A difficult time for talibé children is transformed to a moment of joy
The Korité festival organized by Maison de la Gare turned a difficult ordeal into a moment of pure happiness for the talibé children. During Ramadan, they spend arduous days fasting and begging, receiving little food. But thanks to Maison de la Gare’s support, these vulnerable children receive hearty meals every evening during the "Ndogou", the breaking of the fast. Maison de la Gare's support has been like magic for them.
Muslims around the world mark the end of Ramadan with the celebration of Eid al-Fitr. In Senegal, this is known as Korité. It is a highlight of the year, celebrated with feasting, family gatherings and new clothes.
For most Senegalese children, Korité is an occasion for them to gather with family and friends. For the begging talibé children, however, it can be a very difficult and sad time, as they are effectively social outcasts and have little or no contact with their families. They are far from home, and do not have the financial means to buy new clothes for the celebration, unlike other children in the country. And, as during other months of the year, their lives in their daaras are very challenging, without adequate means of subsistence and receiving only a strict religious education.
So, Maison de la Gare’s celebration of the Korité holiday was magical for the children. They were given soccer jerseys, a gift that helps them to feel included in the festivities. In a way, they could feel at one with other children around the country celebrating playing much loved games of soccer. With their new jerseys, the talibé children could take part in the Korité celebrations with pride and joy, feeling included in the festivities and wearing new clothes for this special occasion. This strengthened their sense of belonging to their community and let them celebrate this important holiday with dignity and respect.
The talibé children came to Maison de la Gare’s center on Korité for a day of happiness and fun, enjoying a festive experience like other children. These vulnerable children felt included and valued. The presentation of the soccer jerseys was a special occasion for them. The centre was packed with talibés from many daaras who had come to receive their new jerseys. They were eager and excited to receive them, to be able to wear them proudly on the playing fields.
It was a long-awaited day, and the children were delighted to receive these gifts which brought them a great deal of happiness. Just receiving something new and special, a football jersey, made their eyes shine and put smiles on their faces. The attention they received made them feel valued and respected.
The children expressed their gratitude. They thanked the staff with warm words and hugs. For many of these children who live in such precarious conditions, this simple gesture of kindness was a great comfort and boosted their self-confidence. It is an example of how seemingly small actions can have a valuable impact on the children’s lives, bringing joy and hope.
Of course, Maison de la Gare's work goes far beyond distributing football jerseys. With your support, we offer the talibé children access to education, basic healthcare and protection from violence and exploitation. We also work with local communities and throughout Senegal to raise awareness of children's rights and to promote healthier and fairer practices.
… and volunteers can play an invaluable role
Maison de la Gare has recognized for many years that improving the daily lives of the begging talibé street children is not enough. Many of these children have been attending our programs for over a decade and are now too old to continue in their daaras.
We listened for years to older talibés talking about finding a new life in Europe, risking the ocean passage to the Canary Islands or across the desert to the Libyan coast. Many tried, but few were successful. Others spoke of following their main role models to become marabouts themselves, perpetuating the cycle of abuse and financial exploitation of young talibés.
Our poultry farming apprenticeship program in nearby Bango was made possible in 2018 by a grant from the U.S. State Department. This was our first effort to support some older talibés in learning a skill, a trade that would allow them to become self-sufficient in Senegal. This was followed quickly by the tailoring apprenticeship program located in our center in Saint Louis. However, it was soon clear that, with hundreds of the talibés maturing every year, this is not enough.
When the American non-profit Friends of Senegal approached us in early 2020 about starting a microfinance program, we jumped at the chance. Here was an opportunity to support graduates of our apprenticeship programs in establishing themselves, but also to offer support to many others who had ideas for creating independent businesses.
After a shaky beginning as we learned how to best select and support borrowers, the program has thrived. We have granted 121 loans to date.
Of the 22 loans granted in 2022, 14 were to talibés. Each of these youth has a vision for a successful business that can be the basis for his financial security. The scope of proposals made by these aspiring borrowers was inspiring. Three have established chicken-raising operations. One expanded his small restaurant in which he hires several talibés as staff. And one of his early talibé employees took a loan to start his own restaurant. A former talibé is retailing charcoal and animal feed to local families. Two are selling products as they walk around the different areas of Saint Louis, one food and the other clothing. One boy, Khassimou, has a stand selling coffee and donuts while another, Bobo, is operating a very popular fruit stand. Another youth has started a successful business reselling dried and smoked fish in nearby villages. And more.
Every one of these borrowers is repaying their loan on schedule, typically over 10 months. We would like to launch many more youth in this way. The limitation is the time needed to provide business training to potential borrowers, to support them as they develop business proposals that can be financed, and to follow them and support them as they pursue their projects. Volunteers can have an enormous impact here. They will be able to inspire hope and expectation of a brighter future for these older talibés who have lived all their youth in the harsh conditions of learning and begging in the streets.
At a recent loan committee meeting, English volunteers Fenella, Josh and Ella each presented a loan proposal that they had developed with a potential borrower. All three proposals were accepted.
The borrower that Ella worked with, Pourmera, is a young, divorced woman who runs a business based on selling accessories for women. We have included female borrowers in our program both to represent the full community and to provide models of successful entrepreneurship for our talibé borrowers.
The loans that we have made to date represent just a beginning of this effort to set older talibés on a secure footing for the future, for their financial independence. We are grateful to the volunteers who have helped and look forward to welcoming many more. They contribute to protecting children's rights for a better future.
A precious window on a different world, and a chance to make a difference
My time in Saint Louis with Maison de la Gare and the talibé children was by far the most meaningful and enduring experience that I have had living in and with another culture. I have lived for 15 years in European countries other than my native Germany. I cannot compare Senegal, the people there, their culture and most of all the talibés children and my work with them at Maison de la Gare with any previous experience that I have had. Everything seemed so different … the climate, the way of life, the way people interact with each other, but also the poverty and the misery that many must live with. It was not always easy. I sometimes felt foreign and lonely, but that is likely a part of the experience that just confronts you with your own limits. I would not want to have missed this opportunity for anything in the world.
When I write these lines now, from Germany, my thoughts and my heart are immediately back with Maison de la Gare, talking with the great staff, with Issa Kouyaté the founder, with Adama, the soul of the center, with Lalla, Noël, Awa, Alagie, Kalidou, Samba, Abou Sy, El Hadj and so many others! I see all the children and I am happy that I was able to be a part of all this for a while.
Before I left Germany, I had asked myself whether the fate of the street children might be too difficult for me to accept. And I told myself again and again that I should not get emotionally attached to the children, since I would leave them after three months. I was also not sure how communication would work since I do not speak Wolof. These are all good questions and thoughts, but I know now that every volunteer can find a meaningful place there. You just need to be attentive, open, interested, curious, loving, and very patient. Everything else will work itself out. It was a very enriching experience for me.
Personally, I enjoyed joining the lovely teachers Aïda and Bouri in the mornings to practice writing and reading in French with the children, to sing with them and to come up with creative projects. And in the afternoons devoting myself to the older children working with the very committed English teacher Kalidou, himself a former talibé. We just worked so well together. My English students were wonderful, very eager, and tremendously grateful for the lessons. This touched me very much and I took everyone into my heart. I also helped in the infirmary, and accompanied Alagie to several daaras where we treated children for scabies.
The Christmas celebration at Maison de la Gare also left a deep impression on me. I have never experienced anything like it in my life! More than 900 talibés participated. The party lasted all day. There was a full program, and the children were thrilled and overjoyed. To witness the glow in their eyes, their joy and their liveliness cannot leave anyone cold.
Perhaps this celebration tipped the scales in favor of my idea of organizing a small celebration for the children myself before I left. Even before Christmas, I saw an older child making rap music with two friends in the sewing workshop, and I was fascinated. I thought the other talibés would like that too. However, since we couldn't accommodate the rappers at the Christmas party, Boubacar from the team suggested that I just pick a day before my departure back to Europe to have the party. The event was called "Rap & Break Talibés", as break dancers were to be included.
With the help of donations from members of my band in Germany, “Viajante”, we were able to cover the costs for a stage with a good music system, baguettes with a delicious spread lovingly prepared by cook Oumou and her many helpers, the rappers, and a few prizes for the best dancers among the talibés. The break dancers we had hired did not appear but instead, miraculously, unheralded talents took to the stage and thrilled the talibés. I was very moved by how much heart and soul all the "artists" put into their dancing, and how they communicated with the children and encouraged them. I will never forget that celebration.
My stay in Saint Louis and at Maison de la Gare stirred up a lot of issues for me and raised many questions about our way of life and the things we take for granted in Europe. This is different for everyone, but in my conversations with other volunteers I found many commonalities. I can only encourage everyone who wants to be socially involved to become an active part of Maison de la Gare for a while and have their own experience. I have a deep respect for Issa Kouyaté, the founder of this center for the talibé boys, and for the work of his deeply devoted team. Maison de la Gare and the children deserve every possible support. I miss them a lot.
The author Katharina (Katrin) Nussbaum was one of seven volunteers at Maison de la Gare in late 2022 and early 2023, ranging in age from early 20s to mid-50s. For every volunteer, the experience is life-changing both for themselves and for the children whose lives they touch. We invite anyone interested to explore becoming a volunteer, at this link.
Hope for a child who could have lost all hope
This is the story of young Moussa, a child born out of wedlock whose mother secretly entrusted him to an old shepherdess living in a remote Senegalese village. When the shepherdess died, the seven-year-old child was entrusted to the marabout Issakha. This crooked, deceitful, cynical marabout was against the teaching that had been brought to Senegal by the whites, and he rejected all scientific and technical progress. He lived off the begging of his talibés, obtaining from them all his needs in life without scruples or moral modesty.
All this man’s wealth came from the alms and the exploitation of his talibés. These poor children squatted in the streets to beg for their daily quota of money and, during the rainy season, they became agricultural workers and toiled in his fields. They were little slaves in the wicked marabout Issakha’s huge plantation.
Every day, the children had to leave the daara at dawn to go to work, or to the streets to beg, and they returned only in the evening, at dusk. When young Moussa was in the field for the first time holding a work tool, his small hands bled. He was clumsy and unfit for such a chore.
The marabout became furious with Moussa, whom he called a scoundrel. He hit him violently on the back. Moussa collapsed, and a second blow made him roll on the muddy ground. Moussa stayed on the ground for a long time, completely shaken. After a few hours, he got up painfully and walked away slowly. This was his first time running way from his daara.
Moussa was found by one of the “grands talibés” from marabout Issakha’s daara and was returned to the daara. He continued in this way for many years, begging and working in the fields, and running away when he could no longer tolerate the conditions.
He finally ran away for good, begging on the streets to support himself. He fell in with a group of boys like himself on the streets. A series of events led to them all being caught in a police sweep.
The police referred Moussa to Maison de la Gare, well known to them as a local non-governmental organization working to improve the living conditions of talibé children, with the financial support of external partners and donors.
Moussa is now registered for six-months of training in Maison de la Gare’s poultry farming apprenticeship program. Cheikh Ablaye, who leads this program, will support Moussa during his training, helping him to be ready to become independent and self-supporting. When he has completed his apprenticeship, Moussa will take the training offered by Maison de la Gare’s microfinance program, with the objective of being ready to obtain a loan to start his own operation raising and selling chickens.
The author Baye Ndaraw Diop was formerly the director of the Ministry of Justice’s Saint-Louis office responsible for street children. He has been a member of Maison de la Gare’s Board of Directors since 2013 and has led our microfinance program since its inception. Moussa’s name and other details in this report have been changed to protect the child.
Precious moments of joy in the lives of the begging street children
Although they are Muslim, the Christmas celebration at Maison de la Gare has always been a highlight of the year for the begging talibé children.
Thanks to crowdfunding in France and to the incredible commitment of volunteers and staff, the event was a spectacular success. The talibés responded in large numbers to the invitation, and they left full of happy memories and charged with positive energy, particularly pleased to have received as gifts new T-shirts and soccer sweaters.
Everyone pitched in for weeks before the event, volunteers, staff and older talibés, with Élodie Demontoux and Boubacar Gano keeping everything on track. There were trips to the market, preparation of meals, buying decorations, and cleaning up the center. Issa Kouyaté was involved in everything. German volunteer Katrin took charge of the welcoming wall, displaying Maison de la Gare’s core values. Abou Sy, Lalla Sène and Noël Coly organized the activities and Oumou Samb managed the food with her army of volunteer cooks. A team of volunteers and staff ran the games … sack races, shot on goal, flag game, bottle in the ring and more. And many of the children waited patiently to leave their brightly coloured handprints on the welcoming wall.
Children were happy to participate, as shown by their smiles and their desire to take part in all the activities.
TV and other media were there to report on the event. Issa, Maison de la Gare’s founder and president, spoke of our commitment to the talibés and other vulnerable children. He stressed the need to continue support for the talibé children. Élodie praised the organization’s commitment to these children every day. Samba Diao spoke on behalf of the talibés, expressing how important this event was, and how important Maison de la Gare is to him and other talibés who are far from their homes and are given a chance to live in better conditions and to prepare for a brighter future.
At the end of the morning, some local actors came to perform a play about the abuse and the forced begging that the talibés endure, a play which helped the children give voice to what they live every day.
The afternoon began with the children gathered in a circle singing and dancing to the beat of the music. A dance contest followed, with the talibés in the middle of the circle dancing to the tom-toms and receiving sweets for their superb choreography. Lalla led them in singing Senegalese songs.
Then, four “Lions” and a fire-eater entered the stage for a two-hour show, wearing colorful fabrics and beautifully made-up faces. They danced among the children who were amazed to see these artists up close. Admiration, curiosity, and joy lit up the faces of these boys whose eyes so often reflect the burdens of their difficult lives.
Next, Santa Claus took his place in the children’s hearts, offering them candy. This was Issa in disguise, totally committed to the children as always; none of them recognized him! Finally, this wonderful day concluded with a distribution of gifts and snacks.
The event was celebrated in the local media, reinforcing Maison de la Gare’s long struggle to improve the lives of these children. And the children will not forget the moments of pure happiness that they enjoyed on this extraordinary day.
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