A photo-essay by Jack Wang
In a previous article, Jack recounted his serendipitous encounter with Maison de la Gare following a chance meeting with Thaddaeus Lister, a former volunteer, on the plane to Africa. In this earlier article, Jack celebrated “Discovering the Talibés” with an album of moving photographs. The photos here provide a glimpse of Maison de la Gare during a typical day.
“Maison de la Gare” is the place that largely defined my Senegalese experience. I worked closely with the founder Issa Kouyaté to photo-document his daily activities to promote his work and the MDG centre. Maison de la Gare, founded in Saint Louis in 2007, is a non-governmental and 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.
Maison de la Gare’s garden grows its own vegetables, aiming to help some of the talibé become self-sufficient. The centre opens to talibé children from 10 a.m. each day, and the children come to play in the courtyard, receive medical treatment, have a shower and take classes in the evening. Volunteers regularly check the boy’s clothing; not surprisingly fleas are often found, sometimes with 100s of eggs. The infected clothes are treated with bleach that kills the eggs, and soapy water that kills the fleas.
I met one teenage boy who came to the centre with a broken lip after having been beaten by his marabout ... not an uncommon occurrence. He received medical treatment immediately from a volunteer.
On one day, I followed a team of volunteers as they installed mosquito nets that had been donated by UNICEF in the daaras where the boys live. I also attended a meeting where Issa met with representatives of the local government and other organizations to plan together actions to help the talibés.
Issa regularly received phone calls from local authorities or the police asking him to collect runaway talibés. In one case I witnessed, Issa subsequently contacted a relative of one of these boys to come to collect him. Often the children stay in Issa’s apartment until he can find a suitable placement for them. In the picture here, the child’s father came from Dakar the next afternoon to take him home. Often, however, the placement is more difficult and takes much longer.
Thursday is the kid’s favourite day, because it is sports day when the centre organizes football matches.
The centre offers classes every evening to educate the talibé children. Volunteers prepare a simple meal for them. Lots of talibé children have practically not eaten the whole day. Thus, they are particularly excited to receive clean, fresh baguette snacks from the centre so they don’t need to beg for this food on the streets.
It is a humble centre with a big heart. Maison de la Gare has deeply inspired me.
A magical connection for the talibé children
In April 2013 astronaut Chris Hadfield was commander of the International Space Station. As Chris Hadfield was tweeting his amazing “postcards from space”, photos of our planet taken from his vantage point on the ISS, volunteer Sonia LeRoy was showing them to the talibé children, who were amazed. They particularly loved the photos of Dakar at night and the Sahara, taken from space. When Chris Hadfield learned of the talibés and their interest in his photos, he was excited to meet the kids.
Chris Hadfield is a great proponent of advance preparation and contingency planning. It is in that spirit that there was not only a plan for the call, but also a back up plan, and a back up for the back-up plan. As it turned out, all that planning was needed.
After viewing Youtube videos of Chris Hadfield’s December 2012 Soyuz launch, footage of his spacewalks and more photos from space, the talibés considered questions that they wanted to ask him. He received the written list of these questions in advance via email.
The day of the call, the internet at Maison de la Gare’s centre was not working. Half an hour before the planned Skype connection, fourteen talibés eager to connect with Chris Hadfield packed into taxis for the trip to a local hotel that had a WiFi connection.
The children gathered round the computer in anticipation. They viewed the space ship launch one more time, and reviewed their questions. At the designated time, the Skype call from Chris Hadfield began. Rowan Hughes, a Canadian volunteer who had done much to organize the call, asked the first question to encourage the talibés to follow suit.
Talibé Arouna Kandé, clearly nervous and excited, asked his question (in French): “What made you think you could do something that so few people have ever done?” Chris Hadfield addressed Arouna directly by name as he replied that, as a nine year old boy, he knew his dream of going to space was likely impossible. Yet, he nevertheless kept hold of that dream by focusing on the things in his life he could control that would bring him closer to his goal, and not the impossible. He said “Shape your daily decisions toward your dream. Turn yourself into your dream one small decision at a time. And, celebrate the progress of every small change within yourself.”
After Arouna’s question was answered, Skype failed several times. Fortunately, thanks to advance preparations and Chris Hadfield’s patience and familiarity with unreliable communications when making calls from the International Space Station, the call continued via Skype chat.
Chris Hadfield answered each of the talibé’s questions, emailed earlier, in sequence. The manner in which he responded to the questions was amazingly relevant to the talibé’s own lives. One child asked: “When you are afraid, how do you get over it?” Chris Hadfield replied: “I look to the very core of what I fear. Not the general fear, but the real root of it. And then I work to understand that root fear, the real basis of what I fear. And, I practice how to avoid that fear, and how to best react if I do encounter that fear. I practice it over and over. Then, when it really happens, I am not so scared and I respond better.”
The children soaked up Chris Hadfield’s advice, recognizing its significance for them. His parting advice is excellent for us all: “Practice and learn to make good decisions in your life. After all, we are the result of our decisions.”
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.
Project Reports on GlobalGiving are posted directly to globalgiving.org by Project Leaders as they are completed, generally every 3-4 months. To protect the integrity of these documents, GlobalGiving does not alter them; therefore you may find some language or formatting issues.
If you donate to this project or have donated to this project, you will get an e-mail when this project posts a report. You can also subscribe for reports via e-mail without donating or by subscribing to this project's RSS feed.