May 10, 2021

A Time to Shine

Karate began for Maison de la Gare six years ago. The very first classes were offered to talibé children who did not know the sport, or the language in which it was taught, or the thirteen year old Canadian boy teaching them. But, it looked fun, and it did not require shoes (which most did not have), and they got to wear clean white uniforms, and be the centre of attention. Dozens of talibés decided to give it a try.

Today karate is respected and adored at Maison de la Gare, a crown jewel among the programs offered for forced begging street children, modern day slaves known as talibés. Hundreds of children have donned uniforms, tried classes, become devoted students of martial arts, been registered in a local dojo where they are undifferentiated from regular, non-enslaved children. Many dozens have tested for and achieved higher belts, trained for and competed in local tournaments. For many talibé karateka karate has become a burning passion. For a few, they say karate has become to them life itself.  Several of Maison de la Gare’s karateka have been invited to compete at regional, and even National tournaments! For all of them, life is better than it was before they discovered karate.

The karateka now understand the language of karate, taking their instructions in the Japanese universally understood in the karate world. Children, abused and exploited from a young age, have learned confidence, perseverance, and the discipline and humility that comes from strength, pride and self respect, rather than from fear and intimidation.

Maison de la Gare regularly hosts competitions, made possible by generous international donors, and run by the local Sor Karate dojo and the World Karate Federation. Many tournaments have been hosted over the past years. Tournaments are a chance for the karateka to truly shine. They prepare for weeks leading up to the big day, at the centre during morning karate classes and also at the dojo during evening classes. A few days before the competition Sensei gives a motivational speech to the competitors, giving them advice on how to focus and comport themselves during the event, as well as to congratulate them on their perseverance, dedication and accomplishments to date. The evening prior to the competition, mats are delivered by horse and cart, and set up by the older prospective competitors, usually in the dark after the other talibés have left the Maison de la Gare Center and returned to their daaras for the night. The first few times the mats were assembled on tournament day, all the pieces did not easily come together as planned. Since those early days, the karateka have learned to begin to assemble the mats from the center rather than from multiple outer edges at a time, and they have learned to plan ahead and complete the assembly the night before.

The morning of the tournament, the karate students began to arrive, nervous but excited. Determination, anxiety and anticipation all take their turns crossing across the faces of those about to compete. As first a trickle, then dozens, then hundreds of talibés begin to tumble in to the Center, they realize something special is about to happen. The competitors don their gi’s, take some time aside for a final review of a planned kata, or practice some final sparring drills. The Federation referees arrive, wearing suits and looking very official. The prize table is assembled. Prizes! Tournament sweaters and trophies donated by the Canadian black belt who started it all; t-shirts and medals donated by the Canadian dojos that sponsor the event; Extra prizes if extra donors can be found; and the Douvris Cup: A great trophy for the Grand Champion! Each tournament ends with a new name engraved on the side. This is Maison de la Gare’s Stanley Cup of karate.

Before long Sensei is standing by, and the competitors are lined up and ready to go. Maison de la Gare is packed with talibés, staff and visitors anxious for the competition to begin.

The first division is always kihon, for the younger group of students who train at the centre in the mornings. Over twenty competitors perform as requested. Or, what they thought was requested (the instructions are in Japanese after all). After each pair performs, a winner is chosen. Then the winners compete again. And again, until only the gold, silver, bronze and runner up remain. The process is repeated for kata. First time and veteran competitors alike seem surprised and delighted by the audience's wild applause. Then medals are awarded, and prizes for the winners. But it seemed that all of them felt like winners. There was glory enough to go around for each of them.

At 1:00pm the tournament is suspended so the invitees and referees can break for lunch. Some of the competitors are called back to their daaras, some go out to the streets to beg for lunch, and some remain to hang out at Maison de la Gare or train for the afternoon divisions. The tournament is scheduled to resume at 4:00pm.  

At 4:30pm the group begins to assemble again. By 4:45 the older dojo talibés are dressed, lined up, and ready to compete. Occasionally the President of the WKF Senegalese Karate Federation will attend, a great honour! He sits at the head table beside Sensei Ignety Ba. The referees turn to salut him. Then they bow to the karateka. The boys nervously but proudly bow back to them. The afternoon battle for the Douvris Cup begins.

The afternoon begins with kata. Some are white belts, some have passed for yellow, but not yet been granted their belts (that happens later, after the competition), several orange belts, a few greens, and the occasional blue belt.  For the tournament however, they are all equal, wearing blue or red. When a competitor performs a particularly spectacular kata the crowd burst into loud, sustained shouting and applause, astonished at his skill. The joy and pride experienced by the competitor is indescribable.

Finally, kumite. As the boys are paired off and don their protective gear, the anticipation in the air is palpable. What is it about competitive fighting that excites people this way? The referee starts the first pair. As they began to spar, the crowd grows louder. At first laughing as punches miss or are blocked, then clapping and cheering as hits are made and points called. As the fights progress, with the winners move on to fight the winners, and the skill levels displayed increases. The noise from the crowd grows ever louder with each successive pair, attracting even more spectators. Finally, the fight for gold. Glory, once more!

The medals are awarded, and the Douvris Cup winner gets revealed. All the competitors who place make sure their medals are visible to the judges, thinking to influence the decision. Then,,,"Et le Grand Champion de la Coupe Douvris est...!" The crown goes wild for the Champion in admiration. Glory, indeed!

Then, a ceremony to award the new belts earned the previous week. The President of the Federation awards the first yellow belt, a wonderful honour, and an important recognition and vote of confidence in the Maison de la Gare talibé karate initiative. The new belts are tied on each successful grader, in turn. 

As the African sun sets on the end of a glorious tournament day, the glory will not soon be forgotten, for the talibés, competitors and guests alike. As for the medalists, it was truly a time to shine!

A morning class at Maison de la Gare
A morning class at Maison de la Gare
A class at Sor-Karate dojo
A class at Sor-Karate dojo
Figuring out the mats assembly
Figuring out the mats assembly
Tournament Day!
Tournament Day!
founder Robbie Hughes helps to prepare
founder Robbie Hughes helps to prepare
Respect
Respect

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Apr 28, 2021

A Mother, A Daughter at Maison de la Gare

Katia and Mila with children in the classroom
Katia and Mila with children in the classroom

(This report was scheduled for publication in March 2020, just before the Covid-19 pandemic changed everything. We are sharing it with you now as vaccinations are spreading and travel is beginning to appear possible again. Volunteers play a vital role in our support for the begging talibé street children, and we hope others will be inspired to follow Mila and Katia’s example.)

Mila Giraudon and Katia Figura share their experience volunteering together

My mother and I have been fortunate to travel around the world and to discover many cultures, at times seeing extreme poverty. We have wanted for a long time to get involved in a humanitarian project together, although we didn’t know what this could be or how we would do it. We therefore left home with the simple purpose of helping, of making ourselves useful within this organization.

Maison de la Gare gave us an experience far beyond our expectations, much more than a simple "project". We were able to get a feeling for the life of the talibés in all its facets … their everyday lives on the streets, their rudimentary needs (washing their clothes and themselves) and learning the rules of life in society, but also their physical and emotional wounds and their precarious living conditions in their daaras.

What a wonderful feeling to see them smile and to make them forget, if only for a moment, their lives on the streets, through creative play activities, songs and lessons in French or mathematics.

My mother (a mother of two) and I (a 17-year-old high school student) lived this experience differently ... but we shared it fully, together.

We were very moved by these children who only ask to escape their difficult lives through their desire to learn, to discover, to create and to show their pride in their beautiful drawings and other creations.

On the last day of our stay Abdou, a child to whom I had taught notions of poetry, wrote me a very powerful poem. He announced to me that he had just been accepted in a high school in Saint Louis, the lifelong dream of this self-taught child. It was a moment of emotion and pride. I felt like I had contributed a little to a "better life" for a talibé child. Teaching children basic literacy and reintegrating them in society is one of the priority missions of volunteers and members of Maison de la Gare.

I will remember the day of my birthday as both unforgettable and overwhelming because, for the talibés, it is a day like any other. These young children stood in front of me, singing and dancing, but none of them understood the meaning of the word "birthday"; most do not even know their date of birth!

Carrying out a humanitarian project like this brought my mother and me a lot closer and enabled us to support each other during certain trying times. On the last day, we agreed to accompany Maison de la Gare’s night-rounds team. That night we needed each other to overcome the images of children sleeping on the ground in the unhealthy and dangerous bus terminal. Abandoned, often mistreated, they preferred to flee their daara or their family, and they found shelter for the night at Maison de la Gare. The next morning, everything is set in motion to find the children’s families and to understand what could have pushed them to put themselves in such danger.

During these few days shared with the talibés, we became aware of the fundamental role of NGOs like Maison de la Gare that work night and day for the well-being of these neglected children. Beyond what we were able to do ourselves, it is Maison de la Gare’s values and its people that will always remain etched in our memories.

Our host Mama Touty was truly a welcoming "mother"; heart in hand, she welcomed us as her children.

We were the first mother-daughter duo to live this unforgettable experience and we warmly thank Maison de la Gare and everyone who is a part of it.

Mila treats the foot wound of an older talibe
Mila treats the foot wound of an older talibe
Mila with her art class
Mila with her art class
Mila tutors Buaro, our karate leader
Mila tutors Buaro, our karate leader
Katia helps a talibe student
Katia helps a talibe student
Katia and Mila, very moved by a visit to a daara
Katia and Mila, very moved by a visit to a daara
Mila leading games in the courtyard of MDG center
Mila leading games in the courtyard of MDG center
A moment of celebration with MDG staff members
A moment of celebration with MDG staff members

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Mar 31, 2021

Slavery - A Modern Scourge

Talibé children are subjected to a brutal contemporary form of slavery

Except for 2019, Maison de la Gare has received financial support every year since 2013 from the United Nations Fund for the Struggle Against Contemporary Forms of Slavery. This fund requires detailed case studies of child “slaves”, and we have prepared 85 of these for them over the years.

We share with you here a sampling of these case studies, prepared by four of our extraordinary staff members. The boys’ names and locations of origin have been changed for their protection, and we are not including any photographs of them.

Ibrahima (6 years old)

Our nurse Awa Diallo reports that Ibrahima had been sent from his village to his daara in Saint Louis when he had just turned 4 years old. In his daara, his marabout did not provide clothing, food or any of the necessities of life, but instead forced him to beg every day for his food and a quota of money. Ibrahima suffered terribly from the conditions, from the absence of any contact with his family and indeed of any supportive or nurturing relationship in his life. His suffering was even worse when he became ill and he was not given any medical care.

Issa Kouyaté discovered Ibrahima in late 2019 during a visit to his daara, and he saw that the child was extremely sick. Issa brought him to the infirmary at Maison de la Gare’s center and entrusted him to Awa.   Seeing Ibrahima’s condition, Awa gave him a malaria test, and the result was positive. She took him to the hospital and stayed at his side throughout the day, while Issa contacted the boy’s marabout, who refused to come to the hospital. When Ibrahima was released from the hospital, Awa took him back to his daara with a mosquito net and the medications that had been prescribed, and she instructed the boy and his marabout in their use.

Ibrahima has now recovered, and he is participating regularly in Maison de la Gare’s sports and other programs. Awa follows up regularly in his daara, ensuring that the mosquito net is used properly, and that Ibrahima is taking his medications. Ibrahima’s marabout has become quite cooperative, and he has requested mosquito nets for the other boys in his daara. He now immediately sends boys who are sick to the infirmary.

Modou (12 years old) 

Lala Sène, a former member of Senegal’s women’s soccer team who is now our sports facilitator, reports that Modou was sent to his daara in Saint Louis from his home in the south of Senegal when he was just five years old. His daara is large, with over 100 talibés living in extremely unsanitary conditions. The children suffer regularly from infections and malaria is endemic. Modou, at the age of 12, is required to beg every day to pay his marabout an extremely high quota of 800 francs ($1.50 or 1.20 euros). He receives no food in his daara and must beg for this as well.

Modou has been coming regularly to Maison de la Gare’s center for over five years. He has become comfortable there, an oasis from his difficult life on the streets. Over the years, he has participated in French literacy classes, watched films and read books in the library, eaten the nourishing baguettes offered in the evenings and regularly showered and washed his clothes. However, Modou’s passion is soccer, and Lala has taken him under her wing, helping him to develop his skills and in general supporting him as he faces the unjust challenges of his life. He is an awesome goalie!

Conditions for the talibé children in Modou’s daara are appalling, and Issa Kouyaté has been working with his marabout to try to improve this. Maison de la Gare has installed toilets and a source of potable water, and Issa is making some progress with the marabout, helping him to appreciate the rights of the children and to improve their treatment. One consequence is that our teachers are now beginning to offer literacy classes for all of the children of this daara, on-site in the daara.

As for Modou, he will continue to participate with Lala in soccer matches, and to take advantage of the other programs in our center. When he is older, we will encourage him to join one of our apprenticeship programs, to learn a skill which will make it possible for him to support himself.

Omar (10 years old)

Amadou Bâ, one of our dedicated street educators, grew up himself as a begging talibé under the most difficult conditions. He reports here on this 10-year-old boy from a village in central Senegal who was sent by his parents to a Saint Louis daara because there was no school that he could attend in his home region.

Like the other children in his daara, Omar was forced to beg every day for his food and for a quota of money for his marabout. There are no hygiene facilities and no drinkable water in this daara, and little shelter. Omar was regularly beaten severely by his marabout when he was not able to produce the full amount of his quota.

Omar lived in his daara for three years before deciding that he could not take it anymore and that he would find a way to return home. He ran away and spent several days alone on the streets before Maison de la Gare’s night rounds team found him in the bus station. After Omar had had a chance to recuperate in our emergency shelter, Amadou gained his confidence and Omar explained to him why he had run away. He wanted to go to school and not be mistreated or forced to beg any more. Amadou spoke with Omar’s family and learned that there was no possibility of him being educated in his home village. So he discussed the situation with Omar’s marabout, who agreed that Omar could be registered in school and not be forced to beg. The marabout even assisted, with Omar’s parents, in obtaining a birth certificate for him, a prerequisite for being registered in school.

Since returning to his daara, Omar has been coming regularly to Maison de la Gare to wash, eat and learn in the literacy classes while he is waiting to start school. We will continue to support him for many years.

____________

Working with so many brutalized children is a very demanding task. We must acknowledge the exceptional skill and dedication of Amadou, Awa, Issa, Lala and of all the members of Maison de la Gare’s team, every minute of every day. The children have great difficulty establishing relationships of trust and will only confide in a person of their choice, who could be the cook or the president. Every staff member understands this, and that their first job is to welcome and listen to these innocent victims.

Nurse Awa Diallo
Nurse Awa Diallo
Issa Kouyate inspecting a Saint Louis daara
Issa Kouyate inspecting a Saint Louis daara
Awa in the pharmacy of our infirmary
Awa in the pharmacy of our infirmary
Lala Sene, sports program coordinator
Lala Sene, sports program coordinator
Lala organizing a soccer team in our center
Lala organizing a soccer team in our center
Street educator Amadou Ba
Street educator Amadou Ba

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