In March of 2020 Covid-19 hit Maison de la Gare like a freight train. International volunteers evacuated the country. Planned volunteer visits and the revenue they bring were cancelled. Travel between regions was prohibited, trapping vulnerable talibés children in the cities in their darras. And, the cities locked down, instantly eliminating the source of food for tens of thousands of forced begging street children.
Early in the Pandemic, Covid-19 was not the primary danger in Saint Louis. With travel and all activity stopped in its tracks, cases were few. But, the economic devastation was swift and deep. Many Senegalese lost their work and income. Many could no longer house or sufficiently feed their families. For the vulnerable talibés, already victims of abuse, neglect and modern slavery, things became so much worse. Within days of the first lock downs, the streets of Saint Louis were empty of all but hungry talibés, desperately sorting through garbage heaps for anything at all to eat. With the help of generous donors, Maison de la Gare was able to continue to pay its staff, but the Center had to close. The only refuge for thousands of talibés was lost to them.
Maison de la Gare soon was able to pivot and respond to the new dangers to talibés. Neighbourhood cooks were rallied, international donors responded, and first hundreds, and then thousands of meals each day were cooked and delivered by Maison de la Gare staff and older talibés to the daaras where the boys lived. Starvation for many talibés was avoided after all. Apprentices in the Maison de la Gare couture program sewed massive quantities of masks. Maison de la Gare teams delivered cleaning supplies and masks to the talibés in their darras and taught them to protect themselves from the Covid virus.
As time passed, Covid did make its way more dangerously into Senegal. After months of experiencing few cases, economic activity began to resume in Saint Louis. people returned to their daily business, even if at a diminished rate. Talibés went back to begging, the Center was able to open again. But, as vaccinations became widely available in the Global North, travel began to resume. And with it, Covid began to spread and take hold.
Now in Senegal, hospitals are full. So many people are sick, and everyone seems to know someone who has died of Covid. But, unlike in the North, the hope offered by vaccines is not available to most in Senegal. The supply of vaccines only trickles in, and Covid continues to spread.
But now, knowing how to better manage the risks of Covid, life at Maison de la Gare continues. Masked, and distanced, but it continues. Food and water and cleaning supply costs are higher than ever at Maison de la Gare. But, talibé children are able to tumble through the gates each day in twos and threes, or alone. They wash their clothes and themselves. They enjoy a meal they do not need to beg for. They visit the infirmary, sometimes to have serious conditions treated, sometimes just for some much needed tender loving care from the health care workers. The put on clean, white uniforms and practice karate. They play soccer. They attend classes and learn French and math. They play, relax, and just get to be children for a few minutes or hours.
Some of the Maison de la Gare team have managed to get vaccinated. Others are registered to get their jabs, waiting their turn. But, it could be a long wait. People are scared. Nevertheless, Maison de la Gare staff are doing all they can for the vulnerable talibés, most of who are too young to be vaccinated, even if the supply were available. We have often described Maison de la Gare as an oasis for the talibés. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the oasis provided by Maison de la Gare has proven to be more important than ever, offering more than hope…helping to sustain life itself.
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