I have been travelling to Saint Louis, Senegal, since 2010 as a volunteer and to support Maison de la Gare as a partner. My father and I do this together. He is a retired scientist and business leader and I work as a financial planner, developing retirement strategies and managing risk for Canadians. We seemed far from an obvious fit for having something to offer children forced to beg for hours each day in a country far from our home. But, we kept returning; there was always something more we knew we could do to help, and in 2012 my teenage daughter joined us as a volunteer as well. I am currently planning my sixth journey to serve the children of Maison de la Gare, again with my father and daughter.
I thought my first trip to Senegal would be my one and only opportunity to contribute in some way to Maison de la Gare and the talibé children. We brought with us badly needed medical and school supplies. We visited the daaras to deliver medical care, I taught some French classes, I helped make improvements at the centre, and I tried to show the children that I saw them and valued them.
But I had not been prepared for the overwhelming sense of being completely present and alive that interaction with these beautiful, resilient children gave me. I had expected to give, not to receive. And, I could not have anticipated how the grace and dignity with which these children approach the challenges of their unimaginably difficult circumstances would inspire me.
So many of the children begging on the streets, poorly clothed and often shoeless, were of an age with my own son, and my nephews. I was overwhelmed by a sense that, but for the grace of God, these could be my own kids. I felt that the chance of being born in Canada to a nurturing family and the opportunity to become educated and build a good life, insulated from challenges such as existed here, did not give me any more right to such a life than these children also had. It was just chance. And, I was uplifted by the possibilities that Maison de la Gare could offer these boys; it could be their chance.
I could NOT just do what I could one time, and then forget these beautiful faces, and the possibility they might have for a successful future if only they could also have the chance. I knew I would be back.
I learned from Issa Kouyaté, Maison de la Gare's indomitable founder and driving force, about the complexity of the forced begging situation in Senegal. He also educated me about his vision for Maison de la Gare, and its mission to provide hope and opportunity to the children trapped in a life of forced begging, while always working toward some day ending forced begging in Senegal. I determined to find a way to support Issa and Maison de la Gare and to help implement his important and unique vision.
On subsequent visits, we supported Issa in making his vision reality. First, he described his hope to build an apprenticeship program, to teach the older kids who had little hope of entering the public school system a viable trade. We found donors, and several sewing machines were soon in action. Issa also wanted a garden oasis for the centre, that the children could tend and learn from, and that could provide nourishment for body and soul. Once I understood Issa's vision, I was able to make a garden plan with the help of local agriculturalists. When we returned to Canada, a generous donation made it possible to implement the garden plan. On our next return to Maison de la Gare, seedlings were sprouting, fruit trees were taking root, a first crop of mint and peppers had been harvested, and the children were the ones making it happen. It was their garden.
Then there was an opportunity to build a medical clinic with the help of a grant from the Canadian Embassy in Senegal. A medical clinic has also long been part of Issa's vision. We assisted with the grant application, and found a architect in Ottawa willing to provide required plans at the last minute as a donation to the project. We arrived back in Saint Louis as the clinic's construction was wrapping up. As I helped paint the walls and ceilings, talibé children watched and then quietly picked up paint brushes to join in. They took such pride in painting bright colours carefully and precisely. It was clear that they understood this place was for them.
As more and more children arrived each day for classes, to be fed, for medical care, and for soccer tournaments, the need for funding expanded. The Global Fund for Children, GlobalGiving, and the United Nations Anti-Slavery Fund became important partners. We became better at fundraising, and volunteers from far and wide began to come more regularly, touched as we were by the resilience and hope of these amazing children.
On another visit, my daughter's first, our goal was to help Maison de la Gare expand the library that had been made possible by a generous donation from Sweden. This time we arrived with books instead of medicine in our bags. My teenage daughter invited the talibé children to get involved organizing the new books. Then, she showed them how to set up a gmail address and write an email. She connected them with her classmates back home in Ottawa, Canada, and a new window to the world had been opened for these children of two very different worlds.
My personal relationships with some of the talibé children have deepened significantly, thanks to on-going emails, Facebook chats and Skype video. Every day I think of them. I wonder, is Arouna able to find enough time and peace in his long, hard day to complete his homework? Did Mamadou have success with the newest crop of melons in the garden? Who knew Souleymane has the voice of an angel (I saw it posted on YouTube)? Is Oumar's pain easing from losing his father, then his home and the rest of his family? Is Kalidou attending classes? How are those two little four year old boys who are always together, holding hands, adjusting to forced begging and no family? Who got to play on the Maison de la Gare soccer team this week? Are they happy? Are they healthy?
The talibé children of Maison de la Gare are never far from my heart. I am thankful each day for Issa Kouyaté's dedication, and for the team at Maison de la Gare. Because of them, these kids are not alone and they don't just have hope for a better life, they have a family after all.
Maison de la Gare Arts Program
I lived a wonderful month of exchange and discovery in Saint Louis.
When I left home, I didn't know exactly where I'd be going, and I especially had no idea of how precious these children were that I would encounter, the talibés. Gradually, as they say there nank nank, I discovered who they are, the difficult conditions in which they live, and how much Maison de la Gare helps them every day.
Following the night in their daaras, the children came early in the mornings to Maison de la Gare's center to take a shower and clean their clothes. There, I began to help them a little bit, especially the smaller ones who were less skilled. After that, it was time for the infirmary. Playing and walking without shoes in the streets, the children often hurt themselves, in particular because their skin is delicate because of their poor hygiene. After a few days Lydie, another volunteer, taught me how to treat the most common injuries. This allowed me to get to know the children better. I admired their courage when they allowed severe injuries to be treated without complaining. And I loved responding to the smaller children's requests for bandages on wounds that had already healed, an excuse for them to experience a little bit of affection.
For the rest of the time before the teachers started teaching French and math lessons in the afternoon, I worked with the children doing drawings with different techniques and making colourful bracelets. It was often not easy to keep their attention because they are very active. However the attention that they committed to this activity was rewarded each time with wonderful pieces of art and a great sense of satisfaction. With the children and other Maison de la Gare staff and volunteers, Abdoul, Lydie, Aladji and Mapaté, we decorated the exterior wall of the center with an enormous, colourful mural. In fact this was a lot of work, but to see the result was pure joy!
My stay in Senegal was great thanks to all the people whom I met there. My host family welcomed me as if I were in my own home, and they introduced me to much of their culture. Maison de la Gare's staff and Issa, the director, were always available to support me. They are really a good and efficient team working with great dedication to improve the situation of the talibé children. And of course there were children, with their vivacity (and dances!). When I was with them, I wasn't aware of time passing and I found the strong bonds among them to be thrilling. It makes me wonder even more how society can ignore these children.
When I arrived, I intended to stay at Maison de la Gare for just three weeks, and then to use my last week to discover another city. However, I ended spending the entire time there, feeling that this was the minimum needed to fully appreciate this experience.
This report is dedicated to the memory of Mbaye Kâ, a perfect child to my eyes with a deep voice and a beautiful smile missing two teeth. He had a sweet and wild character with wise eyes so wonderful and true that it’s difficult to explain in words. Although he was small, he almost always won when wrestling with his friends. This little 7 year old boy died of malaria in December 2013. May his beauty still be with us and may the earth be light for him.
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.
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