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.
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