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.
Maison de la Gare's primary tool to offer hope of a better life for the talibé children of Saint Louis is education. Regular instruction in French language skills and math in Maison de la Gare’s classrooms can sometimes lead to children being registered in the regular public system. Attending classes in a public school not only promises an independent future for the boys, but can lead to improved living conditions. Sometimes the boys' marabouts, who control so many aspects of their lives, agree to waive or reduce the begging requirement on school days. Also, interaction with classmates can lead to a feeling of experiencing a somewhat normal childhood, at least during school hours. Of course, unlike the talibés, non-talibé classmates are well nourished and clothed, supported by a family, and have a home and a bed to return to each night, not to mention light by which to study and complete homework.
Arouna Kandé is a special case among the 30 or so talibé children whom Maison de la Gare has registered in the public school system. Arouna was taken from his home in Kolda in the south of Senegal to live in a Saint Louis daara in 2006. He is orphaned, and had to leave behind three younger sisters who are always in his thoughts. Arouna dreams of being a teacher, and of someday being able to support his sisters. History is his favourite subject.
Just 16 years old, Arouna is a leader and an example among the talibés. He is dedicated to his studies and will often give up the opportunity to participate in soccer games or extracurricular school activities in favour of studying and homework. He does whatever it takes to complete his work and remain in the top half of his class of 43 students, occasionally working in his daara by the light of the moon until after midnight. Despite his somewhat alleviated begging requirement, he still needs to dedicate time to providing a small quota of money for his marabout. In order to do this, Arouna sells fish in the local market, fish that he finds by the Senegal River after they have been discarded by fishermen. Yet, he always has time for and watches out for younger talibés, and he is also available as a responsible helping hand around Maison de la Gare’s centre.
Maison de la Gare provides Arouna with a family-like support system. Staff member Aladji Gaye is a mentor and provides brotherly support, while Mapaté Bousso helps with math homework when help is required. Arouna is also encouraged to persevere by email pen-pals in Canada, Maison de la Gare volunteers who recognize his special qualities and potential, and his French teacher at École Amadou Fara Mbodj who considers Arouna to be an excellent student with the potential to achieve his goals. Arouna is more than a Maison de la Gare success story in the making; he and others like him are Senegal's future.
In November, 2012 a student from Ashbury College in Ottawa, Canada was instrumental in initiating a communication program between Canadian students and talibé street children at Maison de la Gare. 14 year old Rowan Hughes established email accounts for about a dozen talibés who had achieved a basic level of French literacy, and she connected these "email talibés" with students at her school in Canada. These students responded in kind with emails to their new talibé pen-pals. The students in both Canada and Senegal are studying French as a second language and are similarly challenged reading and writing French. Yet they persevere, undaunted. The new email connections were cemented by one-on-one Facebook video chats.
More recently, Rowan organized the delivery of packages of notebooks and pens from each of the Canadian students for their Senegalese email pen-pal. The notebooks include a personal, hand written letter of greeting and encouragement, as well as the email contact information for each pair of correspondents. These notebooks are one of the few possessions the email talibés have, and they will be used to practice and prepare email messages with the help of their Maison de la Gare teacher for on-going communications with their Canadian friends.
As the email talibés log in to their gmail accounts after a long day working and begging on the streets of Saint Louis, their attention begins to shift. They re-focus on another, broader world beyond their difficult daily lives, a world of possibilities for a different way of life where education and not forced begging is the norm, and where friends on the other side of the ocean are genuinely interested in who they are and who they want to be.
If the talibé children can articulate their goals and dreams to a friend, one who would not think to question the possibility of such ambitions, perhaps the futures the talibés hope for may seem more possible to them. The email link to Canada has certainly captured the interest of the talibés children and has enhanced the education programs of Maison de la Gare. More importantly, the online relationships have expanded the worlds of both groups of students, Canadian and talibé alike, enriching the lives of all involved.
Three volunteers arrived at Maison de la Gare at the beginning of February 2013, a French couple (Michael Gobert and Gwen Gueguen) and an American student from Oregon, Madison Burgdorfer. All three chose to contribute in the health and education activities defined in Maison de la Gare’s volunteer program. The volunteer's mornings are taken with health care in the daaras where the children live, and with a myriad of other tasks. Then every day beginning at 5 p.m. there is a rush at Maison de la Gare’s center, as the talibé children arrive to meet with the volunteers. The volunteers first identify any children who need medical attention, and then they gather in the classrooms with the children for French, Math and English instruction. The children are making great progress from a very low base, many of them reading, writing and performing simple calculations.
After school hours, volunteer Michael Gobert brings his students to the library to continue their introduction to computers. With his help, their skills have improved greatly and many of them are communicating regularly with Canadian school children, the program launched in November by a Canadian student. Michael has taught the children to prepare better messages so as to be able to better communicate with their Canadian friends.
Madison, Gwen and Michael have now been joined by Christine Thuault of France and Tommaso Arosio of Italy. All five live with Senegalese host families, and greatly appreciate their introduction to Senegalese life. Working with one of Maison de la Gare’s teachers, Aida Dieng, Christine initiated literacy classes for talibé children in Daara Serigne Thiam; more than fifty children attend this twice-weekly introduction to French education. Tommaso supports all of Maison de la Gare’s activities, but he is making his greatest contribution in his field of choice ... animating the sports program. Tommaso organizes tournaments between teams of talibé children, and he is much appreciated as a referee.
With their gentle and respectful approach, the volunteers change the lives of talibé children with whom they are working. But they will also be changed themselves. They are all making invaluable contributions to Maison de la Gare and to the talibé children it serves, and we thank them from the bottom of our hearts.
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