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.
Maison de la Gare's Heath Care and Hygiene Program
The inharmonious mumbling hum and smell of dirt and poor hygiene have become familiar to my senses. As we set foot into each daara, the next resembles the last. This became my reality over my three months volunteering with Maison de la Gare.
I was certain that my experience in Senegal would provide me with a unique viewpoint, but the scene unfolding before my eyes was surreal. It may have taken a few days, but soon I was reassured that I was in the right place. My initial feelings of fear and uncertainty quickly changed. Instead I was spurred into action. It became a necessity to help these young boys as much as I was able.
I have been skeptical about the value of international aid, which is often tied to the interests of the donor country. However, in volunteering with Maison de la Gare I witnessed the positive effects that international financial support can have. I came to realize that no political strings were attached to the funding that this organization receives from international NGOs and other donors. This allows Maison de la Gare to work effectively without fear of governmental influence.
Maison de la Gare is making great efforts to stop the inhuman treatment of the begging talibé street children. With only a small staff and global volunteers, its impact on the community is immense. The organization works towards integrating talibé children into formal education and into the community while providing physical and emotional support. Issa Kouyaté, the founder and president of Maison de la Gare who quickly became one of my greatest role models, is totally committed to improving the lives of the talibés. I was inspired by his work, consistently embodying the hope and passion he wants to spread.
Maison de la Gare has established an environment where health care, sanitation, emotional support and opportunities are made possible for these young boys. Their center has a library, garden, health center, classrooms, showers, and workshops. Bright hibiscus flowers crawl up the side of buildings that have been vibrantly painted. Intricate and beautiful child-focussed murals surround the walls.
My days would begin with assembling first aid kits with sufficient materials to provide children with basic health care. Common injuries include foot wounds due to lack of proper footwear, and infected head wounds. Most could be treated with our first aid supplies. Our small team of staff members and volunteers would walk or take taxis to nearby daaras, visiting two or three each day.
Around five in the evening, talibé children would begin trickling into Maison de la Gare’s center. Maison de la Gare continues to emphasize the importance of basic hygiene. For most, the center's facilities provide their only opportunity to bathe their bodies. Many talibés can go weeks without bathing, causing easily preventable skin irritations and infections. Once showered, the boys are able to participate in activities such as playing soccer and other games, creating arts and crafts, reading books, and watering the garden. Beginner and intermediate French classes are offered. Once each child has washed their hands they are given a nutritious baguette, which may be their only dinner.
In one of my experiences, a large cluster of talibés sat before us as we treated an extremely contagious case of eye infection that had spread to 30 to 40 boys. Unfortunately, we had only treated roughly half our patients when suddenly the remaining boys dispersed. Their marabout had ordered them to return to the streets to resume begging.
Throughout my experience with Maison de la Gare, the talibé children amazed me each and every day. Despite the conditions they were are living in, the children still found the ability to smile and be happy.
In the United States, nothing is celebrated more than freedom. But freedom is not a right; it is a responsibility. Everyone on this planet should have an equal opportunity to achieve a quality of life including good healthcare, adequate housing, proper nutrition and emotional support. We all must share in this responsibility. I fully support the work of Issa Kouyaté and Maison de la Gare, but for the future my hope is that such organizations will no longer be needed.
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