Maison de la Gare’s karate program offers a vital opportunity for many begging talibé children in Saint Louis. These children typically have no access to education at home and are sent to the city to learn the Quran. Unfortunately, all too often, they are instead forced to spend most of their time on the streets begging or working to earn money for their marabout. It is a difficult and precarious life for these young people, but thanks to the caring staff and innovative programs at Maison de la Gare, many children have found a safe haven where they can learn, play and grow.
The Maison de la Gare karate program is overseen by partner, Sensei Ignéty Ba of Sor-Karate and the classes at the Maison de la Gare center are run by Bouaro, a karate student of Sensei Ba’s and a former talibé himself, and now an important addition to Maison de la Gare’s staff. Bouaro’s personal story was featured in an earlier Report, titled: Bouaro: A Possible Dream. His mission is to help children through their difficult time as talibés, and to offer them a future that includes an alternative to begging. Children are encouraged to pursue their dreams and learn new skills, while developing their self-confidence and ability to defend themselves.
Among the many children who attend Maison de la Gare are Amadou and Aliou, two regular young karate students who participate in the morning classes with Bouaro. To fully understand the impact of Maison de la Gare on the lives of Amadou and Aliou, you need to know their history.
Amadou was born into a poor family and was sent to a Koranic school at the age of six. However, the daara turned out to be a place where children were exploited and forced to beg in the streets for their marabout. For Amadou, life was very difficult and living conditions were precarious.
Aliou, aged 12, was also sent to St. Louis by his family in the hope that he would obtain a Koranic education. However, he soon discovered that life at the daara where he was sent to live was very different from what he expected. He was forced to spend all day to find food, and money to give his marabou. He was often mistreated by the marabout and the grand talibés, the older children at the daara who can often act as “enforcers” for the marabout. Aliou discovered the karate program by chance, hearing the sounds of children training as he was walking by. His curiosity led him to join the classes. Since then, he has become a regular student at Maison de la Gare. He says karate taught him to focus and be disciplined. He is also proud to show the skills he has learned to his friends, and hopefully someday his family.
Aliou explains that karate has helped him to be strong, to defend himself, but also to respect others and to be disciplined. Before karate, he didn't have much hope for the future, but now he knows he can accomplish great things, things he just did not think were realistic before. Similarly, for Amadou, karate changed his life by offering him a family at Maison de la Gare. He has friends who encourage him and teachers who push him to move forward. He wants to keep training hard and maybe even become a karate teacher himself one day.
For Amadou and Aliou, the karate program is more than just a physical activity. It is a way to express themselves, to defend themselves, but also to build a strong identity and develop their self-confidence. Karate has given them the hope and strength they need to overcome the difficulties of their life as forced begging talibés, and has helped them to dream, and to pursue their dreams.
The stories of Aliou and Amadou are examples of how the Maison de la Gare karate program can change the lives of talibé children. By offering them a healthy and productive oasis from forced begging, the program teaches them important skills such as concentration and self-confidence, all which will be useful in the long term, not only in the practice of karate, but also in their daily lives. By learning karate techniques, children also learn self-control and discipline skills, which enable them to manage their emotions and impulses in a positive and non-violent way. Maison de la Gare is a safe haven where these children can train, learn and grow as family and community away from their life as begging talibés, and pursue their dreams.
Thanks to your support, we have been able to offer children hope for a future away from the streets and the difficult life of forced begging, and give them the opportunity to develop new skills and build a strong identity.
We are confident that your continued support will enable Maison de la Gare to continue to offer a safe haven, hope, and so much more to these children. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your support.
As we approach the end of the year, we want to thank everyone in the global karate community and outside it who has supported Maison de la Gare’s Karate Can Kick Hopelessness project, and ask for your help for the coming year.
Founder of the program, Robbie Hughes and I were able to return to Senegal this summer for the first time since the pandemic began. Thanks to donors, an epic karate tournament for the Maison de la Gare talibé karate kids was hosted that showcased the progress that long-time karateka have made. And, the passion and determination of talibés who are newer to the karate program was truly inspiring. While we were there many new students were invited to join the dojo, Sor-Karate, as part of the Maison de la Gare contingent. And, a grading test and ceremony resulted in many proud, new yellow belts.
The karate program at Maison de la Gare has been an amazing success for the forced begging street boys of Saint Louis, known as talibés. In the eight years since a young Canadian boy, a new black belt himself at the time, brought karate to Maison de la Gare, hundreds of vulnerable kids have benefited from the sense of family and community that karate brings. They have had a chance to develop the confidence, perseverance and discipline that martial arts offers. And for children living on their own, surviving on the streets, forced to fend for themselves, the value of self defence skills cannot be underestimated.
43 talibe karate students currently qualify to renew their memberships at the local dojo, Sor karate, or join for the first time. It will be impossible for them without our help. More students are ready and desiring to be registered in the dojo program now, at one time, than ever before. Dozens more participate in the morning karate classes at the Maison de la Gare Center that Robbie began, now taught by Boiro, under local dojo Sor Karate and Sensei Ignéty Ba’s supervision. When one thinks of the life these kids live, the forced quotas of money they must deliver daily to their controllers, the lack of parental, or any supervision they have, their malnutrition, and lack of educational opportunities, it is not difficult to understand just how important karate is in these kids lives. And, it is amazing to think of respect they have for their senseis, and their discipline, washing and caring for their own uniforms, caring for the dojo, attending classes many times a week, often after hours of forced begging.
For the 43 hopeful students, in order to pay the annual registration fee, the monthly dues for a year, twice a year grading fees, and WKF federation licensing, the annual cost is about $100 each. Each January when the annual registration renewals are due, Maison de la Gare needs to decide how many karate students can be supported in the dojo program this year. 43 kids are hopeful that the answer will be 43. We are asking for your help to sponsor one or more karate students in Senegal, so they all will get to continue in the sport they love, and that is such a wonderful life opportunity for them.
Thank you with all our hearts from the founders, providers, and partners of the Maison de la Gare Karate Can Kick Hopelessness program, and from all the kids who are its benefactors.
A bright day for talibés and for karate
This summer at Maison de la Gare, on July 1, the fifth annual karate tournament among the talibé karate students of the center took place.
The karate program at Maison de la Gare was founded seven (07) years ago by Robbie Hughes and his mother Sonia LeRoy, martial arts enthusiasts from Canada, and has been sustained over the years by generous donations from abroad. Maison de Gare, in partnership with Sor-Karate’s Sensei Ignéty Ba, has welcomed and trained hundreds of talibé children, instilling in these vulnerable boys self-confidence, perseverance, a sense of respect, and important self defence skills.
On tournament day, the young karatekas competed with pride under the gaze of Maison de la Gare President, Mr Issa Kouyate, the members of the MDG team, and the program founders, visiting from Canada for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. Over 30 hopeful and excited Maison de la Gare karatekas wearing their gis (karate uniforms) competed, showcasing kata, kion and kumité skills. The competition was judged by referees from the World Karate Federation.
The tournament aroused a craze among the competitors as well as among the spectators. The participants were more numerous this year, and more talented than in previous years. Many of the competitors had been training with the MDG program for many years, and had earned higher belt ranks. Twelve were awarded their yellow belts on tournament day, after strenuous testing earlier in the week. Sensei Ignéty Ba, president of Sor Karate, said, "this year unlike previous years, the tournament welcomed many more participants, and was of remarkable technical quality". These children seized the opportunity during this tournament to exploit their potential, and to express their desire to learn, succeed and move forward.”
A very special guest watched the tournament with interest. Because of his passion for karaté and his love for these talibé children, Senegalese National Champion, the winner of the Senegalese cup of karaté, Mr. Lamine Ndiaye came to admire these bearers of hope in the field. He even asserts that "these children have all the potential and rigour it takes to become great champions in this discipline and participate in international tournaments in the future".
After the competition the talibé children receiving their yellow belts were awarded them by the founder of the program, and a great inspiration to them, Robbie Hughes and made their transition to a higher rank. Many trophies and medals were awarded to the big winners of the competition; in three (3) different divisions, beginner, intermediate, and advanced. The medals and trophies were donated by Canadian and World karate champions to celebrate and further inspire the karatekas. The finalists in the kumité fight,in kata and in keon, each received their trophies and medals. Grand Champions in each of the three divisions were awarded special prizes and the intermediate and advanced Grand Champions were presented with the Douvris Cup and the Douvris Young Guns Cup by Robbie Hughes, who is a Canadian WKC karate weapons champion.
After a glorious day of competition Seinse Ignéty BA described the hope that this day will further instil in these talibé children, in view of their emeritus performances. He states that they have all the necessary technique to compete at the national and international level. He furthermore urges the serignes de daaras who control the difficult lives of these talibés to allow them to be free to reach the summits of which they are capable.
Amadou, winner of the Douvris Cup, expressed his gratitude to the founder of the MDG karate program. He also expressed his satisfaction for the prizes he won, and for what karate brought him such as discipline, wisdom and other skills.
Karaté is a Japanese martial art, a fighting technique that allows participants to have general physical maintenance and cultivate self-defence skills. But it offers much more than this. Karate forges the mind and learns respect, discipline, self-confidence and surpassing oneself. This competition was therefore a great opportunity that the talibé children were able to seize, to show not only their love for this discipline but also to bring out the best in themselves.
Because the Talibés of today are the Men of tomorrow!
My name is Sulayman. I was born in Gambia, West Africa. I have six siblings and I am the third son of my mother. I spent much of my childhood and youth as a modern slave, first as a slave labourer then a forced begging talibé. But education was all I wanted. Eventually I finally took some control over my own life and found a way to go to school.
The way I became a talibé is tragically a bit funny actually. I and my elder brother would always be arguing about who is going to be a school teacher and who is going to be a marabout (Islamic teacher). I was the one that would always say I want to be a marabout and my brother would say he wants to be a teacher, but I was not really being too serious. One fateful day, my late father called me and my brother and asked if we were sure of what we were claiming we wanted to become and we said of course! I was very optimistic about it at the time, I was not familiar with the system of slavery that many West African marabouts practiced. So my father sent my brother to school and he took me to one of his friends who was a marabout, to teach me the Quran.
Although I was learning the Quran, the teacher was extremely strict. He would not even allow me to go to see my parents. Sometimes I would go to visit my parents house when I really missed them. When this was discovered by my marabout, he would beat me up. I can still remember those beatings. I lived with him this way until he persuaded my parents to send me to a village in Gambia. When I arrived in this village I was given over to another man, left alone with him. I remember on the second my shoes disappeared. At this time I started crying, realizing my life was to be real hardship. I was so young at that time that I can't even remember what my age was.
This village was composed of many "talibés". In this village we talibés were the labourers. We were forced to work on huge farmlands. We grew groundnuts and maize. We consumed half and the other half was taken for sale. We also took care of gardens for the son of our marabout in that village. We mainly cultivated bananas and onions. Our marabout had more than 400 talibés and there were only a few rooms for us to sleep in. It was like a prison inside our rooms, there was not even space to step or walk. There was a long time that I only had the clothes I was wearing and no shoes on my feet while I had to do this hard work every day. The life in the village was like a hell for me, particularly in my first year before I got somewhat used to the situation. We did not have electricity so we would go to the forest everyday to fetch firewood. We would burn that wood for our light at night and when we had to wake up 4:00 in the morning to learn the Quran until 7:00 am. Then we would be sent to work all day.
There I was until my father past away. I wanted to go home and my mum visited me there in the village only twice and I would cry whenever she was leaving. But she always told me “I have no choice Sulayman, your Dad wanted you to learn the Quran and become a marabout and he always reminded me of this” my mum said. So there I remained until I was finished the Quran. But then my marabout in that village decided to take me to Senegal to continue studying. This was how my journey to Saint Louis came about.
I was taken to Saint Louis, Senegal with one of my daara- mates who was also a Gambian. When we arrived in the city around 8pm we were supposed to be taken to a particular daara. But we were not allowed to stay there. Instead we were sent to a different marabout. We eventually arrived at this other daara later that night and it was full also. But the marabout let us stay there with some of his talibés despite it being overcrowded. I remember it was so dramatic that night!
My first morning in Saint Louis, I woke up and was sitting waiting for breakfast. We were extremely famished after our long journey and the the chaos of the previous day without food. One guy came and told us boys “I know you boys are new comers, but here in this daara you have to go out beg for food or look for job in order to survive.” We of course had no money, so we went to the market with some of the other talibés to try to get jobs carrying people's stuff. We were paid very small amounts actually, not enough to even buy food. That was how we were living for several more years.
I was forced to do many tedious jobs in Saint Louis just for survival to take care of myself, and also to give my marabout money. No one else cared about taking care of me even though I was a child. I can remember my first job apart from going to that market was sweeping. There was a very wicked woman named Aja that I was working for, she was very mean to me. I did not understand the money, and I would wake up every morning and clean everywhere in the house up and down everyday, with no days off. For this I was paid 2000cfa a week (about US$3.25). But this woman often would not even pay me that small amount so I left there and I returned to the market to earn what I could.
In 2015 I learned about some centres helping talibé like me. I started going to the centres and found Maison de la Gare. Whenever we were returning from working in the market we would pass by Maison de la Gare to take a shower and sometimes watch films and play. We would also come back in the afternoon and eat free food they gave us. I joined karate classes too. I started falling love with it. Maison de la Gare was a break from my very hard life. I spent as much time as I could at Maison de la Gare. I started getting used to the people at Maison de la Gare, and trusting them, especially the head teacher, Abdou Soumaré. He always would advise me go to the classes and learn French or English, that it may help a lot in my life.
At that time I could not understand anything in either English or French so I found it pointless to sit in the class room. I could not tolerate my life in the daara any longer, so I was eager to escape to Europe, through Libya or Morocco. Four of my friends had gone on that journey, and I wanted to do it too. That was the year I left the daara and went to Mauritania to try to find a better job and then make my way to Europe. But Mauritania was even a worse nightmare for me. Even more terrible than living in the daara. I returned to Saint Louis and finally took Abdou Soumaré’s advice. He had always been telling me I should try to go to classes and at least learn to understand one official language that could help me in life. So I started learning English with some of the volunteers at the centre. I remained at the centre until I started speaking a bit of English. I even joined the karate dojo and earned my yellow belt.
I returned to Gambia in late 2018, but I found my mum had a heart attack and my elder brother was not working. My uncle was the one taking care of this whole family and I had the feeling that I needed to make a change. I was wondering how I could make my way through my entire life with only having learned the Quran. I refused to treat other children the way I had been treated, as slaves, so being a marabout was not for me. I felt quite useless in my family. I went back to Saint Louis, and my main objective was to try to support myself, enrol myself to school, get my certificate, and then start working to become the bread winner of my family. I refused to return to the daara so I lived sometimes on the streets, sometimes at friends’ rooms, and sometimes at Maison de la Gare’s dortoir (emergency shelter). I continued to go to the Maison de la Gare classes.
I explained my situation and my desire to go to a real school to some of my friends. One friend who motivated me the most to find a way to go to school was my friend Tijan, also from Gambia. Tijan and I almost have similar stories. He was the one who would tell me “Sulayman stop thinking about this back way of going to Europe. You can make it in your own country.” He had returned to Gambia to go to school a few years before and he was going to graduate from high school! He was at that time in Senegal only briefly to visit Maison de la Gare. Tijan convinced and inspired me to return again to Gambia, this time to go to school. Abdou Soumaré and Issa Kouyate, the president and founder of Maison de la Gare, gave us both some advice and wished us well. Tijan and I returned to Gambia together.
Today I believe that everything in life is possible. You just have to believe in yourself and give it a try. If I didn't believe in myself so strongly at this point, and already been through so much hardship, I would have dropped out of school the very first week that I enrolled. I will never forget this in my life: my very first test in school I earned zero out of one hundred. The teacher called me in front of the class room and embarrassed me in front of everybody. But, I didn't give up or think “well, I am stupid and I can't do this” instead I was like “ahhh, this is my first time in school, so it's not the end of the world. I’ll do better next time after I learn something.” I thank God now, Alhamdulillah!! that I stuck with it. I have learned much and improved a lot, advancing through all my high school grades. I am not bothered that I am of such an older age compared to my classmates and I am now at the last stage of high schooling. I have completed my high school studies with the help of tutors to help me get caught up for all the education I missed as a child. I have qualified to write the WASSCE, the West African Senior School Certificate examination, which I will be attempting this spring.
My hope for the future is to get good results in my upcoming exams. My high school diploma and good exam results will hopefully open the door for me to further my education. I hope my hard work and perseverance will give me the chance to go to university, to continue my education. I want to do it for myself and for my family. I believe education can brighten my life, it is the way.
2021 has been such a difficult year for the talibés, forced begging street boys, of Saint Louis and the staff of Maison de la Gare who strive to make their lives better and help them find hope for a better future. Again.
Covid 19 initially closed the Maison de la Gare centre and dramatically affected the talibés ability to find enough even to eat. Eventually with the help of donors, Maison de la Gare was able to help feed the hungry boys during periods of lock-down. Later, the Center was able to reopen and talibé could return to spend a few hours a day playing, learning, seeking solace or health care, and just be children.
Best of all for the young martial artists of Maison de la Gare, karate could resume. the clean, white gi’s came out of storage, white and coloured belts were wrapped around torsos once, the sand was raked and swept of shells, pebbles and twigs, and the karateka lined up under the African sun once more. Yoi. Ready in anticipation for the instruction of their Sensei.
This December, excitement about karate was heightened as a few of Maison de la Gare’s long time karate students, Ahmadou and Adama, and the Center’s instructor, Bouaro were invited to compete at a rare International Karate Tournament being hosted in Saint Louis on boxing Day, December 26. Ahmadou and Bouaro competed in kata divisions, while Adama competed in kumité. For any martial artist, a karate competition is an exciting opportunity. For talibés, it is an absolute life highlight. More than an opportunity to excel at their sport and test their skill, competition tests a karateka’s perseverance, courage, determination, and offers incredible opportunity for personal growth. It is also an opportunity to shine on the mat. To be applauded as a hero, win or lose. For talibés who live most of their lives neglected, overlooked or pitied by much of society, the positive impact of applause and admiration, let opportunity to be in the spotlight can hardly be understood.
Bouaro, Adama, and Ahmadou enjoyed their glorious day of competition. Cheered on by Maison de la Gare supporters and their fellow karatekas, the day of competition will not soon be forgotten by the competitors. And it will be remembered by the spectators who watched these young people putting everything they had on the mat, demonstrating their skill with unusual passion and determination, inspiring other talibés that it is possible to rise out of the invisible crowd and shine, that glory is possible if one is willing to work for it.
There are over 30 of the talibés who are more advanced and particularly committed to elevating their karate skills, who are registered in the local dojo, Sor-Karate. They are anxious to renew their memberships at the dojo and be able to continuing to practice the martial art they have come to love, that offers them a sense of self worth, confidence, self respect, and belonging. January each year the karate licensing and dojo membership renewal fees are due. Continuation with the program depends on the generosity of international donors. A gift of $100 Canadian will renew a child’s karate membership for a year, enabling them to test for higher belts, and participate in a supplementary food program while training. More kids who have been participating in the morning karate classes at the Maison de la Gare center are ready to join the dojo as well. Their hopes being fulfilled will depend upon the generosity of donors.
Thank you to our generous donors for helping to bring the opportunity that participation in martial arts offers, to the talibés of Maison de la Gare.
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