One of the most troubling experiences during my short stay in Saint Louis working with Maison de la Gare was going on a “night run”. This consists of going out in the middle of the night (usually between 1:00 and 2:00 a.m.) and searching the streets for runaway talibé children. On our fourth night in St Louis we joined Issa Kouyaté at midnight and followed him to locations around the city where runaway talibés “hide”. Issa explained that when talibés run away from their daaras – usually due to being abused - they do not hide in dark, empty corners of the streets as this would put them at risk for further abuse or worse. They generally can be found trying to sleep out in the open, often in areas close to where other people circulate during the night.
Of the talibés we saw, we had time to speak with four boys (the youngest looked about four years old and the oldest was 14). It was surreal. We found these boys trying to sleep in front of a closed market stall, with a security guard sitting nearby. Issa woke the boys and talked to them one by one, trying to piece together their stories. The oldest boy did not say much, except that he was from the Gambia! The other three boys told Issa their names, which daaras they were from and why they had run away. Issa explained to them that we could help them go home or back to their daaras and arranged to meet them the next day.
Issa walked us back to the hotel and I couldn’t stop thinking of these poor boys, particularly the older one who did not want to talk. I found out the next day, that the older boy had followed us back to the hotel and then followed Issa back to his house without any of us noticing. He waited outside Issa’s house for about an hour and then knocked on the door. Having now established that we were “the real thing,” he shared his story with Issa. Issa has since reported that this older boy has been welcomed home by his family in Gambia, where they are now trying to find a satisfying occupation for him so that he will stay.
Caring for such children is part of how donations to Maison de la Gare are used - paying to return runaway talibé boys home. There is even a follow-up with boys once they are returned home to be sure they remain safe and well treated.
That night still haunts me and I can’t help thinking of all of the other runaway talibés out there waiting for someone they can trust to tell their story to and maybe help them get back home.
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