Sep 7, 2021

An Oasis in the Pandemic

In March of 2020 Covid-19 hit Maison de la Gare like a freight train. International volunteers evacuated the country. Planned volunteer visits and the revenue they bring were cancelled. Travel between regions was prohibited, trapping vulnerable talibés children in the cities in their darras. And, the cities locked down, instantly eliminating the source of food for tens of thousands of forced begging street children.

 

Early in the Pandemic, Covid-19 was not the primary danger in Saint Louis.  With travel and all activity stopped in its tracks, cases were few. But, the economic devastation was swift and deep. Many Senegalese lost their work and income. Many could no longer house or sufficiently feed their families. For the vulnerable talibés, already victims of abuse, neglect and modern slavery, things became so much worse. Within days of the first lock downs, the streets of Saint Louis were empty of all but hungry talibés, desperately sorting through garbage heaps for anything at all to eat. With the help of generous donors, Maison de la Gare was able to continue to pay its staff, but the Center had to close. The only refuge for thousands of talibés was lost to them. 

 

Maison de la Gare soon was able to pivot and respond to the new dangers to talibés. Neighbourhood cooks were rallied, international donors responded, and first hundreds, and then thousands of meals each day were cooked and delivered by Maison de la Gare staff and older talibés to the daaras where the boys lived. Starvation for many talibés was avoided after all. Apprentices in the Maison de la Gare couture program sewed massive quantities of masks. Maison de la Gare teams delivered cleaning supplies and masks to the talibés in their darras and taught them to protect themselves from the Covid virus.

 

As time passed, Covid did make its way more dangerously into Senegal.  After months of experiencing  few cases, economic activity began to  resume in Saint Louis. people returned to their daily business, even if at a diminished rate. Talibés went back to begging, the Center was able to open again. But, as vaccinations became widely available in the Global North, travel began to resume. And with it, Covid began to spread and take hold.

 

Now in Senegal, hospitals are full. So many people are sick, and everyone seems to know someone who has died of Covid. But, unlike in the North, the hope offered by vaccines is not available to most in Senegal. The supply of vaccines only trickles in, and Covid continues to spread.

 

But now, knowing how to better manage the risks of Covid, life at Maison de la Gare continues. Masked, and distanced, but it continues. Food and water and cleaning supply costs are higher than ever at Maison de la Gare. But, talibé children are able to tumble through the gates each day in twos and threes, or alone. They wash their clothes and themselves.  They enjoy a meal they do not need to beg for. They visit the infirmary, sometimes to have serious conditions treated, sometimes just for some much needed tender loving care from the health care workers. The put on clean, white uniforms and practice karate. They play soccer. They attend classes and learn French and math. They play, relax, and just get to be children for a few minutes or hours. 

 

Some of the Maison de la Gare team have managed to get vaccinated. Others are registered to get their jabs, waiting their turn. But, it could be a long wait. People are scared. Nevertheless, Maison de la Gare staff are doing all they can for the vulnerable talibés, most of who are too young to be vaccinated, even if the supply were available. We have often described Maison de la Gare as an oasis for the talibés. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the oasis provided by Maison de la Gare has proven to be more important than ever, offering more than hope…helping to sustain life itself.

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Aug 25, 2021

It Takes a Village and, at MDG, They Have One

Joey shares his impressions from his Senegalese volunteer experience

Before my time in Senegal, I understood the idea that it takes a village to raise a child as an old proverb to encourage community and communal support. Now, I have seen firsthand a more profound meaning of this saying.

Nestled on the coast in the old capital city of Saint Louis, just off the main street across from the soccer stadium, you will find the organization Maison de la Gare. But “organization” does not do it justice. When I think of an organization, I think of front desks, nametags, big donors, and board meetings. This is not the case at Maison de la Gare. Maison de la Gare is truly a group of people, a tribe, a tribe that takes the safety, security, and success of each talibé boy personally.

When I arrived in Senegal, I had read a bit of the history of the former French colony, but I did not understand the impact of the system that still governs the country. Maison de la Gare is made up of people who stand for equity and for a fighting chance for the young and neglected talibés. But they are not just fighting a situation, they are fighting a government and a culture. The system of daaras, marabouts, and the talibés is antiquated, but it is engrained in the country systemically, legally, and culturally. This uphill battle can only be fought by people who truly believe in a better, brighter future.

The battle for a better future is fought on two fronts at Maison de la Gare. Firstly, in investing in the boys. Boys are found living on the streets by Amadou, made to feel at home by Noël, taught to play sports with Lala, taught literacy by Abdou, taught to sew by Kalidou and Baka, taught to raise poultry by Samba and Cheikh Ablaye, and taught to give back by Issa, and this is just a small part of the Maison de la Gare family. This is investment in the boys, in their future, in their lives. When the boys grow a bit older, Ndaraw can help them develop a business plan, and they can receive a loan to start a business and become self-sustaining earners.

But this is not enough, as the far away families of distant towns perpetuate the system of daaras by sending their boys away to abusive marabouts. Maison de la Gare attacks the problem on this front too, advocating and hosting meetings with various UN agencies, spreading the word to families about the corrupt system, and working with marabouts to teach them how to properly take care of the boys.

I equate Maison de la Gare to a village, not because one person teaches sports and another sewing, but because it is made up of leaders and adults who are exemplary in their demeanor, actions, and values. You will never have a conversation with Adama without her cracking up as she walks away, and Diodio will tell you herself that her favorite sport is smiling. And of course Issa, who has dedicated his life to the betterment of thousands of boys. He is the man who seems to never sleep, always has something to do, the local hero, the well-builder, the UN correspondent, whatever you want to call him … and still most days he has time to get some soccer in with the boys and, yes, he is a good player. So, despite the inordinate number of issues that seem to bring impending doom on this little village, somehow, I left feeling hopeful.

I left feeling hopeful because the talibé boys are in good hands; they live amongst people who, with every bone and cell in their bodies, genuinely care. I arrived to volunteer at an organization but found myself immersed in a village of noble souls, and that taught me more about being a good person than any organization could.

 

To the people of the village of Maison de la Gare, what you are doing is working, garnering international support, and improving the state of the world. Thank you, and I hope to come back soon.

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Jul 28, 2021

The Contrasts of Habit

Emmanuelle struggles to understand the situation of the begging talibé street children

This is Emmanuelle's second report, written while she was a volunteer with Maison de la Gare in May 2021. In it, she tries to develop some understanding of how it is possible that thousands of children beg on the streets while others in society, who see them every day, seem unaware of their plight and of the injustice that they live.

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"I want to talk to you about contrast. Always this striking contrast, but this time more precisely about the talibés.

The contrast that struck me throughout my stay in Saint Louis concerns habits. Already, as the days are passing very differently from my daily life in Paris, some new habits are taking root little by little.

Taking my cold shower in the morning, a habit that I will appreciate from now on. The pipes warm the water up a bit, thanks to the sun. It’s not too cold here, at least not for me, although it’s not unusual to see some children shivering in the morning in the streets, either students on their way to school or the young talibés with empty stomachs who arrive in the city center to beg.

There too, my gaze gets used to it little by little. And theirs to mine too. Some of them come to Maison de la Gare’s center and, when I pass them in the street, they call to me and say hello with a wide smile and without asking me for anything.

I used to like to say that HABIT IS DESTINY, and I am not the only one. All the personal development books remind us of the importance of routines, routines that structure you, organize you and cause you to repeat a sequence of actions that will eventually become automatic. Then, motivation will take a back seat and will no longer be as essential to completing your tasks.

However, if habits can be beneficial, they also have the power to make people accept the unacceptable. And I am realizing this here, a wake-up call like a big slap in the face.

Hundreds of children who have no access to basic hygiene, who don't eat properly, who are dressed in torn and oversized clothes, who beg on the streets all day, this is the daily landscape of downtown Saint Louis and everyone has accepted it, again by habit.

People speak to me of tenacious beliefs, of ignorance, of ultimate solutions for feeding the children, of a scourge that cannot be stopped any more as there are so many new daaras being set up. I believe that these people do not realize the tragedy of their words.

Of course, there are the shopkeepers and sometimes some passers-by who will give a coin, or a small bag of rice. Here again is a habit that avoids questioning by helping with the most urgent, the most vital needs.

Among the social actors, those who work with the children, I have also seen some who, because they are used to being confronted with misery, pay less attention now to what is in front of their eyes every day. They sometimes forget the importance of their task, and the extent to which they have in their hands the power to change the future of these children who have been left all alone to face the very worst.

And finally, the worst of all, the most unbearable and difficult to see and describe, is the habit of misery for these children.

They have only known this, they are only in contact with this. They receive no education, no care, no attention... but they remain children who laugh, who dance sometimes and who are together with others, often from the same daara.

I believe that the first mission of a volunteer here, and by far the most important, is this …

Whoever he or she is, no matter his or her origin, education or skills, to remind us through their tearful eyes, through their constant astonishment, their dejected looks, their silences or their questions, that everything that happens here in Saint Louis is not normal, that it is not right, that it is not tolerable, and that we cannot stay and watch this scourge out of habit, but rather stand up and act!

There is nothing that can justify a child begging in the street without shoes, it’s that simple. Just imagine the dangers of all types that surround these vulnerable little human beings!

Finally, some photos, maybe not the best, but some images that touched me more than others, and then this contrast of course, between the beautiful tourist Saint Louis and the daily life of these young talibés."

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