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...
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:

Sep 16, 2015

Three Years of Progress with GlobalGiving

Issa reading to talibe children by MDG library
Issa reading to talibe children by MDG library

RIGHT NOW is the perfect time to renew your support for the begging talibé street children!!

Maison de la Gare made its debut on GlobalGiving in April 2012 and, with your support, earned a permanent listing the next month.  Since this beginning, a total of 364 individuals have made donations in support of our programs for the talibé street children.  We are particularly grateful that eight of these people have become  recurring donors, making contributions each month.  However, most donors have contributed a single time.

TODAY, Wednesday September 16th, is the perfect time to renew your support of our work.  Starting at 9:00 a.m. Washington time this morning, GlobalGiving will match all of your donations at 30%, to a maximum of $1,000 or until the allotted funds have been fully committed. 

Your donations are making an incredible difference in children's lives.  The photos below give a flavour of our activities for them.  With your help, over 700 children are participating in our programs each month.  When you meet these children in our center, it is hard to believe the cruel lives that they live.  They live in "daaras", sleeping on the ground or on mats, often without shelter and with no access to running water or toilets.  Some are as young as three or four years old, and many do not see or have contact with their families for years.

But, when they come to Maison de la Gare they can discover what it means to be children and to have excitement and hope for the future.  Our nurses care for their many wounds and illnesses, the results of living in filthy conditions and passing their days in the streets in bare feet and without supervision.  In our center the children learn basic hygiene - how to care for their teeth, their clothing and their bodies.  Each morning finds dozens of them in the centre using the showers and washing their clothes. 

Many participate in basic French and math literacy classes, under the guidance of our dedicated teachers and volunteers.  Some are registered in formal schooling, becoming themselves beacons of hope for the younger children.  For others, Maison de la Gare's apprenticeship programs become the path to a productive life, teaching them tailoring or basic agricultural skills.  All of the children love the beautiful game, soccer, and lose themselves totally in the regular tournaments that we organize.  Excursions outside of Saint Louis give them a chance to see for the first time something of the real Africa.  In the nights, our team scours the streets for talibé children who have run from their cruel situations and, thanks to our new emergency shelter, cares for them as they heal and find a secure living arrangement.

None of this would be possible without your financial support.  Please take advantage of this Bonus Day to renew your commitment to these children.  Thank you.

MDG
MDG's centre, welcoming 700 children each month
Teacher Aida introduces street children to French
Teacher Aida introduces street children to French
A talibe child intensely committed to learning
A talibe child intensely committed to learning
Soccer is a wonderful interlude in the boys
Soccer is a wonderful interlude in the boys' lives
Kalidou - apprenticeship programs promise a future
Kalidou - apprenticeship programs promise a future
Street children discover a book for the first time
Street children discover a book for the first time
Children committed to the center
Children committed to the center's garden oasis
Mamadou and other talibes have become leaders
Mamadou and other talibes have become leaders
Excursions teach about Africa beyond cruel streets
Excursions teach about Africa beyond cruel streets

Links:

Aug 27, 2015

Runaway Talibe Children

Gallo and Malick at MDG center, the next day
Gallo and Malick at MDG center, the next day

Three talibé children who ran from their daaras

Night rounds, and rescue - By day the neighbourhood of Langue de Barbarie, across the bridge from the island of Saint Louis, is bustling with activity.  The streets are filled with merchants, fishermen and their families, livestock, cars and horse-drawn carts and carriages.  But by night, the streets of Langue de Barbarie are quiet and dark.  Only a few lights remain on in the houses densely packed along the roadsides.  It was into this silence at 1:00 a.m. in the morning that I went with Issa Kouyaté, the president of Maison de la Gare, and his close associate Idrissa Diallo of Univers de l'enfant on a night walk in the search for runaway talibé children. 

Issa estimates that, on any given night, there are a hundred runaway talibé children sleeping on the streets of Saint Louis.  The reasons that the boys run away are numerous and complex.  It could be that they had not managed to meet their daily begging quota and were afraid of the repercussions from their marabouts (Quranic teachers), or that they were running from physical abuse in their daara.

On this particular night (and, sadly, on most nights) runaways were not difficult to find.  Early on our night walk, Issa and Idrissa found two boys huddled and sleeping in a small enclosure under a tarpaulin on the side of one of the streets.

The boys, 7 or 8 years old, wouldn’t move.  Issa gently pulled the first boy, Gallo, out of the enclosure.  Gallo was very surprised to be woken up in the night, but said very little.  The second boy, Rasoul, screamed loudly when Issa tried to retrieve him (I learned later that he was afraid of being returned to his daara).  Within seconds the street came alive with about twenty neighbours surrounding the scene, yelling and demanding to know what Issa and Idrissa were up to.  For myself as an observer not speaking much Wolof, it was a very tense scene.  I can only imagine how frightening the whole incident must have been to the two boys.

Issa and Idrissa explained what they were doing, and the crowd eventually dispersed and returned to their homes.  Issa and Idrissa reassured Gallo and Rasoul that they were not going to return them to their daaras and that they would bring them somewhere safe to sleep and eat.  Barefoot and in silent obedience, the boys walked back to Issa’s apartment through the again deserted streets.

Rasoul, Gallo and Malick- Arriving at Issa’s apartment, Rasoul and Gallo each chose a mattress and went immediately to sleep.  There was another young boy there named Malick who was already asleep.  Malick, approximately 6 years old, had been sleeping on the street for a week when someone brought him to Maison de la Gare.  The marabouts are required to contact the Ministry of Justice as soon as a child goes missing.  However, this is rarely done by marabouts who are aware they are mistreating the children and want to avoid investigation.

The next morning Rasoul, Gallo and Malick received new clothes at Maison de la Gare's center and then were brought to the AEMO office (Educational Action in Open Environments) of the Ministry of Justice to be registered and to begin inquiries into their cases.

Rasoul, we learned, came from Fouta in northern Senegal.   His parents were contacted after his daara had been identified and the reason he ran away had been established.  Rasoul's father arrived the next day to take him home.  His father appeared shocked to learn of the treatment that Rasoul had been subjected to in his daara.

Gallo was very quiet and we almost never saw him smile or express any emotion.  He seemed terribly serious and we could only guess what had led him to run from his daara.  Despite multiple attempts, he wouldn’t open up to anyone.

Malick in contrast had a spark in his eyes and frequently smiled with great enthusiasm.  Although he seemed happy, he had fresh wounds on his back from being beaten.  Malick took us to see where his daara was, but stayed hidden in a corner store with Issa while Idrissa went to investigate.  Malick was forthcoming with his story and explained that it was the junior marabout, 16 or 17 years old, who had been beating him. Malick did not want to return to live in his daara.

When Malick’s junior marabout was summoned to the Ministry of Justice for a formal investigation, we were shocked to learn that he was Malick’s biological brother.  This junior marabout was adamant that Malick should return to his daara and that their family not be contacted.

Malick had come to Saint Louis from the Gambia and, when the investigation was completed, his parents were contacted.  As Malick's desire to return home was clear, the Ministry of Justice prepared a decision ordering his return.  In such cases, Idrissa, Issa or a Maison de la Gare staff member will accompany the child to his home or the parents will come to get the child in Saint Louis.

Gallo’s time with Maison de la Gare did not have such a happy ending. Two days after we had found him in Langue de Barbarie, Gallo ran away from Maison de la Gare's center.  Issa and Idrissa went searching for him the following nights, particularly near the bus station where many talibés run to get transport to Dakar.  Gallo has not been found, and we never learned what he was running from.

Hope for the runaways - In Maison de la Gare's centre, it is easy to quickly forget the tough realities faced by the talibé children and to get lost in the moment when enjoying a game or a laugh.  For these boys, the center is a place of hope where they are able to seek refuge, be cared for and know that they are not alone.

However, the challenges of the talibés' lives are enormous, and even more so for runaways.  Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch documented the continuing abuses.  While the work to address the issues of talibé boys begging can seem insurmountable, the efforts and commitment of Maison de la Gare and many other national and international organizations are inspiring.  We invite committed volunteers to join us in this effort.

For a powerful video about Maison de la Gare's work on behalf of the runaway talibés, please click on this link.

Tireless advocates Idrissa and Issa, with Malick
Tireless advocates Idrissa and Issa, with Malick
Malick answers questions at Ministry of Justice
Malick answers questions at Ministry of Justice
Sample return order for a talibe child
Sample return order for a talibe child
Gallo
Gallo
Malick
Malick
Malick playing with Bathe and a volunteer
Malick playing with Bathe and a volunteer

Links:

 
   

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