Strengthening a resource at the heart of Maison de la Gare's center
The library has become the heart of Maison de la Gare's center in Saint Louis for many of the talibé children. This amazing resource was made possible by a generous donation from the Stockholm International Rotary Club, and it opened to the children in the fall of 2011. The Rotary donation covered bookshelves, furniture, painting, a TV and DVD player, DVDs, intelligence games, teaching materials such as paper, watercolors, modeling clay and art supplies, and several hundred books.
Almost immediately, the children began to discover the magic of books and reading. We have many pictures of boys enthralled as they thumb through books for the first time. Reading to talibé children in the library has become a favorite activity for Maison de la Gare's international volunteers, and the children love this as well. Teachers, and the volunteers supporting them, have come to use the library's resources as an integral part of their teaching programs.
It is challenging to find appropriate books for children who have little formal education but may be ten to eighteen years old. We look for "low vocabulary, high interest" books, with subject matter which is appropriate for these begging street children. They love technology subjects, books that focus on different areas of the world, and stories of children with whom they can relate. A Senegalese publisher, BLD Éditions, produces some very suitable books in French, or French and Wolof, and we have purchased many of these with the help of Canadian donors.
In early 2012, three computers donated by Associaciò Un Petit Pas of Catalonia, Spain were installed in the library, greatly enriching its mission. Talibé children in the library now connect with "penpals" in Canada and, via Facebook, with former volunteers and others around the world. The computers are also great teaching tools, for example using Google Earth.
The most recent and most moving donation to the library consisted of 142 books delivered in late 2014 from Francine Perkal who, at the time, was in the last days of her courageous struggle with cancer. These books, all in French, are a remarkable collection of teaching materials suitable for all levels of learning readers ... collections of the continents, Olympic games, books of discovery, travel around the world, sounds and learning to read, water around the world, animals, atlases, and much more. The children of all ages are enchanted by the new worlds that these books open for them.
We are grateful to everyone who has contributed to making this wonderful and transformative resource possible. There is still lots of room on our shelves, if you can help!
There is an African proverb that says, "When an old man dies, a library disappears". But Francine has not disappeared in our eyes; she is still here in the books that show us the ways of the world, and will always be with us with her smile, around the children, around the center and above all forever.
This article is dedicated to the memory of Francine Perkal, a devoted Canadian teacher who succumbed to cancer on December 21st, 2014. Francine was passionate about books. A long-time supporter of Maison de la Gare and its library, one of her last wishes was that her lifetime accumulation of book credits be used for the talibé children; over $1,000 worth of books were delivered to the library shortly before her death. Issa Kouyaté wrote in response: "I am truly devastated that this woman has been struck by cancer. It seems that only the best people disappear too quickly, but they always leave behind them the marks of their goodness." Issa proposed that these books be labelled accordingly: "Property of Maison de la Gare's library from Francine Perkal, a cancer victim who gave her credits to the most vulnerable children. Treat with care. And thank you to Francine; may God take you into his care!". He added "This is just a way to thank Francine, whose memory will live on forever in Maison de la Gare's library."
Sonia and Rowan share an extraordinary experience
I have had the good fortune to travel to Senegal on many occasions to support the work of Maison de la Gare in aid of talibé street children. My teenage daughter, Rowan, has accompanied me in this work three times, becoming personally committed to the cause of ending forced begging and supporting Maison de la Gare in bringing hope to the talibés of Saint Louis. On a previous visit, we accompanied Issa Kouyaté on one of his regular midnight "Rondes de nuit" in search of runaway talibé children. And, on our most recent visit, we spent an evening with the runaway boys currently in the care of Maison de la Gare.
Rowan writes: "I volunteered for the first time with Maison de la Gare in 2012. I had an amazing experience delivering books, organizing the library, and setting up e-mail accounts for some of the talibé children. It wasn't until my second trip that I went out onto the streets and into some daaras. I was shocked and very emotional at the conditions I saw in the daaras where my friends had to live. But the most powerful part for me was going out on what are called night rounds.
On night rounds Issa, and in this case me, my mother, my grandfather and a man who helps Issa find runaways, went out in search of talibé boys who have left their daaras and are living on the streets. Issa talks with them and convinces them to go back to his home where they can stay until authorities give the go-ahead for Maison de la Gare to take them back to their villages or, in some cases, return them to their daaras. We headed out at one in the morning when it was pitch black.
The usually chaotic streets of Saint Louis were dead quiet, and after a day of about 35 degrees (95 F), it was suddenly cold. We met Issa and then took a taxi to a place where an informant had told him that there may be kids sleeping. The first place we checked was a parking lot for buses and taxis. It was explained to me that runaways will often sleep under cars to stay hidden from pedophiles or others who could hurt them.
We were leaving the lot and heading back into the streets when we saw them. Four young boys in a lighted corner huddled together. They used their tee-shirts to cover their whole bodies by pulling them over their heads and tucking in arms, legs and feet. Issa gently woke them one by one, talking to them in Wolof, and convinced them to come with us. I couldn't help but wonder what they might be thinking. Imagine some strangers waking you up in the middle of the night and asking you to go with them. Issa pointed out that one of the little boys named Gora had likely been sexually assaulted. He couldn't have been older than 7. My heart almost broke. There he was shivering in the corner, looking at me. I wasn't sure what to do; all I wanted to do was give him a hug and tell him everything would be okay. But of course I can't speak Wolof, so I gave him my sweater.
We took the four boys back to Issa's apartment in taxis and got them settled down with blankets. The next morning we went to the centre and the boys from the night before were there. Despite the heat, I saw Gora was still wearing my sweater, and I swear I saw him smile at me just once."
During our most recent trip, Maison de la Gare was caring for four other runaway talibés in Issa's small apartment. Rowan and I brought a take-out meal and colouring supplies and settled in for the evening while Issa had to be out of the house for a meeting. Each child has his own story. But what they have in common is that they are all children denied their basic human rights. And they are denied what all children need, attention and affection.
Mohammed is a fifteen year old boy. He is from Dakar, and he came to Saint Louis to work. He seems even younger than his age, and was soon being exploited. He loves to draw. Mohammed drew pictures of a marabout whipping a crying child, and of crying children holding insufficient coins for their quotas in their hands.
Ousman, about age 8, and Mousanger, age 12, were picked up by the local police for stealing. Talibé children who are desperate to meet their quotas will resort to stealing to avoid feared consequences. The police had entrusted the children to Issa. Both boys thoroughly enjoyed their meals and the company. They both drew picture after picture of the food we ate that night, offering some of the drawings to us as gifts.
The most heartbreaking case was Pape, a child of only five years. He had severe injuries on his ankles where his marabout had kept him chained for days. His situation is considered severe and the police have called his marabout to present himself for questioning. The marabout, however, has made himself scarce. Perhaps the marabout will reappear once the wounds have had a chance to heal and he considers the evidence erased. Issa's photo record will be waiting. Pape was shy and quiet. He drew many pictures of his village and clearly indicated his desire to go home. He climbed quietly into my arms and settled in for a snuggle too long denied him. He stayed with me, leaning close for hours, and was disappointed to be gently laid on his mat when it was time for Rowan and I to leave.
Rowan gave friendship bracelets to each of the boys to remember us by. They wore them proudly. We will think of them as they navigate their challenging lives in the days and years to come. At least we are comforted by the knowledge that Maison de la Gare, at least, watches out for children such as these, and will do all they can to guide them on their way.
Frida's volunteer experience
A little more than a year ago I had the craziest idea. I said to myself "Let’s go to Africa; that sounds exciting!". And yes, exciting it was. I found Maison de la Gare through a friend of my sister, a former volunteer. I basically knew nothing about Senegal or the talibés. All I knew was that I wanted to go somewhere where they speak French. I wanted to see and experience the real deal, a completely different way of life, so I signed up for six months in Saint Louis.
Three nights prior to my departure, I was so nervous I couldn't fall asleep. I literally had no clue what to expect or how to communicate with people. I had studied French in school, but it was a long time ago and my knowledge was terribly basic. I had traveled and lived in foreign countries before, but this was nothing like it. This was my life’s adventure. To be honest, the reasons as to why I wanted to go volunteering were primarily selfish. I thought it would be a good way to experience a country from the inside and I hoped it would bring perspective to my own life. I have no education in teaching, nursing or gardening. All I have is a big, open and curious heart, and I wanted to do what best I could with it.
The first weeks in Senegal, I constantly looked and felt like a big question mark. I did not understand what people were saying and, the few times I actually did, the cultural context confused me just as much. I felt like a baby in almost every single way. I did not know how to eat and behave around the huge bowl of thiéboudienne (although delicious!). I accidentally insulted my host mum while trying to joke around. I was useless washing my cloths by hand and always had to ask for help, and I was terrified of going anywhere even close to the market. I felt like a newborn that needed constant help and supervision. I thought I would never survive six months.
But people were nice to me. My host family made it their most important cause to turn me into as much of a Senegalese as possible and little by little I advanced. In Senegal, it is easy to make friends and soon everyone in my neighbourhood knew me and greeted me whenever I walked by. Abdoul in the little kiosk around the corner pointed at the products he sold, said their name in Wolof, and then tested me the next time I showed up. He said it was important that I learn Wolof so that we could get married, a statement (not a question!). I soon became very good at responding, as all female volunteers have to.
My host sister Penda took me with her to visit her friends and, although I could say nothing, they somehow seemed to appreciate my presence. That’s one thing I love about Senegal. People like to just have you around so they know that you are fine. My host mum told me on my very first day in her house that she would treat me as one of her own, and she really did. To have someone that cares for you that much, someone with whom you have no earlier ties, is just amazing. She had dresses sewn for me, she took me places, and she always made sure I was happy and not hungry. I really got the chance to take part in Senegalese family life. During the six months I spent there, my family held a wedding, a circumcision ceremony and the baptism of my host sister’s baby for whom I was chosen godmother(!).
But although I really loved my host family, my favourite place to be in Saint Louis was at Maison de la Gare. When I could not talk to anyone, the talibés were there and they did not care because we could still play. I realized that THEY were the ones helping ME. They were the ones who showed me not only Senegal, but what is important in life. On the bad days, they were the ones who reminded me to smile and made me laugh. I think back on precious moments when I could sit down with Arouna and discuss Senegalese politics, or joke around with Moussa that he could be a model for mascara (those eyelashes!), or see Mamadou blush when I ask how he’s doing with the girls. Moments like these are so precious because we are nothing but humans and equals.
The relationships I got the opportunity to build with these kids are among the finest things in my life and not one day goes by that I don’t think about them. When I was at Maison de la Gare, I saw many awful things. I saw how these kids live, how they grow up, and what little chances they have in life. I saw how they learn to beat each other because their marabout beats them, and I saw how itchy their bodies get from the lice that live in their clothes and where they sleep. But I also saw a lot of wonderful things. How they take care of each other and make sure everyone gets a slice of bread in the evening. How much they want to learn, even though they have not slept or eaten. How happy they become when someone cares and when someone sees them for who they are – not just talibés.
My six months definitely had its ups and downs but, thanks to the Senegalese easygoing way of life, I had no reason to stay down. One second of self-doubt or a low mood was always treated by someone teasing me for being homesick and sending me the most heart-warming smile that reminded me to focus on the positive things in life.
Going to Senegal is the best decision I have ever made. It made me believe even more in the fact that we are all just humans and share the same basic traits, values and goals in life. I got to see things in a different light and I learned to understand my own problems from a new perspective. I was given the chance to meet people who really know what hard work means and the importance of it. People who are passionate about something and strive to contribute to the greater good. There is no way I can explain how much they inspire me, and I am forever grateful for the love and compassion they have showed me.
Thank you to all our supporters for making possible the chance for a better life for the begging talibé street children that Frida describes.
Transition to an independent life - The talibé children served by Maison de la Gare are boys, often as young as age four, who live in horrific conditions in daaras and are forced to beg or work for monetary quotas as well as their own needs. Maison de la Gare offers hope to these children by providing an oasis of safety and caring, as well the key to a better life through education. Some talibés, despite a life dominated by discrimination and forced begging, attend Maison de la Gare’s classes and programs for years, achieving a level of literacy and skill that will enable them to lead a successful independent life, be enrolled in the formal school system, and realistically aspire to higher education.
Some talibés who have long been involved with Maison de la Gare’s programs have taken the initiative to provide guidance and support for younger talibés and to involve themselves in the operation of the centre, while developing an admirable commitment to Maison de la Gare’s objectives. Some are still tied to their daaras with forced begging commitments, while others are old enough to be released by their marabouts but have no place else to live. Despite their developing competencies, these boys are not ready for full independence due to on-going education, not yet having fully gained the necessary tools, and lack of any family support.
Several of these particularly competent senior talibés of long association with Maison de la Gare are being involved formally in the operation of the centre and its programs.
Arouna Kandé serves as Assistant to the Administrator. From the Kolda region of Senegal, Arouna has attended classes and participated in Maison de la Gare’s programs for many years. Arouna's perseverance and recognition of the importance of education as the key to a better life has led him to successfully navigate formal public schooling. He has struggled with discrimination at school, the death of both parents, and living conditions which have made studying near impossible, and yet he persists. And, thanks to Maison de la Gare, Arouna is currently registered in the fourth level of secondary school. He is determined at any price to complete his education. Arouna is well known and admired among the talibés, and continues to be a shining example for them. He is always on the lookout for talibés in difficulty and has long been willing to lend a helping hand wherever needed.
Mamadou Kandé is working as Site Manager of Maison de la Gare’s centre. An older talibé, also from the Kolda region, he was neglected by his family and has been in Saint Louis for many years. In 2012 a friend in Mamadou's daara suggested he visit Maison de la Gare. He began attending classes daily and has been making progress in learning French. He took a particular interest in the garden and it soon became apparent that he has a natural affinity with plants and horticulture. He has become known as "Mamadou du jardin". Mamadou has a very gentle and supportive manner with the younger talibés. Due to his reliable nature, Maison de la Gare's team had been entrusting him with increasing responsibilities at the centre, leading to him taking on this new role.
Souleymane Ndiaye assists Maison de la Gare’s medical staff with health care and hygiene. He was introduced to Maison de la Gare in 2012 when he needed to be hospitalized for anemia. Maison de la Gare paid for his treatment and followed his progress when his marabout left him on his own. Souleymane has lived in a daara for many years, but has found the time to attend Maison de la Gare’s literacy classes regularly. Souleymane’s medical history has led him to take an interest in the health care and hygiene programs at the centre, and he has assumed leadership of a tooth brushing program for the younger talibés. He works in collaboration with the nurses to improve the children's oral hygiene, and otherwise in support of the healthcare programs.
Ablaye Mballo is Maison de la Gare’s Maintenance Manager. He is one of the centre's pioneers, and has been involved with Maison de la Gare since its beginnings in the former train station in 2008. There, he attended French classes and participated in other activities such as sport and wrestling. Ablaye has become a quiet but constant presence at Maison de la Gare. He has a strong mechanical aptitude, and has assisted Mamadou for several years in the development and care of the garden, helping to make it the oasis it is today.
Your donation can support these senior talibés as they settle into their roles in Maison de la Gare’s leadership team. Inviting older talibés to take responsibility in this way is a natural next step in realizing our hopes for them. After all, what better example could be set for young talibés grasping for hope and meaning? And, who could have a better appreciation for Maison de la Gare’s objectives or a more fastidious commitment to achieving those objectives than the very people this centre was created to help?
The next step towards a better life - Maison de la Gare has long been a welcoming haven for the talibé boys of Saint Louis who are far from home and family and forced to beg for many hours each day by the marabouts who control their lives. This mission has recently been enhanced.
Maison de la Gare's welcome centre has grown over the years to include classrooms, toilets and showers, a medical clinic, a library, apprenticeship training areas, and a beautiful and productive garden. But, from the beginning, Issa Kouyaté always hoped to one day be able to provide the talibés with even more ... a home of their own that, even if temporarily, would provide refuge during crises and times of transition. This residence could help the children off the streets to safety, or provide a secure base while they transition to independent lives. An unused corner of the Maison de la Gare site has waited behind the classrooms, unused, waiting for the right moment.
That right moment recently arrived thanks to generous donations from GO Campaign, from GlobalGiving donors and from many other international contributors, together with the donation of architectural plans by Civitas Architecture of Ottawa, Canada.
Plans were finalized during the spring of 2014, a contractor was hired, and ground was broken. By October, the dream was a reality. The new building is a jewel for Saint Louis and for the talibé children of this city. Talibés of all ages are excited to be offered one more proof that their efforts and their hopes for a better future are being supported by people who care.
The new building serves distinct needs: an emergency shelter for runaway talibés rescued from the streets; a transitional residence for older talibés able to leave their daaras but still working to complete their schooling or prepare for independent lives; and, a kitchen to cook nutritious meals for the hundreds of children served by Maison de la Gare.
The emergency shelter will serve talibé children who are in the most difficult and serious situations ... runaways. Talibés typically run away from their daaras due to severe physical abuse. Failure to obtain the full daily begging quota can cause a child to decide to run in order to avoid the expected punishment. At least weekly, Issa ventures out past midnight in search of runaway talibés. When he finds children, asleep in groups in well lit corners or all alone tucked away under cars or trucks to avoid trouble, he gently wakes them and coaxes them home with him. There are often as many as ten such children under Maison de la Gare’s care. These are the desperate children who will live and be cared for in the new emergency shelter, until complaints against their marabouts are resolved with the police or the children are escorted home.
Maison de la Gare provides baguette-based snacks to hundreds of children each day. However, the scope of the food offered has been limited, due to lack of space or a means of cooking. The new building includes a well equipped kitchen which will make it possible to provide nutritious meals to all of the talibés who find their way to Maison de la Gare, as well as the children living in the emergency shelter and the transitional residence. And, now there is a means of effectively storing and preparing the bounty of Maison de la Gare’s productive garden. As soon as the kitchen opened, the teachers thought of another use and were soon making fruit drinks to offer the young talibés to entice more into their classrooms.
The new building will also be a home to older talibé boys who are, happily, reaching the end of their time of domination by their marabout in the daara. Unfortunately, sometimes children feel forced to remain in a daara past the time they could otherwise leave, because they have no home to return to or because they simply have no idea how to live independently other than by continuing to beg or do hard labour. And others, who have been making good progress in school or apprenticeship programs, would be forced to cut that education short before they are ready. These children will find a home in the new transitional residence, a secure base from which they can complete their journeys to independence.
It is these older talibés who are most excited about the new building. Several took immediate responsibility for its care, offering to organize furniture, make beds, and clean. Most of these children do not remember ever having slept in a bed. There was much discussion about how, exactly, to use one. Does one lie on top, or under the sheets? Why are there two sheets? And, there was some excited confusion about the purpose of bath towels. Maison de la Gare’s staff will help them figure it out and feel at home, and will ensure that this next step for them is one more on a path to true independence and a successful life.
It was your support that made possible this amazing new resource for the talibé children. And, it is your continued support that will let us realize its full potential. Thank you!!
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