Tommaso Arosio's experiences as a volunteer with Maison de la Gare
I came as a stranger.
I’ve never thought of being a brave person, a good person. It’s not even easy to put down in words what I’m feeling, while thinking of my experience in Senegal.
First of all, I’d like to thank all the people who suggested and encouraged me to leave for Africa. To take some time to reflect on my life’s errors. To replan my future.
But I couldn’t do it in Africa. I couldn’t reflect, I mean. And I couldn’t replan anything. From the first day I learned to live the present. I definitely forgot past and future. Even if sometimes someone told me I had my “head in the clouds”, actually I never really found the concentration needed to leave the present time.
In Italy I had read carefully about the organization and activities of Maison de la Gare, the association for which I would work from April to June 2013. I mentally excluded medical assistance and French teaching because I thought that I wasn't skilled enough to fulfill these roles properly. And probably I wasn’t, to be honest. However, they were the two activities on which I spent most of my time.
The first time I entered a daara, one of the volunteers asked me what I thought; what were my first impressions after that first encounter with the talibé’s world? I answered that I would never judge anything; I was there to help and to work, not to judge. And I kept my word.
I was treated like a friend from the first day because I put myself in a very clear position: I treated everybody in the same way. I was friendly with all the people around me, trying to smile always, to find the time to joke with everyone (especially with the kids, of course), even when I was suffering from homesickness or was upset about something. I (almost) never let myself blend European sadness with African happiness. Sometimes it was tough. The people closest to me noticed this conflict, but the children didn’t and this was the aim.
Africa, Senegal and, in general, this experience helped me to rediscover the self-confidence I had lost before I came. I worked with commitment, I learned a lot of new things. I met people from all around the world (I even achieved a pretty good mastery of French, considering that I had barely studied it before).
This experience really made me aware of the fact that I’m a privileged person. A privileged person doesn’t deserve to be privileged more than an underprivileged one. It’s just fate that makes him lucky. A lucky person can’t get away with not having a conscience. Because he has more, he has to give a bit more to the people who don't even know the difference between privilege and underprivilege.
I met a lot of young talibé boys who are great human beings, despite the fact they don’t know anything about the life that a boy of their age lives in Europe. And they smile all the time, even if they don’t know what childhood is. I believe this is the message I tried to pass. Return childhood to its owners, the children. I’m proud of having met such beautiful young men. I’m proud they called me “friend”. I don’t know if they’ll remember me; I will remember them!
I have to say a few words to my Senegalese host family: Aladji, Ama, Babs and Siberou. Just thank you. I won’t forget you, either. Never.
And thank you, Issa. Thank you for your example. I couldn’t ever do what you do. I think only a few people in the world could; I would call them “good people”. I’m lucky to have met one of them.
I left as a man.
Since its beginnings in 2008, Maison de la Gare has seen many talibé children return to their families, while many others stay with their marabouts. Trying to understand this phenomenon, we have studied the situations of children whom we have seen grow up on the streets, in their daaras and in Maison de la Gare's center. These children in search of a better life have entrusted themselves to us in their quest for improved health and hygiene, the assurance of being respected in the community, and the hope of a positive future.
Some of these children in our care have touched us deeply, becoming responsible young adults in their daily lives and in the Maison de la Gare center. These talibé children started from nothing, but with confidence that their heath and lives would be cared for as they worked within the center's educational and development programs.
Among these children one name stands out, of a child who has made enormous efforts to satisfy his marabout while taking full advantage of what Maison de la Gare has to offer. This child attended the first literacy classes offered in the old railway station in 2008, and he is still attending classes in the new center. He is one of the talibés who have succeeded in building a successful life blending the obligations of his daara with education at the center, including recently computer skills and communication with Canadian pen pals. He is also one of the children whom Maison de la Gare is assisting with developing small business opportunities to generate some revenue. This boy is in regular contact with his family in Casamance in the south of Senegal, calling them every Friday with news of his life in the daara and the center.
Volunteers who have taught this child in French or computer classes have felt strongly that he should be in formal schooling, with Maison de la Gare's support. To arrange this, as we have for so many others, we discuss with the child's marabout and his family. However, the final decision is always taken by the child himself ... this youth has declined the opportunity out of fear of losing his new place in life in the center and in society. In this situation, Maison de la Gare will support this child until he can be a successful independent contributor in society. In spite of his lack of formal schooling, we have no fears for the future of this exceptional young man, who is enormously appreciated by the staff, volunteers and other talibés at Maison de la Gare. His name is Kalidou Baldé.
Maison de la Gare is very happy to have been able to serve as a caring family for so many talibé children like Kalidou, over many years.
Maison de la Gare has just launched its totally renewed website, now in both French and English. Volunteer Michaël Gobert of France developed the new site while he was in Saint Louis, working with Issa Kouyaté, Aladji Gaye, Mapaté Bousso and other volunteers and members of the Maison de la Gare team. The result is spectacular, a wonderful resource for learning about this organization dedicated to improving the lives of the begging talibé street children.
The sliding window on the welcome page is a magical entry into Maison de la Gare’s many activities ... clicking here is an opening to the myriad ways in which this organization is changing lives. New entries will be added regularly to this page, so regular visits can be very rewarding! We have added linkages with social networks so that you can easily share these exciting developments with your friends, and play your role in promoting Maison de la Gare’s activities.
Other pages introduce Maison de la Gare, its origins, its aspirations and people. A page is dedicated to the talibé children themselves, and provides links to the most current developments in understanding and addressing this unconscionable human rights abuse.
For those who want to contribute, a large section of the site presents Maison de la Gare’s volunteer program, and the many different roles that volunteers can play. A comprehensive volunteer manual, developed with the help of earlier volunteers, provides all the information needed for a safe and rewarding experience working with the talibé street children.
This new site is a rich resource for everyone wishing to understand, and change, the lives of the talibé street children.
Even before the walls of Maison de la Gare's center were first raised in 2010, founder Issa Kouyate had a clear vision of a green, productive garden sanctuary to welcome and inspire the talibés of Saint Louis. He intended that the garden be planted and nurtured by the talibés themselves, so that they could feel a true sense of ownership of something beautiful.
Today, the garden is an oasis from the hot and dusty world of forced begging. It contributes welcome shade, colour, and a feeling of peacefulness to Maison de la Gare’s centre. Banana, date, lime, mango, mandarin and Nebedaye trees grow taller and stronger with every season. Papaya and coconut trees will soon also take hold, contributing to the bounty of the garden. An iron trellis trains grape vines over a patio. And the talibés coax regular harvests of sweet potato, tomatoes, hot peppers, carrots, mint, melons and beans.
An older talibé, Mamadou, is the primary guardian of the Maison de la Gare garden. He arrives early each day to water thirsty plants and tend young seedlings. Ablaye also enjoys working in the garden, helping it to thrive. Both boys attend Maison de la Gare classes regularly and have email relationships with students in Canada. Mamadou is too old to have a realistic hope of being registered in the public school system, even though his French language skills are improving. However, he is developing valuable skills as a gardener which should help him integrate successfully into Senegalese society later on.
Mamadou is looking forward to the maturation of his melon crop. He will be able to use the proceeds from selling part of the crop to pay his daily begging quota of money to his marabout so he can spend more time at Maison de la Gare and may no longer be forced to beg on the streets of Saint Louis.
All of the talibés who visit Maison de la Gare's centre enjoy the garden's beauty and its bounty. The mandarin tree's delicious fruit was recently enjoyed by many hungry children. And, all feel welcome to shelter there. Occasionally a misdirected soccer ball or high winds and rain may take out a young sapling or wipe out a tender crop. Not a concern; another will soon be planted in its place as the children who nurture this garden tend to the continuing cycle of life here.
May 2nd will be engraved in the memories of the talibé children of Saint Louis for many years. The talibés face daily challenges no child ever should and live in unimaginable conditions which violate all of the provisions of the United Nations Convention of the Rights of The Child. Yet, children they are, with a love of play and fun. Talibé Day, organized by the volunteers and staff of Maison de la Gare, was all about the fun!
Designed to be a day off from begging and the daily challenges simply to live, Talibé Day was for the kids. Many children arrived early to help tidy up the centre and convert the classrooms into play places. There was an awareness that something special was about to unfold. Activities began around 11 a.m., with around 100 talibés arriving along with Maison de la Gare’s international volunteers, representatives of other associations and some marabouts.
Volunteers organized hours of games the kids had never played before - sac races, water balloon, blind man's bluff, tag games and wheelbarrow races. There was also soccer, of course, and table tennis (without the table). The games were enjoyed enormously by all, big and small. The little ones, in particular, loved dancing to the music of a live D.J., and did they have the moves!
Two classrooms were full to overflowing with children colouring and finger painting. It was apparent that this was the first time doing so for many of the boys, who have missed out on a normal childhood. Some older teenage boys were as intent on colouring dinosaurs inside the lines in their colouring books as were the young ones. It was enough to break one's heart and make it leap for joy all at once.
Massive quantities of Senegalese roasted rice with chicken, bags of water and orange juice were presented just in time to revive the exhausted children. This was a feast far beyond the normal experience of the talibé children, and every last scrap of it was enjoyed. After the meal, new clothes and shoes (a first pair for many) were distributed to the children.
After hours upon hours of games and fun the volunteers were exhausted, but the children clearly did not want the day or the opportunity to truly experience childhood, if only for a day, to end. The children danced, sang, played and coloured until the long, wonderful day drew to a close.
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