Maison de la Gare

Maison de la Gare's mission is to achieve integration of the begging talibe street children into formal schooling and productive participation in Senegalese society. Tens of thousands of talibe children beg on the streets of Senegal for 6 to 10 hours each day for their food and for money to give the "teacher" or Marabout who controls them. They live in unconscionable conditions in "daaras", without access to running water, rudimentary hygiene or nurture, often without shelter and subject to severe abuse. Human Rights Watch published a widely distributed description of this situation in 2010, "Off the Backs of the Children". Maison de la Gare is acting wi...
Nov 10, 2016

Souleymane

Souleymane celebrates love of karate with Robbie
Souleymane celebrates love of karate with Robbie

A Child at Heart Becomes a Leader of Children

Souleymane first arrived at Maison de la Gare in 2010 when he was about 14 years old.  After receiving help from Maison de la Gare when he was sick, he became a familiar figure at the center.  It soon became apparent that Souleymane, sent from his home in The Gambia to a marabout and forced to beg for a quota of money at an early age, had been cheated of his childhood.  At Maison de la Gare he made up for lost time.  As a teenager, he learned to play.  And, he discovered education.  Now, as an older talibé with responsibilities at the center, and freed from his marabout, Souleymane is helping other talibés find their way to better lives.

Souleymane had initially heard about Maison de la Gare's center by word of mouth from other talibé children. He would appear from time to time for food and respite from his daily begging.  He became curious about the classes.  Then, in 2011, Souleymane began to have trouble in his daara.  He became sick and his marabout failed to provide any care.  Maison de la Gare took responsibility for his healthcare and Souleymane was hospitalized until he was well again.  He was required to submit 600 francs of begging proceeds (about one US dollar) every day to his marabout.  Even when he was in hospital, his daily quota accumulated.  Maison de la Gare intervened to assist Souleymane through these troubles.

Once Souleymane's health was restored, he began to attend literacy classes at Maison de la Gare on a regular basis.  It was his hope to be able to go to regular school some day.

Even as a teenager, Souleymane had the heart of a child.  At a series of celebrations organized for talibé children at the center, Souleymane spent hours coloring and drawing alongside children half his age.  He would spend as much time as possible participating in every game, always with the younger kids.  He loved the sack races (please click this link to see a video), and learning to skip rope.  The opportunity to play the djembe drums also captured his imagination.  Souleymane loves a good joke and he is always quick to tease.  Wherever there is fun, to this day Souleymane is sure to be on the scene.

When then 13 year old Robbie Hughes, a karate black belt, arrived from Canada in 2015 with his family to help begin a karate program at Maison de la Gare, Souleymane was interested right away.  Robbie and Souleymane became close friends.  Robbie taught him to love karate, and Souleymane taught Robbie to play marbles and to make a perfect pot of ataya tea.

Souleymane continued to study karate at the center and at the dojo Sor-Karaté.  As he progressed, his discipline and sense of responsibility increased.  There was a time when Souleymane may have been as likely to be napping behind a market stall as to be at class on time.  But now, the discipline of karate and his pride in responsibility seem to have had a transformative effect.  Souleymane leads the warm up for the karate class at the center twice a week, and trains at the dojo most nights.  He helps orient the newly registered "dojo talibés" in  the karate program, ensuring they are on time. And, he helps the kids just starting karate to find a gi (the karate kimono) that fits.  He now also competes in kata and combat for his dojo.  Souleymane has found passion and leadership in karate.

As Souleymane transitions out of the talibé life he continues to work with Maison de la Gare, not only leading karate classes, but supporting the hygiene and health care project.  Most days he leads the talibé children in brushing their teeth.  Among other projects, Souleymane also leads a group of four other talibés in cultivating a garden plot of okra at Maison de la Gare's property in Bango.

Meanwhile, Souleymane still yearns for an education, attending Maison de la Gare classes faithfully.  And, if fun is afoot, Souleymane will not be far away.

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It is you, our faithful contributors, who make stories like Souleymane's possible.  We are grateful for your interest and support.

 

A child at heart - Souleymane skipping
A child at heart - Souleymane skipping
In class, Souleymane in the foreground
In class, Souleymane in the foreground
Coloring, a first chance to be a child
Coloring, a first chance to be a child
Now a yellow belt, leading the karate class at MDG
Now a yellow belt, leading the karate class at MDG
Registering new karate students at Sor-Karate
Registering new karate students at Sor-Karate
Proud of his okra crop at MDG
Proud of his okra crop at MDG's Bango property

Links:

Oct 20, 2016

A Family Affair

Sonia, Robin, Rowan & Robbie, ready to get to work
Sonia, Robin, Rowan & Robbie, ready to get to work

Sonia LeRoy shares the story of her family’s journey with Maison de la Gare

As soon as I arrived at the narrow, unmarked alley in the Sor district of Saint Louis, leading to Maison de la Gare’s welcome centre, I heard my name being called and spotted six familiar faces.  Small, barefoot, filthy, delightful, smiling street boys.  The clamor and dusty chaos of the busy street receded as each child rushed forward for a proper hand clasp greeting.  Several repeated my name, wanting to ensure I knew that they know me.  Their welcoming smiles grew bigger when I began to pass out candy and the group of six instantly, miraculously, became a demanding horde of twenty.  When will I learn?  Some of the original six shook their heads at me knowingly.  They accompanied me down the alley, leading me by the hand, touching my arm, sneaking more shy smiles, and repeating their own names, anxious to confirm that I also knew them.

Upon entering the sanctuary of Maison de la Gare, all I saw were smiles and all we felt was welcome.  "Sonia!", "de retour!", "combien de temps cette fois?", "et la famille?", "et Robbie cette fois?", "Rowan?"  It takes hours to greet everyone properly, re-confirm their understanding of their importance to me and mine to them.  To be updated on recent illnesses, abuses and triumphs.

The progress at the centre is encouraging.  The coconut trees have finally taken hold, no longer in danger of succumbing to stray soccer balls or wrestling children.  The papayas have survived the season of wind and sandstorms to stand tall and bear fruit.  The nurse in the infirmary will help organize the medications we brought to stock the clinic. The children attend class, play games, tend the garden, wash clothes, read in the library, follow their interests and friends on Facebook at the computer centre, and karate classes continue.

Souleymane, whom I love as family, proudly announces earning his orange karate belt and his commencement of sparring competition.  Arouna, another I love as my own, updates me on the progress of his hard earned education.  He is finally attending high school but, although freed from forced begging, still has to deal with the domination and interference of his marabout.  Arouna dreams about university, of teaching and writing, anxious to himself become an agent of change.  I dream about finding him a scholarship to help make it happen.

The very first time I made this journey with my father in 2010, I had no idea what to expect.  I had always longed to step outside my comfort zone to give back to those without any resources to help themselves.  Thanks to my father's invitation to join him on his third trip to Senegal, I was getting the chance to do just that.  We were flying toward a level of poverty and human rights abuse beyond my experience or comprehension.  How could I, a person who leads people to take control of their money in support of life objectives, have anything to offer to those without a penny in the world or objectives other than survival?

I quickly fell in love with these children, their beauty, resilience and humour, all in the face of unimaginably intolerable circumstances.  They are known as talibés.  There are tens of thousands of them in Senegal, all boys.  They are supposed to be studying the Quran, but instead are forced to beg for quotas of money for their marabouts.  Often severely abused and neglected by distant families, talibés beg for up to ten hours a day.  Human Rights Watch and the United Nations refer to the talibés as modern day slaves.  The government and society in general turn a blind eye.  Someone else is always to blame: the government, parents, the marabouts, police who fail to enforce the law.  No one but Maison de la Gare seems willing to take responsibility for these innocents.

The first time I encountered a talibé child the age of my own son and nephews, I had an overwhelming sense that, but for the grace of God or an accident of birth, these could be my own children.  And, if I could help them, I knew that I must.  What makes me, or any of us in the West, any more deserving of prosperity, health, security, opportunity and hope than these children who have perpetrated nothing to earn their circumstances but be born in this time and place.

Since that first visit I have returned a dozen times to continue to work with Maison de la Gare, often with my father, to help build the center according to founder Issa Kouyate's vision and to do what I can to help the Senegalese staff help the children to maintain hope and find a way to a better life.  Over the years at Maison de la Gare, I have taught the children English, French and karate.  I have been a project manager and a tour guide.  I have tended wounds and de-wormed kids in the daaras and in the health clinic.  I have been a gardener, a painter, a labourer, a mentor and a mother and a friend.  My family's charitable foundation and my Dad's grant writing patience facilitates the funding of much of the progress here, funded with the help of many sympathetic contributors.  All of the investment companies I work with have contributed.  My Dad manages the books and maintains the website that helps fuel more donations and a thriving international volunteer program.  We both write regular articles to keep the donations flowing.  And, all the while, these children have truly become a second family to us.

Four years ago my then 14 year old daughter, Rowan, accompanied me to Senegal for the first of five times (so far).  She connected with the talibés in a manner that only a young person could do.  Rowan saw the talibé children as equals, with the same unlimited potential that she knows herself to have.  She saw them in a way they likely had never seen themselves, never considering potential limitations of kids who could barely read or write or had never seen a computer.  Rowan helped establish email accounts for the talibé children.  She knew that a connection with the outside world and with herself back in Canada, the possibility of maintaining long term links with international volunteers, regular exposure to different world views, and the acquisition of skills valued by modern society could benefit the talibés immeasurably.  These are surely now the most on-line-savvy begging street kids in Africa!

A year and a half ago, my husband Robin and my son Robbie joined Rowan and I on their first visit to volunteer with Maison de la Gare.  Then 13-year-old Robbie, like Rowan before him, envisioned possibilities for the talibés that most adults could not have conceived of. Appreciating the advantages his sport of karate has to offer the talibés, discipline, confidence, self-defence skills, and the sense of belonging to something special, Robbie convinced us to facilitate a karate program for the talibés of Maison de la Gare.  Today, the pride the boys take in their white gi (karate kimonos) and belts, donated from Canadian dojos, is evident.  During Robbie's second visit with me last December, we were invited to watch some Maison de la Gare talibés earn higher belts.  Their confidence was palpable, and their pride in achievement was irrepressible.  Robbie with his black belt, who is of an age with many of them, is an example and helps to spread the belief that anything is, indeed, possible.  Even for talibés.

Perhaps the most impact we have on the children of Maison de la Gare lies simply in our example, and our interest.  Maison de la Gare tries to teach them they are worthy of so much more.  The simple presence of international volunteers underscores this truth.  And, the presence of children competently volunteering demonstrates to the talibés how powerful kids can be.

My family and I ventured to Africa in search of giving.  And, I know we did.  I know it for the progress I see: the smiles on the faces, the amputations averted thanks to antibiotics, the enrolments in school, the philosophical conversations started about society's role in forced begging, the pride in achievement, the white karate belts transforming to coloured belts, the late night emails received and Facebook chats I am invited to every time I am on-line.  But what we receive is far greater.  Interacting with these kids not only inspires me that absolutely anything is possible, it gives me a sense of being completely present and alive.  It has transformed my and my children's paradigms.  No one does this work in order to receive.  But, it is inevitable, as anyone who gives knows.

Volunteering with Maison de la Gare as a family has brought unimaginable gifts to us.  Doing this work together as a family has brought us closer together and has helped us better appreciate our own advantages and opportunities while expanding our perspectives on just about everything.

International volunteering can be successful and rewarding for anyone.  Students, retirees, couples, youth groups, individuals and now families have left their mark on Maison de la Gare.  And Maison de la Gare, its dedicated staff and founder Issa and the talibés of Saint Louis have, in turn, left their mark on every volunteer who has stepped through their doors.

Sonia arriving at Maison de la Gare
Sonia arriving at Maison de la Gare's center
Sonia reading with talibe children in the library
Sonia reading with talibe children in the library
Sonia with her dad in a Saint Louis daara
Sonia with her dad in a Saint Louis daara
Rowan setting up e-mail account with a talibe
Rowan setting up e-mail account with a talibe
Robbie
Robbie's first of many karate classes at MDG
Robin working with Mamadou in MDG
Robin working with Mamadou in MDG's garden
Rowan and friends buy plants for emergency shelter
Rowan and friends buy plants for emergency shelter

Links:

Sep 29, 2016

I Would Do It Again ... in a Heartbeat

Sam with Kalidou, in Maison de la Gare
Sam with Kalidou, in Maison de la Gare's center

Sam reflects on his eleven weeks as a volunteer with Maison de la Gare

Like many American volunteers, I arrived in Senegal an idealist.  I had studied French colonization of West Africa and had volunteered with immigrant education in my community.  I wanted to expand on this experience, to widen my understanding of the Senegalese society that had been previously confined to the writings of Senghor and Diouf.  I wanted to practice and improve my French.  Above all I hoped to make a positive difference.

I believe I achieved all these goals; I’m proud of the work I did.  I’m thankful for the daily lessons in French and Wolof.  I’m incredibly impressed by the staff at Maison de la Gare, who work tirelessly to improve the lives of the talibé children.  What is harder for me to convey is how, over the course of eleven weeks, Saint Louis, Senegal, became my home. 

My daily routine consisted of waking up, eating a small breakfast with my host family and walking to work.  Now that the summer is at its end, it seems like every event, routine, and interaction augmented my understanding of Senegal.  My walk to work was no exception.  Adults and children ran up to shake the foreigner’s hand, learn his name, and wave.  Soon the whole neighborhood knew my name, and instead of yelling “Toubab!” (the Wolof word for a white person), they would yell, “Samba!” with a grin and a thumbs up (one of my greatest joys of the whole summer was clawing my way to conversational competency in Wolof).

At work I would be greeted by all the staff, who went out of their way to make me feel welcome.  Because the first month of my stay corresponded almost exactly with Ramadan, I usually stayed the whole day at the center and broke my fast with the older talibés and staff in the evening.  We fed the small talibé children first—those who would go hungry without the bread—but when it came time for us to eat, everyone would offer me the best piece and the first cup of ataya (tea).  Though I did my best to be polite and considerate—telling them to eat, that I could wait—my co-workers were insistent.  As one friend explained it to me, “They’re not doing it (being hospitable) because you’re white, but because you’re a visitor in Senegal, our home.  We want to show you the best of our home.”

During Ramadan and the month after, my day generally started by working in the office with Noël.  We would use an Excel spreadsheet to record the attendance at the center and, with over 3,000 names in the database, the logistics became fairly arduous and complex.  It was during these mornings that I became accustomed to the flow of spoken Wolof and learned all the essentials for basic conversation.

In the afternoon and evening I would spend time with Abdou, leading group games or songs for the younger talibés.  Nearly all of the games served some sort of purpose.  We sang in Pular, Wolof, French and English about brushing teeth and showering.  Through games like tug of war, the talibés began to understand the value of rules and organization.  It was during the games more than anywhere else that I could see the effects of street rule on the children.  In an effort to see each talibé as a human being with a unique story, sometimes it was easy to forget that they grow up without parents or mentors, and that they are uneducated in the most basic social principles.  It saddened me, but it also angered me.  It felt like we were fighting a losing battle, and I felt awkward in the role of a disciplinarian.

One of the hardest parts of my existence in Senegal was that I could never forget my role as a white person, and sometimes that reality made my job difficult.  Because I could never step out of my skin, I made myself be careful around the kids.  I wanted them to see me as a Senegalese adult, parent or big brother and never a colonist. 

Most evenings, I would teach a language course in English for some of the older (15 to 22-year-old) talibé students.  Though I had experience tutoring, I had never taught English as a foreign language before, much less held the attention of an entire class.  It was challenging, and I know I made many mistakes.  On several occasions, I tried to push my students, only to find out that they retained none of the lesson.  Other times we made moderate progress with grammar, writing and critical reading.  By the end of the summer, my students became some of my best friends.  I reveled in each small success—a well pronounced word or correct sentence—and sympathized with any blunder.  I made many mistakes, to be sure, but I also gained a huge amount of hands-on experience. And all in all, I learned so much.

Some of the coolest experiences in Senegal happened away from the center.  From attending weddings to wandering the vacant, moonlit streets of Saint Louis, I was lucky to see Senegal from a hundred different perspectives, and to speak with a variety of people about their country, their society.  Even after two months, I feel like I only got a fleeting glance at the culture.  I saw enough of Senegal, however, to realize how rich and complex it truly is.

When asked about my summer in Senegal by friends and family, I always start with the challenges.  I like to build my story as it happened, to describe my experience without a sugarcoating.  I hesitate to start with challenges, however, because, over these past two and a half months, I’ve realized the beauty and incalculable value of Senegalese culture to the world.

When I arrived in Senegal, I was overwhelmed.  A part of me wants to forget my initial fears and inadequacies.  I want to remember Senegal as the home it became, not the stress of being alone in a foreign land.  Those moments are perhaps the most significant, however.  They throw into sharp relief the amazing stories, the small day-to-day triumphs and the friendships which have come to define my summer.  When faced with the choice between romanticizing my experience and recounting my fears, I won’t lie: it was hard.

And if I had the choice to do the whole experience over again I would do it…in a heartbeat.

 

With friends on his last day at the centre
With friends on his last day at the centre
Ceremonial breaking of the fast during Ramadan
Ceremonial breaking of the fast during Ramadan
A typical evening language class
A typical evening language class
Sam
Sam's host mother serving a lamb stew
Sam with talibe leaders and US ambassador Zumwalt
Sam with talibe leaders and US ambassador Zumwalt
Sam and Iman in traditional Senegalese dress
Sam and Iman in traditional Senegalese dress
With host family members Maniang and Babacar
With host family members Maniang and Babacar

Links:

 
   

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