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...
Mar 24, 2016

A Volunteer's Cultural Awakening

Abdou gives Kaylin cards MDG children made for her
Abdou gives Kaylin cards MDG children made for her

Kaylin studies economics at Seattle University, specializing in International Economic Development.  Coming from Anchorage, Alaska, she has always loved to travel and fell in love with Africa after her first trip in Malawi in 2013.  Ever since, she has been looking for a way to return while doing something meaningful.  The opportunity to intern with Maison de la Gare was a no-brainer, a chance to practice French, return to a continent she loves and gain meaningful experience while making a difference.

Kaylin’s work in Saint Louis includes helping to develop the system for monitoring and tracking the boys who come to Maison de la Gare’s centre, in addition to teaching English classes to older talibé children, helping in the infirmary and much more.

In this report, Kaylin reflects on what she has learned working with Maison de la Gare and the talibé children. 

“As my time here draws near to a close, I’ve begun to realize (and to try to come to terms with) that, when working as an outsider in a foreign country, there are some things that simply cannot be done.

Perhaps most glaring has been the simple fact that one cannot expect work to be carried out in the same way as it is at home.  One of the differences I’ve noticed working here is that people put life before their work.  If there’s a baptism, a funeral, they’re too tired, their child got momentarily lost (all things that I’ve heard from various people), these are the things that come first.  Baptisms and funerals are attended, they rest, and they find their child and spend time with them.  As a result, the efficiency and diligence I am used to tend to go out the window.  This relationship between life and work is one I think many people and nations struggle with.  I think many Senegalese are still working out how to work in a country on the verge of development, yet with a subsistence lifestyle not so far behind them.  I’ve learned valuable lessons in patience and persistence, as both are necessary to yield long-term results.

Also interesting and challenging has been my experience as a white, agnostic young woman coming from a country where none of this is out of the ordinary and women’s rights are (relatively) progressive.  Working for an organization like Maison de la Gare, that deals so intimately with some of the deeply religious Muslims in Senegal, it’s impossible for me to understand the nuances and complexities of the Islamic faith, which in turn limits how helpful I truly can be in tasks such as implementing our census of the begging talibé children of Saint-Louis.  While to me it may seem relatively simple, dealing with the marabouts here is sensitive both due to the fact that they want some benefit for them if we expect them to give us verifiable information, and that they may understand that some of what we do at Maison de la Gare may undermine their power as many of them are exploiting the boys we are trying to save from exploitation.

In a country where religion is paramount and some religious leaders benefit from the mistreatment of children, and where women are seen less as agents of change and more as objects to be admired, adored and responsible for a household, it’s been challenging to find where I can truly have an impact beyond the doors of the center.  Part of what I’ve realized is that, even if the best I do is get to know the boys, teach an English class that many talibés desperately want to attend and help where the organization needs help, that is enough.  Though I have been helping with the register and the census, the times where I feel most valuable are in my interactions with the friends I have made here, both young and old.

And, of course, what affects everything I’ve mentioned and more is the challenge of working in a country that speaks my second language, with an unfamiliar accent, and more commonly speaks a language I speak none of at all.  Although this is certainly something for which I take responsibility, as I knew where I was going, and although I expected French to be more commonly spoken, I was aware that Wolof was the unofficial language.  It does pose a challenge when it comes to understanding all of what’s happening around me.  I miss out on conversations and, even during meetings where I am present, they often begin in French and then digress into a French-Wolof hybrid.  Although between my limited Wolof, my French and my questions I always understand the key takeaways of the meetings, I still miss the nuances of why one idea may not work, or why something else is better.  When these involve the marabouts and the obstacles involving them and their faith, it often becomes even more confusing as I struggle to grasp the weight that religion has for many people.

My time here has been a cultural awakening, truly.  Before leaving home, my fellow interns and I were told repetitively to acknowledge that we were going somewhere we were unfamiliar with, into an organization that has been doing their jobs for long enough to likely know better than us, and that we should be open to understanding their perspectives.  While all of this has been true and I have learned a lot, I feel that most of what I have learned has been incredibly humbling, not because it turns out I know very little academically or work-specific but because I know so little about the culture and the importance of religion here.  Not understanding the strongest values of the people limits my ways of understanding how to best work with or around them.

My stay in Senegal has been my own sensitivity training, becoming sensitized to how the beliefs of the people we are with affect how we can and cannot make progress.  I think this is a lesson that I need to continue to learn, as there are still many times when I get frustrated with the rate at which projects are accomplished.  However, I am also learning how to know when my way may be better, and how to demonstrate to others why I do things the way I do them and why they may benefit from this as well.”

"Trust" - Kaylin registering children
"Trust" - Kaylin registering children
Proud of her Maison de la Gare employee badge
Proud of her Maison de la Gare employee badge
Kaylin with talibe children of her English class
Kaylin with talibe children of her English class
Her impressive effort to explain the solar system
Her impressive effort to explain the solar system
Kaylin
Kaylin's very own production of thieboudienne!
Kaylin
Kaylin's host family enjoying her thieboudienne
Cutting talibe children
Cutting talibe children's hair in the infirmary

Links:

Mar 3, 2016

"A Day in the Life" at Maison de la Gare

Early morning, all is quiet at Maison de la Gare
Early morning, all is quiet at Maison de la Gare

There is very little action at Maison de la Gare first thing in the morning. Mame Diarra, the "house mother", prepares breakfast for the little talibé boys living in the emergency shelter, just Kalidou and Gorgui at the moment. Mamadou turns on the water and tends the garden. A neighbor notices the water is running and knocks on the still locked door, asking to fill his jug. He is invited in, as usual. Arouna organizes his books and bag for school.

Kalidou and Gorgui eventually rise and enjoy their breakfast. Then they kick the ball around, amusing themselves. After all, this is no daara where the talibés are sent out with the sunrise to beg for their breakfast as well as quotas of money.

By 10 a.m. Noël is positioned with his computer by the front door. He greets each talibé, recording his name and daara, as the boys begin to stream through the now open gate. Some entrust Noël with their begging bowls, little piles of coins collected during morning begging, and their few small treasures, so they can run off and play hands free.

Before long the library is full of kids asking Bachir, the librarian, to put on a movie. And, a lively soccer match is underway in the sandy open area. One strong kick injures the already battered bougainvillea. Another, the banana tree. Mamadou winces with the next near miss of his bananas . Then he shrugs and joins the game. Before long, the ball is gone over the wall due to an over-enthusiastic kick. Someone small and light is launched up onto the roof of the classrooms. Then, he is over the wall. Back comes the soccer ball and the game resumes. A little later the boy has also made his way back around through the front gate again. Many children take advantage of the bank of showers and toilets. They watch out for each other, passing filthy clothes out to each other to watch over as they bathe.

Children present themselves throughout the morning at the infirmary, arriving in ones and twos. Awa, the nurse, tends their wounds, eases their toothaches, examines and dresses their infections and generally spreads much needed tender loving care.

At about 11 a.m. karate begins. The karate kids wait by the door to the room where the karate uniforms are sorted. Even the smallest children put on their own gi and tie their own belts. Children who a few minutes earlier were rolling in the sand, running around in rags of clothes or begging barefoot in the streets are now lined up in disciplined rows, proudly dressed in clean, white uniforms attentive and eager to learn, understanding that they are part of something special. Instruction lasts a little over an hour. The class is divided into beginner and advanced levels. Many more talibés sit alongside, watching curiously. Perhaps they, too, are considering becoming Maison de la Gare karate kids.

As the sun rises higher in the African sky, more and more kids make their way over to the library or the garden. There they play, talk, or just lounge around, enjoying doing nothing in the shade.

After a few hours the kids head back out onto the street and the doors of Maison de la Gare close. The boys have begging quotas to fill. And, in many cases they will be expected back at their daara for a little bit of Koranic instruction.

Later in the afternoon the gates of Maison de la Gare open once again. Kalidou and Gorgui have been fed and have enjoyed an afternoon nap. Mamadou probably has as well. Arouna returns from school. He has a break for a few hours, time to help out around Maison de la Gare. Arouna, a begging talibé himself until just last year, is an inspiration to so many of the kids. Some of the children who visited in the morning come back, trickling in as their begging quotas have been filled and submitted. But, there is also a different crowd. Classes are taught in the afternoon, and the children who want to learn are gathering, waiting for the teachers to arrive. Games resume. The infirmary is back in action. More children head to the showers or wash their clothes. All the while, kids are keeping an eye out for the arrival of the teachers.

When Bouri, Aida and Abdou unlock the doors to their classrooms, children begin to head over. Some of the older ones who are studying with Bouri are hoping to learn enough to begin in the public school system sometime soon. These boys are eager and diligent. Some of the littlest ones need some encouragement to set aside the ball and head to class. However, many also see this opportunity for what it is, and they stream right on in.

A short time before classes end a few kids, the "dojo talibes" leave early to train at the Sor-Karate dojo. After classes, as the night descends, a meal is handed out to each child. Then after a bit more socializing, out they go ... "Ba souba", "à demain" ... into the darkness and back to their daaras. Maison de la Gare is quiet once more.

Maison de la Gare
Maison de la Gare's garden
Noel welcomes children, and guards their treasures
Noel welcomes children, and guards their treasures
Soccer, anytime anywhere
Soccer, anytime anywhere
The infirmary, with nurse Awa at work
The infirmary, with nurse Awa at work
Relaxing in the garden, begging bowl by his side
Relaxing in the garden, begging bowl by his side
Bouri with her students
Bouri with her students
Talibes doing their laundry, and karate gi drying
Talibes doing their laundry, and karate gi drying

Links:

Feb 11, 2016

Karate Delivers at Maison de la Gare

Morning karate class in Maison de la Gare
Morning karate class in Maison de la Gare's center

Early in 2015 Robbie, a young karate black belt volunteering with Maison de la Gare with his family, established a karate program for the talibé children of Maison de la Gare. He thought that the discipline, structure, self-confidence, sense of belonging to something special and respect among practitioners that is integral to the sport could greatly influence the talibés in a positive way. And, self defense skills could be a real advantage for vulnerable children forced to beg on the streets of Saint Louis. Robbie's family brought many dozens of gi from his dojo in Canada and he began teaching karate to the talibés. Local senseis in Saint Louis were engaged to continue the program, and many of the Maison de la Gare talibés fell in love with this sport.

Karate is now taught at the Maison de la Gare centre several mornings a week by senseis of the local dojo, Sor-Karaté Saint-Louis (please click to see video captured by Issa Kouyate the day before Christmas). An average of about 30 talibé karate students attend each class, which is divided into beginner and advanced sessions. All students proudly wear their white gi and belts during class. Many more talibés sit on the side-lines, curious and perhaps imagining themselves in a clean, white gi as well. They too will be welcomed into class when they demonstrate interest.

Most of the dozen talibés who were registered at the Sor-Karaté dojo in March 2015 have progressed impressively and will soon be testing for their orange belts. Issmaila, a "grand talibé" who assists with instructing the Maison de la Gare morning karate classes, has recently earned his green belt. These "dojo talibés" train at the dojo most nights each week. For some, karate has become a consuming passion.

One little boy, Yaya, is particularly devoted, attending Maison de la Gare's karate classes nearly every day. He takes karate very seriously and learns quickly. Yaya always wears a purple dinosaur gi, and refuses to relinquish it despite the fact that it is clearly too small for him. Yaya was recently promoted to the more advanced class. Issa Kouyaté, president of Maison de la Gare, will speak to Yaya's marabout about permitting him to be registered at the dojo with the older boys. Several of the other more dedicated children in the advanced class have been identified for registration in the dojo.

Thirteen year old Samba was initially registered at the dojo, but dropped out after a few months. Apparently his heels were injured and he could not practice. But, he is better now, and Samba has been re-registered at the dojo. Samba is proud of his new gi and keen to begin again and catch up to the other dojo talibés. Several of the Maison de la Gare "dojo talibés" kids have begun sparring and are ready for competition. However, equipment is lacking. At the dojo, one pair of kumite gloves was shared among all. When on a follow up visit Robbie joined the "dojo talibés" in training and offered his gloves for use, the kids took advantage of having two full sets of gloves and a series of sparring matches ensued.

The talibé karate kids have seen some of Robbie's karate Bo staff competitions on YouTube, and they also want to learn this skill. Robbie and Mamadou found that broomsticks from the market serve fairly well as Bo staves, although they are a foot or two too short. Robbie's initial Bo lesson with Issmaila (please click to play video) is a reminder of how eager and capable these kids are of learning quickly when they are motivated.

The morning following Issmaila's introduction to the Bo, after karate classes, five children asked Robbie to teach them Bo as well. It later was noted that several broom heads were lying discarded, stripped of their broom handles which are now being used as Bo's. It is also likely there is also a shovel head now missing its handle. Mamadou discovered an alternative to broomsticks, and the talibé karate kids were soon at work sanding and perfecting their new Bos. Issmaila is such a committed karate student, and such a fast learner, that he is now able (and very willing) to continue teaching the karate Bo lessons.

Karate is delivering astonishing benefits to many of the Maison de la Gare talibé children. And, for a few, a true and abiding passion has been sparked. Who knows where it may take them.

Yaya (in purple) practicing katas with his class
Yaya (in purple) practicing katas with his class
Talibes training at Sor-Karate Saint-Louis dojo
Talibes training at Sor-Karate Saint-Louis dojo
Yaya, a devoted talibe student
Yaya, a devoted talibe student
Mamadou and Samba sanding their new Bo staves
Mamadou and Samba sanding their new Bo staves
Issmaila, the student, becomes the teacher
Issmaila, the student, becomes the teacher

Links:

 

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