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 23, 2015

Meeting the Talibes in the Daaras Where They Live

The marabout says "Thank you" in a Pikine daara
The marabout says "Thank you" in a Pikine daara

"Davis Projects for Peace" volunteers throw light on this hidden world, while making it a bit better

Four students at the University of Rochester in New York conceived and led a remarkable mobilization of Senegalese university students during the summer of 2015, in support of Maison de la Gare's work for the begging talibé street children … A New Beginning for the Talibé Children.

With its long experience in this struggle, Maison de la Gare was able to help Rose Mbaye, Eyram Adedze, Ben Ouattara and Mame Coumba to understand the situation that had led to establishment of its welcome center in Saint Louis.  And, to help them to take action towards eradicating the so-called education system maintained by false Quranic teachers, and to appreciate the challenges that must be overcome.

In its 2010 report "Off the Backs of the Children", Human Rights Watch described the lives of the talibé children in their daaras in this way:

“Morning to night, the landscape of Senegal’s cities is dotted with the sight of the boys - the vast majority under 12 years old and many as young as four - shuffling in small groups through the streets; weaving in and out of traffic; and waiting outside shopping centers, marketplaces, banks, and restaurants.  Dressed in filthy, torn, and oversized shirts, and often barefoot, they hold out a small plastic bowl or empty can hoping for alms. On the street they are exposed to disease, the risk of injury or death from car accidents, and physical and sometimes sexual abuse by adults.

Daily life for these children is one of extreme deprivation.  Despite bringing money and rice to the daara, the children are forced to beg for their meals on the street.  Some steal or dig through trash in order to find something to eat.  The majority suffer from constant hunger and mild to severe malnutrition.  When a child falls ill, which happens often with long hours on the street and poor sanitary conditions in the daara, the teacher seldom offers healthcare assistance.  The children are forced to spend even longer begging to purchase medicines to treat the stomach parasites, malaria, and skin diseases that run rampant through the daaras.  Most of the urban daaras are situated in abandoned, partially constructed structures or makeshift thatched compounds.  The children routinely sleep 30 to a small room, crammed so tight that, particularly during the hot season, they choose to brave the elements outside.  During Senegal’s four-month winter, the talibés suffer the cold with little or no cover, and, in some cases, even a mat to sleep on.”

The Senegalese university students were able to see with their own eyes the children’s living conditions in Saint Louis daaras, and to appreciate the difference between a good and a bad daara.  They visited seven of the daaras where the children live In the course of the project, donating sleeping mats, soap, shoes, clothing and first aid supplies.  They also undertook a major clean-up of these daaras, sweeping and removing refuse, and they donated brooms and waste bins and installed mosquito nets, all to allow the children to live in slightly better conditions.  In daara Serigne Abdoulaye Bâ in Pikine the volunteers washed the young talibé children’s clothing, providing an example for others to follow.

These visits also gave the students the opportunity to express directly to the Quranic teachers, the marabouts of the daaras, their lack of support for the philosophy responsible for the children’s situation.  From these discussions, the idea emerged of carrying out some renovations in order to make a real difference for the children.  Many of the daaras have no means of providing health care and no provision for basic hygiene.  As an example, in daara Serigne Alioune Sow in the Darou area, the volunteers installed showers and built a new toilet facility.

By the end of this project, a network of new friends had developed among the university student volunteers.  Together they had come to understand that the condition of the children living in these daaras is a Senegalese problem that must be resolved by the Senegalese themselves.  The project transformed the volunteers’ perceptions of the situation of these very vulnerable children.  And it gave the children themselves new hope that there are Senegalese men and women who are aware of their situation and are committed to giving them the chance to have a better life.

Toilet for 50 boys in daara Serigne Yoro Ba
Toilet for 50 boys in daara Serigne Yoro Ba
With children after installing mats, mosquito nets
With children after installing mats, mosquito nets
Cleaning daara Serigne Ousmane Barry in Cite Niakh
Cleaning daara Serigne Ousmane Barry in Cite Niakh
Installing mosquito nets in daara in Darou
Installing mosquito nets in daara in Darou
Cleaning in daara Serigne Abdoulaye Ba in Pikine
Cleaning in daara Serigne Abdoulaye Ba in Pikine
Volunteers washing laundry for talibe children
Volunteers washing laundry for talibe children
Issa and volunteers dig septic sump for new toilet
Issa and volunteers dig septic sump for new toilet
Happy volunteers, justly proud of their efforts
Happy volunteers, justly proud of their efforts

Links:

Oct 29, 2015

"A New Beginning for the Talibe Children"

Issa with (l to r) Ben, Rose, Eyram, Mame Coumba
Issa with (l to r) Ben, Rose, Eyram, Mame Coumba

Fostering Understanding and Stopping Abuse - Davis Projects for Peace fellows make a difference

Four African students at the University of Rochester, New York were selected in early 2015 to receive the Davis Prize for Peace. Rose Mbaye had witnessed first-hand in her hometown of Dakar the extreme physical abuse and social marginalization of the begging talibé street children. She shared her determination to do something about this problem with her teammates at Rochester U., Mame Coumba Mbodji from Senegal, Zanga Ben Ouattara from Burkina Faso and Eyram Adedze from Ghana and, together, they received this prestigious award.

 Rose reports that the group contacted several Senegalese organizations working with the talibé street children, seeking both to understand the issues better and to identify a partner whom they could work with to effect change in a short-term project. They selected Issa Kouyaté and Maison de la Gare. From Issa's point of view, "We had discussions about the feasibility of this project over three long months. I shared the experience and ideas that have made Maison de la Gare what it is, working in close collaboration with our partners and with the world around us. And I expressed my conviction that, to succeed in this work, Maison de la Gare must work hand in hand with civil society and all of the organizations that work for the protection of children."

The main goals of the project were to promote awareness of the exploitation, abuse and stigmatization of the talibé children, and to collaborate with different local stakeholders to improve the conditions of material, educational and psychological deprivation in which these children live. The aim was not only to promote empathy but also to engage the children themselves, parents, spiritual leaders, youth service organizations, educators, public officials and ordinary citizens to take action for the betterment both of the children them and of society at large.

The project lasted from July 31 to August 26, 2015, and the team was assisted by 45 Senegalese volunteers, mostly university students, who had been recruited a few weeks earlier.

The activities planned during the four weeks included visits and clean-up of seven of the daaras where the boys live, renovation of three of those daaras, providing 18 vocational training workshops in gardening, pottery and artistic recycling, organizing eight collections of clothes, shoes, soaps, etc. in different locations around Saint Louis, and organizing awareness campaigns in three different communities. The volunteers also led French, English and basic computing classes as well as other educational and sports activities in Maison de la Gare's center. Volunteers were organized into four groups, and each of these worked in turn on each of the activities. This provided all of the volunteers with the opportunity to have an all-round experience of the project, and this contributed to maintaining their interest and commitment so that over 90% of them stayed for the full four weeks.

The activities were all a great success, and their completion was even more satisfying. Rose, Ben, Mame Coumba and Eyram received positive feedback about the project from marabouts, parents, the local media and other organizers. Over 500 talibé children were touched by the programs at Maison de la Gare's center and in their daaras. And the awareness campaign sensitized over 300 other stakeholders to the phenomenon of forced child begging, child abuse and the associated stigmatization.

On their return to university, Eyram, Rose, Mame Coumba and Ben summarized what they had learned:

"Through the conversations that we have had with different classes of Senegalese people on the issue of the talibés, it has become clear that it is human nature to refuse to take responsibility for social injustice. Fingers are always pointed at the government as the agent to rectify this issue. These conversations pushed us to think about our complicity in this system; we can't help but wonder how much responsibility we have refused to take on different issues in our lives and the lives of people around us.

This project reminded us that it is essential to take charge of the challenges we face in our lives. It takes a dedicated mind and heart to tackle a problem as complex as the exploitation and abuse of child beggars in Senegal. However, we believe that an idea, no matter how small, can make a significant impact if properly empowered. We must never underestimate the power of collaboration for a noble collective purpose, as the satisfaction one gets from addressing social injustice is worth more than a thousand words."

As for Issa, he summarized the project this way: "This project gelled quickly around all of the people involved ... Maison de la Gare, university students, talibé children, Quranic teachers and the authorities. Thus was born 'A New Beginning for the Talibé Children.'"

Project logo
Project logo
Planning the opening ceremony with Issa
Planning the opening ceremony with Issa
Opening ceremony in Maison de la Gare
Opening ceremony in Maison de la Gare's center
What it
What it's all about
Senegalese volunteers, ready to go
Senegalese volunteers, ready to go
An event in the population awareness campaign
An event in the population awareness campaign
Issa and Rose present award at closing ceremony
Issa and Rose present award at closing ceremony
Where it all began - winners of Davis fellowship
Where it all began - winners of Davis fellowship

Links:

Oct 8, 2015

"Challenging at Times, but Extremely Rewarding"

Liem with talibe friends in MDG center
Liem with talibe friends in MDG center

Liem reflects on his two months with Maison de la Gare

Senegal can be a bit of an overwhelming place at times.  My morning walk from my homestay to Maison de la Gare’s center was an experience in itself.  The cacophony of sounds that fills the air is unlike any place I’ve ever been: the high-pitched honks of taxis trying to attract customers, the loud voices of chatting Senegalese women as they tend to their mango stands next to the road, enthusiastic vendors holding out souvenirs for sale and greeting you with an over-the-top, “Hello, my friend!!”, and little children yelling, “Bonjour, Toubab!” as they pass you on the sidewalk, pointing and giggling at your sun-burnt, sweat-covered skin.  "Car rapides" whiz by, so filled with passengers that young men hang off of the back, holding on for dear life.  It’s always a trip riding them - the buses have been aptly nicknamed “s’en fout la mort” – French for “don’t care about death”.

And, of course, wherever you are in the city of Saint Louis you will hear the call to prayers and sermons broadcasted in Arabic from the loudspeaker of the nearest mosque.  At this point, we’ve already heard four different languages on our walk – Wolof, French, Arabic, and English.  This is what makes Senegal so unique; the influences of French colonization, strong Islamic traditions and a tribal history have combined to create a complex and rich culture unlike any other.  For me, throwing myself into this completely new and complicated environment was extremely fascinating but also difficult at first.  Difficult because I really did not understand the culture when I arrived, and this meant I committed a lot of embarrassing and awkward faux pas, leaving me feeling a little bit out of place.

Maison de la Gare, however, was a place that I always felt at home – as it is for many talibés as well.  Part of it was the appearance of the center.  One can’t help but feel calm and relaxed sitting in the center’s quiet garden with its banana trees and grape vines, looking out at the colorful murals that cover the surrounding walls.  But, in addition to the garden, it was the people of Maison de la Gare who made me feel welcome and comfortable there from day one, regardless of the cultural mistakes I made.

The first morning, and every morning after, I was greeted by smiles and handshakes from everyone at the center.  I was accepted.  Then, it was the work I did that began to give me confidence and a real sense of purpose.  One of Maison de la Gare’s staff members, Noël Coly, immediately showed me how to take attendance electronically as the talibé children arrived at the center each morning.  With over 100 boys showing up daily, this was a great way to meet them and learn their names.

Other days I spent my mornings working individually with older talibé children who wanted to improve their English, French, or math skills.  These sessions were really helpful because, for every word I taught in English or French, the boys would teach me the word in Wolof.  Besides being helpful for my Wolof ability though, working with the boys was a very inspiring experience.  As I learned more about their stories, I was continually blown away by the motivation and character they possess despite their harsh circumstances.  One student named Abou would walk for two hours to get to the center every day, waking up at 4:00 am to fulfill his responsibilities at his daara before leaving.  There were many other stories like this one.  They humbled me and motivated me to work even harder, while reminding me why I had come there.

In the evenings I would return to the center for the nightly language classes.  I began working with Omar, a Peace Corps volunteer who led English classes for the older talibés (15 to 20 years old).  Our classes began at 6:30 p.m. and, because it was Ramadan, went until Ndogou at 7:30 p.m. – the time to break the fast.  The boys, despite not eating or drinking anything for 13 hours, were always positive, driven and focused during class, always wanting to learn more and asking questions.

When I arrived, I was nervous about teaching.  I had never taught a language before, and I had no credentials or certification.  When I started, my limited Wolof speaking ability made it sometimes hard to explain words or phrases.  But I was lucky to have Kalidou in my class, a talibé who spoke some English.  Kalidou was a translator, a teacher and a student, all at the same time – acting as a middleman between the boys and me whenever we had trouble understanding each other.  Over time, I learned some Wolof too.  The boys found it very amusing and entertaining when I would attempt to explain things using the Wolof words I knew.  Although embarrassing, using my Wolof brought me closer to the boys and erased a wall that could have developed between us.

Outside of the classes and work, I spent a lot of time at the center just having fun and talking to people.  Playing ping pong with Bathe and Abdou.  Finding a pizza place with Diodio and Issa.  Talking about school with Arouna.  Playing soccer video games at the local arcade with Kalidou and Samba.  Having these strong friendships gave me people to share my experiences with, making it slightly more bearable to deal with some of the sad and challenging aspects of working with the talibés.

I came to Senegal expecting to discover a new culture, gain experience teaching, improve my French and support a cause that was bigger than me.  Looking back on it, I gained so much more.  It sounds cliché, but being in Senegal changed me in a way.  Before coming to West Africa I, like many Americans, had little understanding of how the non-Western world works and struggles.  Being exposed to a different way of life and the realities of living in a developing country made me reflect and reconsider many aspects of my life at home.

There were cultural differences that I just couldn’t figure out when I first arrived, but over time they really became endearing.  Now that I’m back in the US, I kind of miss being able to eat rice with my hands and greeting people Senegalese-style every morning.

But more than anything, I miss people and relationships.  With Facebook I chat regularly with the boys and staff members to stay in touch, but it does make me sad to think that I may never see some of them again.

When I came back to the US, people often asked me, “Was it a good experience?”. It’s kind of a complicated question, and at first I had trouble determining what “good” really meant to me.  I’ve had some time to reflect on everything though, to put into words how I feel.  Now, I always respond, “It was challenging and difficult at times, but it was extremely rewarding”.

On the beach with Arouna and Abdou
On the beach with Arouna and Abdou
With Samba, who often helped register arrivals
With Samba, who often helped register arrivals
Liem corrects Issa
Liem corrects Issa's short story, Kalidou watches
With Assana, who always asked for more work!
With Assana, who always asked for more work!
Liem with host brothers Maniang (left) and Babacar
Liem with host brothers Maniang (left) and Babacar
Some of the hardest workers, who became friends
Some of the hardest workers, who became friends
With Abou, who walked 2 hours each day to class
With Abou, who walked 2 hours each day to class

Links:

 
   

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