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.
Maison de la Gare organizes regular football (soccer) tournaments for the talibes of Saint Louis. Football is universally adored, and the talibe children demonstrate an impressive level of skill as they play, despite poor nutrition and hydration and a lack of shoes on their feet. What they have no shortage of is determination, competitive spirit, and love for the beautiful game.
As the children waited for the bus that would transport them to the Senegol Field in Gandon, about 15 km from Saint Louis, they got pumped-up with djembe drumming, dancing, and a general spirit of celebration. On the bus, which was packed to its limit with excited children, the celebrations continued with clapping, drumming, and chanting.
The tournament included three games, played among the teams fielded by associations dedicated to improving the talibes' lives, Maison de la Gare, Taliberte and Claire Enfance. Younger talibes, hopeful of a future spot on a team, watched attentively from the sidelines.
All the talibe players demonstrated heart and skill. But, Maison de la Gare's team was triumphant, winning both matches, 2-0 and 3-0, emerging as the victors for the day overall. The proud spirit of victory and sense of happiness clung to the Maison de la Gare children, staff, and international volunteers alike for the rest of the day, and beyond.
Maison de la Gare staff and international volunteers accompagnied thirty talibe children on a field trip to the Guembeul Natural Fauna Reserve, a half hour drive from Saint Louis in northern Senegal. The excursion was a welcome holiday from the regime of forced begging that the boys live with every day. For some the talibes, it was the first time they had left the city in over five years and, for many, it was their first exposure to the rich natural environment that is part of their African heritage.
Young talibes were fascinated to hold baby sulcata turtles in their hands and they were astonished at the size of the turtles' 72-year-old father. The children enjoyed searching for and spotting scimitar-horned onyx and dama gazelles, now all extinct in the African wild.
The day was a delight for the children and adults alike. It was a day of freedom to play, explore and simply enjoy being a child. And, it sure beats begging.
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