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 2, 2015

A Remarkable Christmas and New Year's

Steven with marabout and children in daara
Steven with marabout and children in daara

An American volunteer’s unusual winter “vacation” with Maison de la Gare - This past winter break, I embarked on a journey from Colorado Springs, Colorado to Saint Louis, Senegal in order to serve the talibé children and work with Maison de la Gare. What an experience! The trip began with my flight to Dakar followed by a four hour car ride to northern Senegal and Saint Louis. My first experience in Dakar was right outside the airport as I failed to stay inside wait for my ride. Instead, I walked outside only to be convinced by a friendly Senegalese man that he could help me find my ride. I took his help, not realizing that afterword he would insist that I pay him for his “kind services.” Lost $20 within 30 minutes of being in the country, but it was a lesson well-learned.

The drive to Saint Louis was amazing – from the agricultural lands surrounding Dakar and Thiès and into the brush, semi-arid landscape of northern Senegal. I arrived at my host family’s home around noon, and lived with them throughout my stay. With four daughters and a son, the Diouf family provided an amazing experience learning about Senegalese culture and about the daily life of a Senegalese family. My first meal was incredible – four eggs, onions, fries, and a baguette. The mother of the house, Madame Diouf, treated me amazingly! She always made sure that I knew when meals would be served, and insisted that I stay in contact with her … not to mention the wonderful meals that we ate together on a rug on the floor in a comfortable circle around one big plate in a very friendly, communal manner that was much different from my meal times in the United States.

The first few days I was there I hung out with the youngest children the most, Mohamed, Sokhna and Adja Ngossé. We would play soccer on the roof of their house, take walks around their neighborhood together, and go to buy treats at the local boutiques. Then, a few days into my time there, “les vacances” began for all the kids and I met their older two daughters Ndeye Yandé and Mama. It was great speaking French with them as they explained to me how daily prayers work in the Muslim city, how their schools operate, and what they like to do in their free time. This was a very important and meaningful part of my trip to Saint Louis – living with the Dioufs and experiencing on a daily basis their amazing hospitality and care for me. Senegal is known as the land “Téranga”, of hospitality, and it certainly showed in the time I spent with the Dioufs.

A typical day, including Christmas, began with me waking up around 9 a.m., working at Maison de la Gare’s center from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., hanging out at home from 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., and then working at the center again. After work, I spent the evenings either touring Saint Louis, hanging out at the Diouf’s house, or socializing with Issa, Bathe and Abdoul at their place until midnight. Issa, Bathe and Abdoul were the primary workers at the center while I was there, and they treated me with nearly as much hospitality as the Dioufs did.

On my first day at the center I met the staff, and then helped the nurse Binta change the bandage on the badly burned foot of a young talibé boy. Nearly half of his foot, I found out from Issa later, had been burned off by other young talibés. He had been sleeping on the streets when the other children lit his foot on fire as a prank to wake him up. I realized during my time in Saint Louis that this kind of event is common in the lives of these young talibés. They come from rural parts of Senegal or are trafficked from other countries – I met kids from Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and Mali – and are forced to work and beg for their marabouts who provide them little means of survival and extort money from them.

Although the children are often physically abused by the marabouts, I was shocked at the toll the poor living conditions and the absence of a family had on the kids. Another young boy I met, whom Issa had taken in, had been found on the beach terrible stricken by scabies to the point of not being able to use his hands. Bathe told me that this was very common in daaras (the Koranic schools where the talibés “live”) due to the terrible living conditions there. This helped give me the right perspective as I worked at the center, which was a huge highlight of my time in Senegal.

Each day except weekends and Christmas I would work in the mornings in the garden or in the nurse’s office or help the talibé children wash their clothes. Sometimes, I would play games or just chat with the older talibés as well. There were a good number of older talibés who had been living in daaras for a long time. One such youth was Kalidou. He spoke French, Wolof, Peul and some English and lived in a daara right near the Dioufs. I would often walk home with him, talking to him about football, our families, or one of the hundreds of other questions I had about Senegalese culture such as: why do Senegalese people often chew lemon branches? Or, how does the taxi system work?

In the evenings working at the center, I quickly became the resident French/English teacher to the older talibés, mostly ages 15-21. Every evening we would conjugate verbs or learn useful phrases in French and English, repeating them over and over again and copying them down until they could functionally use them. It was an amazing time, and I was truly humbled to teach these guys who were nearly my own age something that might one day at least help them if not motivate them to pursue a more meaningful life. They were so grateful, but I was really the one grateful to them.

As I wrapped up my time in Saint Louis, I could not help but remember all the great times I had had with Bathe, Abdoul and Issa when I was not at the center. They invited me to play soccer with them, had me over for dinner and tea, and helped me get gifts for my family back home. One of the biggest takeaways I had from the trip was just humility about our way of life in the United States. It is often too busy and too focused on us. I served and relaxed in Senegal, building relationships that will hopefully last me a lifetime and, maybe in some small way, changed people’s lives. That’s what life is really all about, and I would not have traded in my winter break … Christmas, New Year’s and all … for anything other than the experience I had in Saint Louis with the amazing people I met there!

Steven at home with his host family
Steven at home with his host family
Morning games in Maison de la Gare
Morning games in Maison de la Gare's garden
... and washing clothes
... and washing clothes
Steven teaching a senior talibe class
Steven teaching a senior talibe class
Reading to younger children in the library
Reading to younger children in the library
With Kalidou and Souleymane
With Kalidou and Souleymane
Scenes from Steven
Scenes from Steven's life with the Diouf family

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Mar 12, 2015

More Than an Excursion - The Door of No Return

With "Door of No Return", House of Slaves, Goree
With "Door of No Return", House of Slaves, Goree

Talibé victims of a contemporary form of slavery visit the island of Gorée

Arouna Kandé, a senior talibé and Maison de la Gare’s Administrative Assistant, prepared this report of the very moving visit that thirty talibé children made to the island of Gorée on December 31st, 2014.  Arouna writes: The Portuguese, French, Dutch, Spanish and English controlled the slave trade.  Their products were traded for slaves, provided mostly by African kings.  The overloaded boats headed for the New World, many from Gorée.  The crossing of the Atlantic was a terrible ordeal, lasting four weeks or more.  The slaves were chained in the holds crammed like sardines, branded with a hot iron.  Once in the Americas, they were sold at auction.  The proceeds from the sales allowed the Europeans to benefit from the products of the plantation fields: coffee, tobacco, cotton and sugar cane. This visit taught us how Africa has experienced a great challenge before independence.”

Arouna interviewed seven of the talibé children who participated with him in the visit, and he has recorded their accounts for us here.

Karfa, age 13 – “When the marabout gave me permission to join the other talibé children going to Dakar to visit Gorée, I was surprised because I never thought that I would go to the capital one day.  I couldn’t sleep on the way.  All along the road I watched the houses and woods in the dark.  Arriving in Dakar, my heart started to beat faster because we got on a boat and the sea in front of us seemed so large that I was thinking in my head, ‘Where is this going to take us?’  Arriving on the island of Gorée, there was no one there; it was like a dream.  We all stayed together until people woke up.  Later, I understood the purpose of our visit to the House of Slaves.  There were empty rooms, but Issa explained the meaning of these empty rooms.  Why did people want to be sold by the Toubabs (the whites)?  How were they sold?”

Oumar, age19 – “It was on December 31, 2014 that we went to visit the island of Gorée.  We left Saint Louis at around 1:30 am and arrived at Gorée at 4 am. After spending the night, we woke up at 7 am to visit the House of Slaves, and we took the boat to cross to it. Once there, we had breakfast in the company of our friends and the president of our association.

During our visit, we discovered a lot about the history of Gorée, for example, how the slaves lived, where they were gathered, and where the boats were moored that would take them away.  We saw monuments that showed the abuse and suffering that these people were subjected to.  We also visited the rooms where the slaves lived ten to fifteen people per room, with women, men and children being separated.  We learned from the person responsible for the House of Slave how the slaves were treated by the whites.  The visit allowed us to learn many things that we did not know about Gorée as well as about the history of Senegal, in particular of slavery.

After this visit, we can say that Gorée is a city full of history like Saint Louis, but the difference is that when we speak of Saint Louis we allude to the arrival of whites in this city that became the first capital of Senegal.  But Gorée is a city that reminds us of bad memories, of the suffering and pain experienced by our society before independence.”

Idrissa, age 15 – “This was the first time I visited Gorée.  I saw a lot of things that I have never seen. The scenery is beautiful, and we discovered a lot about the island of Gorée:  monuments, the rooms of the slaves and the slaves’ door of no return.  We were also told about the conditions in which the slaves lived, ill-treated by the whites.  This visit allowed us to know a lot about the history of the slave trade and especially about the slaves.”

Amadou, age 16 – “This visit to Gorée was a great highlight in our lives, as it has allowed us to discover a lot about the history of our country and especially about the human trafficking of slaves and the precarious conditions under which they lived.

Also during this visit, we discovered the monuments that showed us the abuse suffered by these slaves, and their departure point leaving for Europe and the United States.”

Ousmane B., age 8 – “When you hear Dakar, it feels like cars are roaring in heaven and there are plenty of planes there too.  The buildings are large, there are police officers in the city, and the roads are very wide.  We got into a boat to go to a place like another country.  There was nobody in the houses and no one was speaking.  We entered a house where there was no one, the rooms had no beds, no TV, no toilet.  We saw a statue that was speaking with a sword in its hand.  It was like being in a movie.”

Ousmane D., age 14 – “At the end of December I went to Gorée.  We learned so much about the history of Senegal and the slave trade and the fate of slaves.  This trip makes it possible for us to have a better life.  And it was as a part of this adventure that I was able to go to the palace of the President of the Republic of Senegal.”

Souleymane, age 20 – “It was an unforgettable day when I visited Gorée.  I've never been there and, thanks to this visit, I had the opportunity to learn many things.  We were shown rooms for men, women and children slaves.  They also showed us some very important things about the slaves, for example the chains which bound their necks and ankles. There was a small door called the “door of no return” though which the slaves departed to go to the Americas.  I am really happy to have made this visit, because it taught me so much about the island of Gorée and the slave trade.”

The crossing to the island of Goree
The crossing to the island of Goree
Issa explaining statue of slaves in bondage
Issa explaining statue of slaves in bondage
Entering the House of Slaves
Entering the House of Slaves
Arouna with Kalidou, studying history of slavery
Arouna with Kalidou, studying history of slavery
At the presidential palace, Dakar
At the presidential palace, Dakar
Talibe children who shared their Goree stories
Talibe children who shared their Goree stories

Links:

Feb 19, 2015

A Living Memorial in Maison de la Gare's Library

Volunteers teaching talibe children in MDG library
Volunteers teaching talibe children in MDG library

Strengthening a resource at the heart of Maison de la Gare's center

The library has become the heart of Maison de la Gare's center in Saint Louis for many of the talibé children.  This amazing resource was made possible by a generous donation from the Stockholm International Rotary Club, and it opened to the children in the fall of 2011.  The Rotary donation covered bookshelves, furniture, painting, a TV and DVD player, DVDs, intelligence games, teaching materials such as paper, watercolors, modeling clay and art supplies, and several hundred books.

Almost immediately, the children began to discover the magic of books and reading.  We have many pictures of boys enthralled as they thumb through books for the first time.  Reading to talibé children in the library has become a favorite activity for Maison de la Gare's international volunteers, and the children love this as well.  Teachers, and the volunteers supporting them, have come to use the library's resources as an integral part of their teaching programs.

It is challenging to find appropriate books for children who have little formal education but may be ten to eighteen years old.  We look for "low vocabulary, high interest" books, with subject matter which is appropriate for these begging street children.  They love technology subjects, books that focus on different areas of the world, and stories of children with whom they can relate.  A Senegalese publisher, BLD Éditions, produces some very suitable books in French, or French and Wolof, and we have purchased many of these with the help of Canadian donors.

In early 2012, three computers donated by Associaciò Un Petit Pas of Catalonia, Spain were installed in the library, greatly enriching its mission.  Talibé children in the library now connect with "penpals" in Canada and, via Facebook, with former volunteers and others around the world.  The computers are also great teaching tools, for example using Google Earth.

The most recent and most moving donation to the library consisted of 142 books delivered in late 2014 from Francine Perkal who, at the time, was in the last days of her courageous struggle with cancer.  These books, all in French, are a remarkable collection of teaching materials suitable for all levels of learning readers ... collections of the continents, Olympic games, books of discovery, travel around the world, sounds and learning to read, water around the world, animals, atlases, and much more.  The children of all ages are enchanted by the new worlds that these books open for them.

We are grateful to everyone who has contributed to making this wonderful and transformative resource possible.  There is still lots of room on our shelves, if you can help!

There is an African proverb that says, "When an old man dies, a library disappears".  But Francine has not disappeared in our eyes; she is still here in the books that show us the ways of the world, and will always be with us with her smile, around the children, around the center and above all forever.

_____________

This article is dedicated to the memory of Francine Perkal, a devoted Canadian teacher who succumbed to cancer on December 21st, 2014.  Francine was passionate about books.  A long-time supporter of Maison de la Gare and its library, one of her last wishes was that her lifetime accumulation of book credits be used for the talibé children; over $1,000 worth of books were delivered to the library shortly before her death.  Issa Kouyaté wrote in response:  "I am truly devastated that this woman has been struck by cancer.  It seems that only the best people disappear too quickly, but they always leave behind them the marks of their goodness."  Issa proposed that these books be labelled accordingly: "Property of Maison de la Gare's library from Francine Perkal, a cancer victim who gave her credits to the most vulnerable children.  Treat with care.  And thank you to Francine; may God take you into his care!".  He added "This is just a way to thank Francine, whose memory will live on forever in Maison de la Gare's library."

Talibe children discovering reading
Talibe children discovering reading
High interest, low vocabulary books from BDL
High interest, low vocabulary books from BDL
A typical day in the libraray
A typical day in the libraray
Volunteer Michael teaching with Google Earth
Volunteer Michael teaching with Google Earth
Examples of books donated by Francine Perkal
Examples of books donated by Francine Perkal
Teacher Bouri and librarian Bachir study new books
Teacher Bouri and librarian Bachir study new books
Francine Perkal, 1962 to 2014
Francine Perkal, 1962 to 2014

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