ambassador Lukens took time to observe them, and then to congratulate them and to chat with several of them.
Issa then took the ambassador on a tour of the entire center, visiting the administration office, the library, the infirmary, the garden, and the classrooms. They also visited the location where Maison de la Gare plans to build a transitional residence for talibé children in crisis, where Issa explained this vision for this new initiative.
After the tour, Mr. Lukens and Issa met and discussed in the center's office, together with Ms. El Khodary, the center's administrator, and two U.S. Peace Corps volunteers stationed in Saint Louis. The discussions focused on Maison de la Gare's work, its achievements and the challenges which it faces. The Ambassador reassured us that, despite the limited time remaining to him in his posting in Senegal, he will use his influence at the policy level to change things so that the talibé street children can look forward to a better tomorrow.
Our appreciation to Saint Louis web news journal Ndarinfo for permission to use two of their excellent photographs of the event.
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 photo-essay by Jack Wang
I travelled to Africa on a short vacation, planning to spend one week in Senegal and the other in the Gambia. A chance meeting with Thaddaeus Lister on the flight changed all that! Thad had worked as a volunteer with a children's organization in Senegal, and was coming for a return visit. I was enthralled by his passionate tales of the begging talibé street children and of the work that the organization that he had worked with, Maison de la Gare, is doing with these children in Saint Louis. Caught up in his tale, I threw my plans to the wind and joined Thad on the five hour drive from Dakar to Saint Louis.
Through Thad, I got to meet the founder of "Maison de la Gare", Issa Kouyaté. I followed Issa closely to document his daily routine, share his struggle over the lack of funding to build and supply a better centre for the talibés kids, and witness his kindness in providing his own home as a safe shelter for talibé children who had run away from their daaras. As a result after spending ten days with him, I have dedicated my "Talibés" photo-album to Issa Kouyaté, an honourable man who dedicates his life selflessly and relentlessly in pursuit of a better quality of living for the talibés and those around him.
Maison de la Gare is a non-governmental 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. Getting to know these children has been an eye-opening and heartbreaking experience for me. This is not a show-case orphanage such as I have seen in eastern Africa! The talibé children live in daaras, "schools" where the marabout teaches them the Koran. Often, poor families send their sons to a daara to study the Koran. Being a "talibé" is a life-long title, and it is considered a mark of honour. Normally, a daara is named after its marabout. In a photo below, Marabout Seck is instructing one of his students in Daara Serigne Seck, as the student works at his many-year task of memorizing the Koran. It is estimated that there are over 50,000 begging talibé children in Senegal, over 7,000 in Saint Louis alone.
One child in particular touched my heart. He was always the first kid to arrive at Maison de la Gare's centre. I can't speak Wolof, which is the most widely spoken language in Senegal. We have never really talked to each other, but there was a rapport between us that required no language. He liked to grab my arm to put around his shoulder. He was said to have mental problems; however, all I could see was an innocent young boy with hope in his piercing eyes.
It is too easy to photograph the talibé children as a cliché - photographing them with broken limbs, begging on the street, or with a close-up of an unhappy face. This might not be far from the truth. However, there are also happy faces behind that hardship.
I hope that my photographs have portrayed these children in a more intimate light that is both dignified and honest.
Maison de la Gare Saint Louis is a refuge. This was our first impression on entering this place, full of color and greenery, located in the heart of the city but away from its trials. Passing through its doors, the talibé become kids again. They feel safe enough there to dare to set aside for a few hours their begging bowl of rice for their Marabout and to let go to play and laugh, before having to rejoin the hard life of the daaras.
In fact, we quickly realized that Maison de la Gare is more than a refuge, aspiring also to be a place of education. How to bring some education to children whose lives are so different from ours? We tried to find the answer to this question during our stay and, for us, this answer takes many forms and remains open.
We started with the most obvious form of education: what we provide in class. Like other volunteers before us, we taught the children mathematics and French. However, we learned that the most difficult and most important task is not teaching the material, but it is to give the children the desire to come back to class the next day, to be diligent and, for the older talibés, to understand the link between coming to class and their future lives as adults.
Respect for their environment and others seemed to us to be an essential starting point. For this, we tried to establish several rules such as picking up litter on the ground, not fighting, and respecting the schedules which we posted around the center. Our aim was to provide benchmarks and teach them some rules of life in society. However, it was difficult to impose constraints as these were often misunderstood initially by children whose religious education and life are already so difficult, compounded by the language barrier.
Our idea about the role of a volunteer at Maison de la Gare was in part to provide an opening for the children - particularly the older ones - to the world beyond Saint Louis and Senegal, to help them to come to believe in the possibility of a future other than becoming Marabouts themselves.
Very quickly, we realized that it was also important to take time to teach the children the basics: washing themselves. This may seem obvious, but we came to understand that washing and knowing why we wash are not innate in children, much less so when these children live on the streets left to themselves without educational models. We organized showering for them, especially younger ones, and taught them how to use soap and to lather the body properly.
Through our little time in the daaras where the children live, we discovered their living conditions beyond Maison de la Gare and the streets of the city. In fact, only some of Saint Louis' talibé children come regularly to Maison de la Gare; these are the ones who manage "least badly " in the situation. Many other talibé children fend for themselves on the streets of Saint Louis with only occasional exposure to staff and volunteers from Maison de la Gare providing first aid in their daaras. This time in the daaras was difficult for us to handle emotionally. This is where the magnitude of the task the Maison de la Gare is trying to accomplish really hits you. Another thing struck us forcefully here ... many of these children have totally lost their identity. They can't remember either their family name or the name of their village. The support that we were able to provide as volunteers for a short period seems very meagre in face of how much work needs to be done. We were left with two mixed feelings: refusing to be discouraged, and regretting that we couldn't do more.
Being in contact with these children gave us a great deal, even if we had to keep a certain distance in order to best help them. A look, a smile from them, and we're off again. They are amazing, so brave ... this rich experience brings us back to reality with a glaring reminder of the many privileges we enjoy at home.
Finally, we have had a glimpse of Senegalese Africa, its culture and its people that we have discovered for the first time. We met children, men and women, appreciated and enjoyed many of them and especially admired one of them, Issa, the president of Maison de la Gare who devotes himself body and soul to the talibé street children, with courage and humility. However, a single man no matter how strong or willing cannot bear alone the burden imposed on these Senegalese children.
We are happy to have been able to contribute in this struggle but so much remains to be done, and we end with a loud plea for anyone who would be willing to come and give their support in turn.
Maison de la Gare's newest project - Please support us
Since Maison de la Gare's welcome center in Saint Louis opened its doors to the talibé children in late 2010, and addition of the infirmary in 2011, the center has become a second home to hundreds of children and a beacon of hope to 1000s more. Our needs have evolved, and we now seek to complete the center with a new building that will help us to address three continuing problems:
To resolve these problems, we propose to use the west end of our centre next to the classrooms, which is now undeveloped. Our vision is to build there a two-story building with a kitchen, apartments for older talibés and a dormitory for talibés in crisis. We will define this project in detail, with full costing, over the coming months. We are seeking financial support from every possible source to make it possible.
We have added two new donation categories for this project, and hope that you will consider helping to make it possible with your donations.
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