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.
Former Maison de la Gare volunteer Dan Lawson and his friends Xan Wood, Tom Nelson and Ben Palmer have just completed an incredible trek from Bodiam Castle in southern England to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, raising £1,126 ($1,800 U.S.) for Maison de la Gare as part of the famed Mongol Rally.
They successfully completed the 16,000 km challenge in 41 days and 2 hours, including 4 days crossing Mongolia. Their route took them through 19 countries crossing a third of the world's land mass, three deserts and five mountain ranges.
Dan, Xan, Tom and Ben bought a trusty 1-litre-engine Skoda for this journey and, for the most part, and it never really failed them. They had to have the car serviced on four occasions, each lasting about five hours of battling thoughts of failure. The damage report: nine spark plugs, two fuel injectors, one tyre, and one window (which they smashed themselves with a rock to get the keys that were locked inside).
Their route took them through Europe to Istanbul, and then facing the Skoda's first real challenges in the mountains of northern Turkey. On across Georgia and the Caspian Sea to the "Gates of Hell" gas craters in Turkmenistan, and the wonders of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand in Uzbekistan. They finally made it to Mongolia after a difficult nine hour border crossing from Kazakhstan into Russia. This was their favorite part of the trip, with wild horses, camels, sleeping in a yurt, and frantically pushing the Skoda out of a wild river.
But their battle wagon made it!
"Why did we do it? To put it simply we knew it would be a lot of fun, and it was. If you can raise some money for a good cause on your travels then that’s a huge bonus as well! Maison de la Gare is a really impressive charity and they use donations effectively, directly benefiting the kids by dramatically altering their life chances in every respect.”
This amazing journey joins two other memorable fundraisers by English supporters of Maison de la Gare and the talibé children, in the span of little over a year:
Please consider joining these exceptional contributors in making a donation in support of Maison de la Gare's work.
Census campaign led by Gwen Gueguen, volunteer from France
Maison de la Gare has undertaken a census of the talibé children of Saint Louis and its surrounding region. Contact is made with the marabout of each daara where the talibé children live, and a comprehensive list of the children is prepared. Then each child is questioned and photographed .
We have created a database containing all the information necessary for identification of the children: their name, year of birth (approximate because children do not usually know their age), village or region of origin, and their date of arrival in the daara. We also collect information about the marabout (name, identity card number, telephone number) and the daara (GPS coordinates) .
All this information helps to:
- identify children who run away, and find them more easily thanks to their photograph.
- allow the talibés to have improved access to health care through reductions in hospital costs offered on presentation of census records created for each daara and validated by the social services of Saint Louis.
- identify the children coming to the center, to be able to better monitor each of them (frequency of participation, grade, class attendance, behavior, ... ).
- allow some children to be registered in formal government schooling.
- to create a map of Koranic schools (daaras) in Saint Louis .
As an example, we were able to trace the recent history of one little boy, Ibrahim Diallo , aged 6. He is from Guinea, and was sent away to Saint Louis by his family when he was only five years old. Ibrahim now lives in a daara where he studies the Koran. He spends a lot of time each day on the streets to beg for food and for money for his marabout . Every day Ibrahim comes to Maison de la Gare's centre. He works hard in class, knows his alphabet, can write a few syllables and can count. Most of the time, he has a smile on his lips !
Who are these children? They come from daaras around Saint Louis . They come to Maison de la Gare's center to regain their sense of childhood. In general, their origins and their families are far, far away .
This is why Maison de la Gare works to learn about the children's origins, and to help the children themselves to understand so that they can keep alive the dream of one day returning home and reuniting with their families. It is vital that every talibé child feel completely at home in the centre, to learn and enjoy reading, writing, creative activities , gardening and even playing sports or going on excursions. We encourage the children by posting their photos and identity information in the centre, and letting them post it in their daaras where they live, so that they can themselves follow their development.
We strive at Maison de la Gare to open places for all of these talibé children in our lives, by accommodating and welcoming them as our own children and brothers.
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