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...
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:

Sep 8, 2016

Talibe Children Discover Their History

Djibi, shocked learning about slavery
Djibi, shocked learning about slavery

Sonia LeRoy reports on a horse-drawn carriage ride around Saint Louis that became a window on the past

Maison de la Gare is a place where talibé children have the opportunity to learn, as well as to just enjoy being children while being appreciated as the unique individuals they are.  This recently manifested itself in a unique way for the begging street children of Saint Louis.

A group of Canadian high school students, each with a parent (myself one of them) organized a unique excursion for the talibés of Maison de la Gare.  The excursion was at once an outing to relax far from their daily trials of forced begging, while at the same time being an opportunity to bond with the volunteers and to spend time experiencing a tour and seeing local historical sights.  And, these talibés learned about the history and heritage of the city in which they live, in many cases for the first time.

Initially it was planned that sixteen talibé children, their Maison de la Gare teacher Bouri Mbodj and the volunteers would participate.  When our group met at Maison de la Gare's center to gather for the walk to the tour departure point on the island of Saint Louis, the group of interested talibés had become 26.  A few more Maison de la Gare talibés joined the group as we walked and, by the time we prepared to board the horse drawn carriages to begin the tour, our group had swelled to 35.  As the tour progressed, two more stragglers hopped on.  Only four carriages had been ordered for 23 people.  However, all 35 squeezed happily into the carts, with the little ones balancing on the laps of adults and teenagers.  Only the hard working horses were unhappy with the situation.

As we set out on our journey, behaving like tourists, bystanders gaped in astonishment as they realized it was mainly talibés on board, some barefoot and filthy, but with beaming smiles emanating pride and happiness.  Many held our hands, enjoying moments of affection as might a parent and child on a family outing.

At each point of interest, the group disembarked for a history lesson.  The information was repeated in French as well as Wolof by our thoughtful guide, to ensure that the talibés understood.   Most of the talibé children had never crossed the bridge to the ocean-side Langue de Barbarie; a few had never before ventured even onto the island of Saint Louis, remaining forever in their familiar begging grounds of Sor on the mainland, a 500 meter footbridge away.

At one historical stop, meat pastries were being fried and offered for sale at a roadside stand.  The children were delighted to be treated to a pastry each for dinner.

As a description was offered of the riverside colonial warehouse that in past centuries housed the trade goods of ivory, rubber, gold and slaves, one child asked: "What is a slave?"  Sober and astonished silence descended as the guide explained, as gently as possible, the history of the transatlantic slave trade in Senegal.  Most of these kids had never heard of slavery, and could not absorb even the concept of the barbarism that dominated four centuries of their own history.  Watching these children whom the United Nations defines as modern day slaves trying to accept such historical horrors, I was struck by how little had, in fact, changed from those difficult times for these beautiful talibé boys.

For information about opportunities to volunteer with Maison de la Gare or to support the education programs for the talibés, please visit Maison de la Gare's web site at this link

Children and volunteers gather ...
Children and volunteers gather ...
Sonia organizing her carriage, awaiting the driver
Sonia organizing her carriage, awaiting the driver
In the streets of Saint Louis
In the streets of Saint Louis
Happily enroute
Happily enroute
Over the bridge to the Langue de Barbarie
Over the bridge to the Langue de Barbarie
A stop for meat pastries
A stop for meat pastries
Teacher Bouri and the children listen attentively
Teacher Bouri and the children listen attentively

Links:

Aug 18, 2016

It's Official ... Issa is a "Hero"

Secretary John Kerry recognizes Issa as a "hero"
Secretary John Kerry recognizes Issa as a "hero"

Secretary of State John Kerry honors Issa Kouyaté as a Hero of the struggle against child trafficking

Every year the U.S. State Department honors individuals around the world who have devoted their lives to the fight against human trafficking, the highlight of release of its annual report on progress in countries around the world. 

Issa was presented to Secretary Kerry with these words: "In recognition of his selfless dedication to protecting talibés, his commitment to providing them comprehensive care, and his vital role in building support among local officials to prevent human trafficking, Issa Kouyaté ..."

This is Issa's personal report of the experience:

"My journey to the US to receive the TIP Hero award was one the most moving experiences of my professional life.  This award honors all of the work that Maison de la Gare has done over the past five years, especially in child protection.  The report covers the world and gives each country a sense of where it stands in the areas of corruption, human trafficking and respect of international conventions that it has ratified.

The visit brought together nine individuals from different countries who are leaders in the struggle against trafficking.  Each of these counties has its own challenges.  For Senegal, represented by Maison de la Gare, the problem area is street children and children who are suffering abuse or are otherwise in vulnerable situations.

I met first in Dakar with U.S. Ambassador James Zumwalt who congratulated me for the tremendous work that Maison de la Gare does.  The Embassy covered my travel expenses.

In Washington we visited organizations like Polaris, a leader in the global fight to eradicate modern slavery and restore freedom to survivors.  And we learned in our exchanges that there are trafficking victims everywhere, even in the United States.  The meetings were successful, as many of these organizations want to stay in touch with us and our work.   We were also taken on a guided tour around Washington, visiting its monuments and statues; this helped us to understand the past and how it links the present with the future.

It was in meetings with Ambassador Susan Coppedge (Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons) and Secretary of State John Kerry that I really appreciated the impact of what we are doing.  Although we are on the other side of the world, we are key players in this struggle.  I became aware of how important our work is and how much we have accomplished in so short a time.  This has required great sacrifices and these leaders acknowledged this with generosity and  conviction.  I have reached a point personally where there is no room for error, especially in protecting the children.  

This award is very important for the thousands of people struggling to end human trafficking.  The Secretary of State and the ambassador took us into their confidence, emphasizing the importance of our work for the entire world.  We also met with US security chiefs who explained how they work to fight against human trafficking.

Many issues raised during the visit focused on the situation of talibé children in Senegal.  As the Senegalese representative, I had to explain the roles of Maison de la Gare and various government services.  In fact, the very next day the Senegalese government announced a decision about stabilizing the situation of street children, a decision to ban begging of street children throughout the country.

I returned home satisfied and full of hope that the children's situation and their living conditions will change for the better in the near future."

Issa proudly displaying his award
Issa proudly displaying his award
Issa advocates passionately for talibe children
Issa advocates passionately for talibe children
A working meeting with US anti-trafficking unit
A working meeting with US anti-trafficking unit
With Awa Ndour of Senegal anti-trafficking office
With Awa Ndour of Senegal anti-trafficking office
Martin Luther King
Martin Luther King's words touched Issa deeply

Links:

 
   

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