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...
Apr 14, 2016

Angels of Saint Louis

Idrissa Diallo & Issa Kouyate, angels of St-Louis
Idrissa Diallo & Issa Kouyate, angels of St-Louis

Karen and Sonia describe their experience joining a "Ronde de nuit"

In late March, a group of six Canadian volunteers participated in a ronde de nuit (night round) led by Maison de la Gare's partner Idrissa Diallo of Univers de l'enfant.  The group consisted of three parents and their teenage daughters.

Sonia recounts: "I didn't participate in my first ronde de nuit until a few years ago.  In fact, I had been completely unaware of this other side of Issa Kouyaté's life, although I did know that talibés sometimes run from their daaras and marabouts.  The boys can risk severe beatings when they fail to deliver their begging quotas.  Sometimes they prefer to run rather than return to an abusive marabout and suffer the consequences of an unfilled quota.  Sometimes, the conditions at the daaras are so bad that children run when they cannot bear it any more.

As hard as Issa works by day, for years he has gone out on the streets late at night on weekends or whenever he hears word of the location of a runaway, to search for and rescue runaway talibés.  No one pays Issa to do this work.  When he found children on the streets at night in the past, he took them back to his own apartment and settled them in for the night.  . He could have 4 to 10 children staying in his living room at any one time.  He cared for them, fed them, and spent as much time as he could with the often severely traumatized boys." (Please click on this link to see a brief documentary describing this aspect of Issa's work.)

"Since the emergency shelter was built in Maison de la Gare's center in 2014, the runaways have been staying there for a few days or weeks under the care of "house mother" Mame Diarra, a petite long-term volunteer from France.  Every now and then a child who has suffered severe abuse and has no home to go to settles in for a longer stay.  Recently, a grant from the European Union has enabled a Maison de la Gare team led by Idrissa to be dedicated to finding runaways, taking them into care and, where appropriate, repatriating them to their homes.  Issa's own home is once again his own, most of the time."

Karen continues: "The second to last evening before we left Saint Louis, we met Idrissa, Bathe and Abdoulaye at 11 p.m. at Place Faidherbe in the center of town, armed with flashlights.  The streets of Saint Louis are a different place at night.  Quiet, not as inviting.  It was a brisk night; the temperature hovered in the high teens but the soft blowing wind made the air temperature feel much cooler.  We all wore jackets.  I can't imagine what the cooler temperature would be like for boys forced to sleep outside.

As a group we headed over the bridge toward the Guet Ndar fishing village on the Langue de Barbarie, a world unto its own with a highly concentrated population.  Fishing boats litter the shoreline.  Dilapidated vendor stalls, make-shift shacks and garbage strewn everywhere give the impression of poverty, but a closer look beyond the squalor reveals a prosperous community with multiple television sets, expensive fishing boats and huge families.  Needless to say, there are lots of nooks and crannies where runaway talibés can find refuge.  We shone the beams of our flashlights into boats, street corners and parked cars in search of boys sleeping. 

Idrissa stopped at a food stall to ask a woman if she had seen or heard reports of any runaway talibés.  She had not, so we continued our search, walking the streets.  There was a surprising amount of activity on the street at that hour.  We continued our walk along the shoreline and then snaked our way back into a more residential area.

Less than 50 meters from the food stall, we discovered three boys nestled behind a knee-high wall.  The boys were sleeping on piles of rags, huddled together.  They were quite startled, but the Maison de la Gare staff members spoke quietly with them, asking what daara they were from and why they were sleeping on the street.  After a few minutes of questioning with few answers, the staff told them about the emergency shelter at the center and explained that they would be taken there.  Suddenly one of the boys broke and ran, too quick to be caught.  Idrissa summoned a taxi and Bathe seated the two boys in the back seat with Abdoulaye on one side and one of us on the other side.  The boys names were Mamadou and Seydou.

We arrived at the center a bit after midnight.  Mame Diarra appeared completely at ease in this situation.  She communicated fluently with the boys in Wolof, and then left the room to fetch sweatshirts for them.  Then she sat down to ask the boys questions and to fill out the intake forms for each of them.  The boys seemed quite reticent, although I think they were somewhat comforted by the fact that Mame Diarra is a woman; most talibés haven't had any motherly attention in years.  We left the boys with her to resume our ronde de nuit."

Sonia reflects on the experience: "While on the run, the children are vulnerable.  I have come to understand more of why Issa and Idrissa are so driven to do this work in their own 'free' time.  The children flee for fear of the life in the daaras.  But, what waits for them on the street could be even worse.  Sexual assault is common against talibé boys on the streets, late at night as society sleeps.  No one will be asking about them or care much for their wellbeing.  Easy marks!  I knew this terrible fact; I had seen the results of such trauma with my own eyes.  On my first ronde de nuit we had found a boy, six-year old Gora, who had been sexually assaulted on the streets the previous night.  My daughter and I are haunted by thoughts of him still.  But this night, Idrissa warned me of a greater risk.  He told me that he and many others believe that children have been disappearing more often than in the past.  He thinks because there are more talibés, and thus more runaways, the opportunity for abduction is increasing (it is estimated there are over 10,000 begging talibé children in Saint Louis).  The children themselves would certainly be fearful of these dangers, which underscores just how bad their circumstances must be for them to prefer the risks of the streets to those of the daara.

Idrissa says that, on the nights when he is not on a ronde de nuit, he cannot sleep as he imagines the dangers lying in wait for the children he will not pick up that night.  Issa feels the same way. This is the reason Issa and Idrissa value sleep so little."

Issa and Idrissa are truly the "angels of Saint Louis."

Issa found this talibe child in this condition
Issa found this talibe child in this condition
Mame Diarra completes register for new runaways
Mame Diarra completes register for new runaways
Two talibe children in MDG
Two talibe children in MDG's emergency shelter
Making friendship bracelets with Mamadou & Seydou
Making friendship bracelets with Mamadou & Seydou
Stop talibe begging. I demand an immediate end ...
Stop talibe begging. I demand an immediate end ...

Links:

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:

 
   

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