Reflections from Sam Whaley, while volunteering with Maison de la Gare
"Well here I am in Saint-Louis, Senegal, and it sure has been quite the adventure already.
I flew into Dakar a few weeks ago and, from the start, I was impressed by the level of organization that Maison de la Gare displays in terms of getting its volunteers to Saint-Louis. Just outside the airport, I easily spotted the man holding the sign with my name, who kindly led me to the hotel where I would be staying the night. The hotel, breakfast, and taxi that took me to Saint-Louis the next morning were all prepaid by Maison de la Gare, and I never felt unsure of what to do or where to go. In an environment where I was immediately out of my comfort zone, this organization was certainly welcome.
The drive from Dakar to the northern city of Saint-Louis lasted about four hours, and I spent the drive’s entirety staring out the window as we drove through small villages full of mango-vendors, past gorgeous mosques which stood out against the rest of the simpler buildings, and over desert that seemed to stretch on forever.
In Saint Louis, I was taken directly to meet my host family and, as anyone who has stayed with a host family before knows, it is simultaneously the most nerve-wracking and most exciting part of the trip. I quickly saw, however, that I had no reason to be nervous as the family of six (I think… there seems to always be guests over) welcomed me as one of their own, preparing deliciously spicy food and speaking slowly so that I could understand their accents that drastically differ from the European French accents with which I was familiar.
Every afternoon, I come home and my host sisters bring me my lunch, which is very considerate as the day I arrived was, by coincidence, the first day of Ramadan. This means that I, as a non-Muslim, am the only person in the family who eats or drinks between sunrise and sunset. From what I’ve been told, this month of fasting changes the feeling of Saint Louis significantly, as many spend the scorchingly hot afternoons resting so as to conserve the energy they lack from fasting all day and resting little at night. At around 9 p.m., the entire family gathers around a large, communal dish of what is typically rice and fish for dinner. This is an awesome time for the family to come together and for me to get to find out a little more about them and Senegalese culture in general.
And now the reason I’m actually here, Maison de la Gare.
I start my Monday through Friday mornings at 10 a.m., heading out into the bright sun and walking the 15ish minutes it takes to get to the center. I take a break during the hottest part of the day to eat lunch at home and return around 4:30 p.m. and stay until about 7:30 p.m.
While I signed up to be an education volunteer, I do a wide variety of activities with the talibé children. For those of you who don’t know, the talibés are a group of boys who attend Koranic school under the direction of a marabout. They live together in very poor conditions and are often abused, denied education in any other subject, and forced to spend a significant amount of time begging for money for their marabout.
Maison de la Gare's center is a place where the boys have access to education, basic health care, and more of what they miss out on. The center is comprised of the administrative office, the library where the kids can use their French skills and broaden their vocabulary, a small kitchen where their evening food is prepared, the infirmary where they can get some healthcare, showers, classrooms, and a big open area with a garden where the kids play soccer and spend the majority of the day.
I spend most of my mornings giving one-on-one or one-on-two English lessons, which are primarily aimed at the older boys. I teach these lessons in a mixture of French and English, helping some talibés with basic vocabulary and the alphabet and others with more difficult grammatical structures and tenses. In the evening I teach the younger kids French. This would normally take place under the supervision of the center’s own Senegalese professors, but as they take the month of Ramadan off, I am the sole professor during my stay. I have had some experience teaching foreign languages, but without a common language to fall back on when things get too complicated, it has proven to be incredibly challenging. Even given that, I still feel that I’ve made some progress – at the least, they can introduce themselves in French!
When not teaching, I play cards or checkers with the smaller kids with whom I communicate through gestures and expressions. But even with this limited communication, I am able to see how grateful they are to have somewhere to just be kids, to not have to worry about begging or food or any of the other worries these children should never have to think about. When I first arrived there was another volunteer from Sweden at the center who was in charge of the infirmary, but she recently headed home, leaving me with that responsibility as well. When needed, I clean and disinfect the children’s cuts and scrapes, but with the limited supplies and medications, I often feel myself wishing I could do more. I just keep reminding myself that the little that I provide them is better than the nothing they would otherwise have.
Maison de la Gare’s director, Issa, is an incredibly hardworking man who has had a huge impact on the lives of these children. Under his and the other staff members' direction, Maison de la Gare has become a haven for these children and continues to become even more incredible. With the help of GO Campaign, the center will soon be opening a new building that will serve as an emergency shelter for children in crisis as well as a new kitchen. New volunteers are always coming and going, sharing their ideas for how to continue to make the center a better place for everyone. While my stay is short at just under a month long, I’ve already seen what great places Saint Louis and Maison de la Gare really are.
My time here has been unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and I’ve come to appreciate the cultural differences and see the beauty of these people who are so content with what is considered so little by American standards.
It’s been an experience I won’t ever forget, and I look forward to the possibility of returning in the future."
Thank you to everyone who supports Maison de la Gare so generously to make its work, and Sam's experience, possible.
Maison de la Gare needs your help to complete its new emergency shelter
"When they can no longer tolerate their lives as talibés, brutally exploited and subjected to forced labour, they flee their daaras and end up in the street. There, they are exposed to all the dangers of life on the street... To protect these children, activist Issa Kouyaté patrols the streets of this centuries old city, determined to offer them a better future.
They take advantage of the veil of darkness to escape the rigors of their daaras and to find quiet places where they can be at peace... In Saint Louis, many talibés run to such stinking and dangerous places to escape the heavy hand of their marabout... The brutal punishments that they are subjected to when they fall short on their begging or other duties drive them to abandon the marabout and his daara and to invent for themselves an alternative destiny, one which can be just as cruel as the one they escape from.
Unable to withstand the abuse and misery in their daaras or simply preferring abandoned alleyways, they run away and take shelter near the fishing district, Guet Ndar, in Saint Louis. But here they are still at risk of being exploited and abused... In this hostile environment, they are totally disconnected from their families and any support system.
However, these children in crisis can count on a powerful ally.
Issa Kouyaté dedicates his life to this struggle. He tries to keep the children away from the streets and offers a listening ear, an overnight shelter, and support for their lives. He patrols the dark streets of Saint Louis himself, to wrest them from hostile environments. Sometimes he finds them sleeping on fishing nets, and sometimes just on the sidewalk.
... Maison de la Gare offers these children psychological and medical support, access to good hygiene and clothing, food, and shelter for rest and warmth. Here, they meet with friends to forget the harsh life on the streets for a few moments. In this center, they do their laundry and take care of their oral hygiene by brushing with new toothbrushes offered by Issa Kouyaté. This is the good life. We see them laughing and running in the courtyard of the center. They play football and djembe."
These words are taken from a report published by journalist Ingrid Hägele in the Dakar-based newspaper Le Quotidien. This picture that she paints was the driving force behind the decision Maison de la Gare took a few months ago, the decision to build inside its center in Saint Louis an emergency shelter for these children. This decision was made possible by the generosity of the organization GO Campaign in the United States, GlobalGiving donors worldwide, and friends of Maison de la Gare in Canada through the Rev. C.F. Johnston Foundation. We are profoundly grateful to everyone who has made this transformative project possible.
But we need your help to complete the job. The total cost including furnishings will be $53,500, and we are about $10,000 short. Will you help us to complete this project and meet this urgent need? It is you who makes it all possible! Thank you for your support.
Issa meets two of Maison de la Gare's first volunteers in Canada
"During the summer of 2008 in the early days of Maison de la Gare, I met two young people who were very committed to social justice. They worked with me in a centre for the begging talibé street children in Saint Louis, meeting the children's needs for education, health care, arts and sport activities, and food. This was at the time of the first steps of a project that would expand over the years to become a model for protection of vulnerable children in Saint Louis.
I recently met Lisa LeRoy and Zoë Richard-Fortier again six years later in Canada, their home country, and was able to thank them for the work that they had done in Saint Louis.
My meeting with these two young Canadians had a great impact on me, reinforcing my commitment to join those fighting for the rights of children and human rights in general. Maison de la Gare was created by a group of young Senegalese who committed themselves body and soul to changing the fate of talibé children and to fighting against the exploitation and abuse that these children suffer.
Since the early days when Zoë and Lisa marked Maison de la Gare with their commitment and dedication, they have never stopped holding our work in their hearts. Thanks to a trip that I made to participate in a fellowship program in New York, I was able to visit Canada to reconnect with these two people, and with many others who have supported our efforts over the years. These meetings made me realize more than ever that real friends are for life, and that they continue to support us and our work with their persistent efforts in their own countries.
Zoë and Lisa, with their families, friends and people around the country, have organized events and support that generate substantial funds to allow us to respect our commitments to the talibé children. Reinforcing their personal commitments to children in vulnerable situations, I'll share with you that Lisa has become a lawyer advocating for the rights of children, and Zoë a psychologist serving children affected by family breakdown and other challenges.
In Canada I made presentations at two churches, in Montreal and Ottawa. Many people came to listen and to understand the situation of the talibé children. They asked many questions and also suggested ideas about how to meet the needs of these children. At Cedar Park United Church in Montreal, the community that has given so much support to Maison de la Gare over the years was warmly welcoming. And, I finally got the chance to meet the Hornby/Desrochers family who have supported our initiatives for years and have inspired me with their unwavering commitment.
Two people touched me deeply with their emotional presentations, from their hearts, of the situation of the talibé street children. At their church in Ottawa, Sonia LeRoy and Rowan Hughes spoke of their determination to never stop supporting our efforts until these children are no longer begging in the streets. With her wisdom, Rowan affirmed that the place of the children is with their families. She said that she had been lucky to have two parents who love her and care for her, but that she could just as easily been born into the situation of the talibés. Her words touched the hearts of everyone in the church.
Zoë and Lisa were pioneers among the generations of volunteers who have come to Senegal and have made an enormous difference in the lives and prospects of the talibé street children. They both are planning to return, to share their skills and knowledge with us.
Thank you with all my heart, all our friends in Canada, for opening your doors to me and giving me strength and encouragement to continue this work!"
International e-mail Connections for the Talibé Children
Rowan Hughes is a grade ten student at Ashbury College in Ottawa, Canada. She recently returned from her second trip to Maison de la Gare as a volunteer, travelling with her mother Sonia LeRoy and her grandfather Rod LeRoy. Rowan has been instrumental in establishing e-mail connections for dozens of talibé children with her fellow students in Ottawa. This is her story:
"Last year when I volunteered in Senegal for the first time, my goal initially had been to deliver books and to help organize Maison de la Gare's new library. However, I recalled that when I was younger I had been pen-pals with some kids in Korea and it was a lot of fun. So, I had the idea to try to set up similar e-mail communications between my French class at Ashbury and the talibé boys I had not yet met in Senegal. I proposed the idea to my French teacher, and he thought it was great. So when it was finally time to go to Senegal in November 2012, I was very excited to get started.
When I arrived for the first time in Senegal, I was shocked by the way the talibé boys lived. I had heard many stories about them over the years from my mother who volunteered many times before. Nevertheless, it was crazy to see these children my age and younger begging on the streets, many in bare feet, most in rags.
When I first introduced the talibés to the idea of e-mail pen-pals, they knew absolutely nothing about the technology or how to send e-mails, but they wanted to have friends in Canada. It was a difficult process to try and teach them how to e-mail. After I set up e-mail addresses, we began by writing out the letters to my classmates on paper. Then, the kids typed the messages out letter by letter as I would slowly show them where each letter was on the keyboard. I think it took about twenty minutes to type a short sentence. Eventually they hit the "send" button on the computer. That was the start of e-mail communications between completely different worlds.
E-mails were just the beginning. We also started communicating via Skype and Facebook video calls with my classmates back home. I have seen how this whole experience of on-line communication has really impacted both sides. My friends at school in Ottawa have expanded their international understanding. And, apart from learning useful skills, I think that the "e-mail talibés" at Maison de la Gare now feel less alone. There are other people out there that are friends and think about them.
During my second volunteer trip I was busy setting up more e-mail addresses for more talibés. I hope to convince more kids at my school to join in, since so many more talibés now want to join in the e-mail communications with Canadian students. One day I walked into the library at Maison de la Gare and saw about ten children crowded around three computers; they were on Facebook and sending e-mails! On their own!
As the talibés get more comfortable with e-mail communications and Skype connections, their ties to friends in the outside world grow stronger, and so does their self confidence and desire to keep learning. It is clear that technology offers them opportunities, and so do friendships with kids like themselves in other parts of the world. I look forward to my next volunteering visit to Senegal to help my friends move toward their dreams."
Mamadou Kandé’s Road to Freedom
Talibé children are forced to beg by their marabouts, and rarely have the opportunity to be educated or to learn any practical skills which could eventually allow them to transition to an independent life. The garden at Maison de la Gare is changing that bleak future for several talibé children, including Mamadou Kandé.
Mamadou became a talibé later in life than is usual, as a young adult. He is from Kolda in the south of Senegal. Mamadou's family did not provide him with an education. When his father died, Mamadou's mother sent him to a daara in Saint Louis to learn the Koran. Unfortunately, his marabout in Saint Louis sent him out to beg instead of offering a Koranic education. Thus, Mamadou found himself working in the market hauling merchandise or in the harbour unloading fish to earn the required daily quota of money. And, his goal of learning the Koran or anything else remained elusive.
In 2012 a talibé at his daara convinced Mamadou to visit Maison de la Gare in the afternoons, after his quota had been earned, to learn some basic French and mathematics. Mamadou immediately saw Maison de la Gare for the opportunity it is: a chance for the education he sought, a place of friendship and encouragement, and a source of helping hands to support him in navigating his difficult life. Since his introduction to Maison de la Gare, Mamadou has diligently attended classes every day, and is making good progress.
Mamadou has a quiet and gentle spirit. Yet, he is fiercely loyal to Maison de la Gare. Mamadou also has keen interest in the garden. He spent all the time he could watching and learning the gardening techniques used, participating whenever the opportunity arose. It soon became apparent that Mamadou's love for the garden is underpinned by a natural affinity and true talent caring for plants and managing a garden.
Mamadou has the opportunity at Maison de la Gare to develop his horticulture skill and micro-gardening ability to the point of self-sufficiency. Once Mamadou's French language skill is better developed, Maison de la Gare hopes to find the funds to enrol him in a higher education course of horticulture to help him achieve his goals.
Mamadou intends to become one of the first to leave his daara and his marabout's influence and move into the new "Foyer de Transition" for talibés in transition to independence, planned for construction this year at Maison de la Gare. As he steps closer to a successful and productive life, he plans to continue to contribute his talents to Maison de la Gare and the young talibé children whom it serves.
Mamadou's path to independence needs support outside of Maison de la Gare. A donation through GlobalGiving can contribute to his continuing higher horticultural education or to the construction fund for the "Foyer de Transition".
Mamadou has already earned the primary responsibility for the care of the Maison de la Gare garden. And, he has the right to sell part of his harvest in the market, a far better way to earn his marabout's daily quota that develops his business skill even as he frees himself from the life of a beggar or heavy labourer. Mamadou takes his role in the garden very seriously. He knows it is his key to a better life. Mamadou can daily be found quietly watering, pruning, reorganizing beds, planting and harvesting the garden's bounty. He watches anxiously as the young talibes enjoy a game of football or wrestle closer than they should to his garden. But, he understands the children need to play. So, when a tender shoot's life is cut short by a soccer ball, or running feet, Mamadou does not admonish or complain. He simply replants. And, life in the garden carries on.
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