A photo-essay by Jack Wang
I travelled to Africa on a short vacation, planning to spend one week in Senegal and the other in the Gambia. A chance meeting with Thaddaeus Lister on the flight changed all that! Thad had worked as a volunteer with a children's organization in Senegal, and was coming for a return visit. I was enthralled by his passionate tales of the begging talibé street children and of the work that the organization that he had worked with, Maison de la Gare, is doing with these children in Saint Louis. Caught up in his tale, I threw my plans to the wind and joined Thad on the five hour drive from Dakar to Saint Louis.
Through Thad, I got to meet the founder of "Maison de la Gare", Issa Kouyaté. I followed Issa closely to document his daily routine, share his struggle over the lack of funding to build and supply a better centre for the talibés kids, and witness his kindness in providing his own home as a safe shelter for talibé children who had run away from their daaras. As a result after spending ten days with him, I have dedicated my "Talibés" photo-album to Issa Kouyaté, an honourable man who dedicates his life selflessly and relentlessly in pursuit of a better quality of living for the talibés and those around him.
Maison de la Gare is a non-governmental not-for-profit organization dedicated to helping the talibés. The word "talibé" describes students, always boys, who are studying the Koran and begging for a living. Getting to know these children has been an eye-opening and heartbreaking experience for me. This is not a show-case orphanage such as I have seen in eastern Africa! The talibé children live in daaras, "schools" where the marabout teaches them the Koran. Often, poor families send their sons to a daara to study the Koran. Being a "talibé" is a life-long title, and it is considered a mark of honour. Normally, a daara is named after its marabout. In a photo below, Marabout Seck is instructing one of his students in Daara Serigne Seck, as the student works at his many-year task of memorizing the Koran. It is estimated that there are over 50,000 begging talibé children in Senegal, over 7,000 in Saint Louis alone.
One child in particular touched my heart. He was always the first kid to arrive at Maison de la Gare's centre. I can't speak Wolof, which is the most widely spoken language in Senegal. We have never really talked to each other, but there was a rapport between us that required no language. He liked to grab my arm to put around his shoulder. He was said to have mental problems; however, all I could see was an innocent young boy with hope in his piercing eyes.
It is too easy to photograph the talibé children as a cliché - photographing them with broken limbs, begging on the street, or with a close-up of an unhappy face. This might not be far from the truth. However, there are also happy faces behind that hardship.
I hope that my photographs have portrayed these children in a more intimate light that is both dignified and honest.
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