… seeing these children ready for exams feels like witnessing a miracle
As we left the hotel behind us it was still dark. The crow of a rooster announced the new day about to break. The car was waiting. Our guide, Cheikh Diallo, was just arriving from morning prayers at the mosque. We stopped to pick up Issa and Boubacar on the other side of the Saint Louis’s landmark Pont Faidherbe, and we were on our way.
At Louga we left the highway and turned inland, toward Dahra Djolof. The sun had risen. The sandy breeze flowed through the open windows of the van, and most of the heat of the day was still in reserve.
After about three hours we stopped in Dahra Djolof to pick up our bush guide, Omar. He would ensure we not lose our way in the desert bush. The first hour of the road was so potholed we mostly drove on the sand. Then we turned off even that road. We eventually arrived at the region of Mbaye Aw. Our first stop was the Médina Alpha school. This was the first of the schools that Cheikh has organized and built in the region, with Maison de la Gare’s support. The only one so far to be built of cement.
As we left the vehicle, villagers began to make their way curiously toward us from distant huts. Parents, some past students, and some current students were in the group. Class was not in session, as the teachers and many of the students are currently in Dahra Djolof writing government exams. We asked if the past and present students would allow us to photograph them in front of the school. A parent phoned the village elder who came to observe the situation. After a discussion with Cheikh, he granted his permission.
After the pictures were taken, more villagers who had initially been reluctant to be photographed insisted we re-take the photo, as all who were present now wanted to be included.
Fifty-seven students attend this school, boys and girls. The students who had advanced as far as they could (about five or six years of education, before travelling far afield would be required to continue) spoke good French.
Four of the other five schools are built of straw and are reinforced or rebuilt by the villagers after each rainy season. One is not yet built; the teacher and students gather under a tree to teach and learn. Interestingly, after a few years of classes at the cement school in Médina Alpha, the government accredited the schools and sent a government teacher. Proving that there is no need to wait and hope that authorities will build schools where schools have never been and are not likely to be … if we build it, they will come!
After a wonderful meal, tea, and a peaceful visit in Cheikh’s idyllic, traditional village, we got back in the car for the several hours drive, directed by Omar, through the desert to Dahra Djolof to meet the sixty-five students, their guardians and teachers.
A large house had been rented for the purpose of housing these students. A teacher, several parents, a supervisor, and a few cooks from the villages all stayed together to watch over and tend the children as they prepared for and wrote their exams over several weeks.
When we arrived, we were invited to enjoy our second meal that day. This time, thieboudienne, the Senegalese national dish. Then we were introduced to the children who were divided into three groups to meet us, the boys, the young girls and the older girls. Several people made speeches about the importance of education, the success of this school program in remote villages, and hope for the future.
I was introduced as a partner who helped make this possible. I was invited to speak, and I seized the opportunity to deflect praise toward the truly deserving recipients: the Senegalese who conceived of and founded Maison de la Gare (Issa Kouyaté), the Senegalese founder of the Mbaye Aw schools project (Cheikh Diallo), and all the staff and leaders of Maison de la Gare who never cease their efforts on behalf of the begging talibé children of Senegal.
Then we got to meet the kids and take pictures with them. It is incredible to realize that these bright, articulate, eager students had never had the opportunity to attend school until the five schools were built. Twelve of the boys writing exams are returned talibés who used to be forced daily to beg on the streets for quotas of money. But, several years ago, these boys had returned because now there was a school to attend. Few families now send their sons from these villages to becomes talibés. A marabout has even returned to teach the Quran traditionally, village-based, while the children live at home, cared-for by their families.
Meeting the girls was just as inspiring. They work the hardest and are the most dedicated to their studies. Never having had the opportunity for an education of any kind, they seem thirsty for more. They recognize the opportunity education offers. Before the schools, their expected path was a child marriage; we invite you to read our earlier report, “A Travesty against Humanity,” to get a sense of what a miracle it is that these girls are now in Dahra Djolof writing exams. The words and fears and hopes that these girls shared will always remain with me.
The Mbaye Aw school project is a success. Accessible, village-based schools are so clearly a tool for not only education, but also for ending the modern slavery of the forced-begging talibé boys and of the forced early polygamous marriage of young girls.
Afterword – Cheikh has just reported that 31 of the 34 boys taking government exams were successful, including 11 of the 12 returned talibés. 30 of the 31 girls were successful.
A world that MUST change
“My name is Sokhna. I live in the village. I am 11 years old. I am a student going to school and I live with my mother, my father and my sister. I am the first one in my family to go to school. My sister married very young. In my village, parents give the girls in marriage when they are 12 years old. I am becoming afraid that I will be forced to be married and not allowed to continue going to school.”
- name and details changed to protect her identity
I have been reeling since I opened the envelope our friend Cheikh Diallo handed us, stuffed full of written testimonies of young girls, with their photos. Children testifying about their forced early marriages, and their fear of being forced to marry far too young and forced to end their education and dashing their hopes for the future. It is too much.
Okay … I was not ready. It is now the next day. I am trying again.
Where do I begin?
Several years ago, our friend Cheikh let us know he was trying to build a school in his village. He said he was inspired by watching us year after year helping Maison de la Gare help the talibés. Many of the begging talibé children in Saint Louis come from his village and region, Mbaye Aw. There were no schools there. So, parents felt their only hope of education for their children at all was to send their sons to daaras in the cities to learn the Quran. Building a school can change things, he thought. And he started saving from his long days working as a street-corner cobbler.
When we found out about it, we started helping him. The first school was built. Then, this became a Maison de la Gare, program, a way to keep the boys in their home villages so they would not become begging talibés in the big cities. And a way to rescue boys from the region who were already begging on the streets. More years of saving and more schools were built.
When we visited several years ago, we saw the schools in action, met the talibés who had returned from forced begging on the streets, and met the girls who were attending school for the first time ever because now that is a possibility for them. This is our report on that first visit. We gained a much better understanding during that visit of the extent to which sending boys away to become talibés distorts life for those left behind. Many young girls see no alternative for their lives except to be married to an older man, often as a second or third wife. The boys rarely return after many years living in the big cities, so the girls and their families see few other options for them.
During the year 2022, 204 boys and 131 girls attended regular classes in the six schools established under this project in the Mbaye Aw region. Three teachers and two volunteers teach the children. Many of the boys were previously begging talibés in Saint Louis and elsewhere and had returned home for school.
This year, 65 students from the Mbaye Aw schools are in the town of Dahra Djolof writing their exams at various levels, 34 boys and 31 girls. Twelve of these boys used to be forced-begging talibés. This is an incredible achievement. Almost an impossible one! Hundreds of children, including girls, are being educated.
But, of course, each success opens another pandora’s box, and then leads to much more to do.
We now understand that the talibé system likely contributes to the practice of early forced marriage and polygamy. When boys disappear from their villages at an early age and rarely return, and there are no schools, marrying the girls left behind to older men, multiple girls to each man, may seem to be a logical and perhaps even the only choice to the villagers. Our experience in Mbaye Aw suggests that building schools in the villages not only makes it possible for talibés to return home. It also makes it possible for the girls to begin to study, to discover, to learn about human rights. With time, there will be boys their age to marry in the villages, in equal numbers once more. And this can reduce pressures for forced early polygamous marriages.
Schools in the villages could be the key to ending two forms of modern slavery, for boys and for girls. Freeing boys from slavery as forced-begging talibés, and girls from forced premature marriage to polygamous husbands.
We are now in the time between awareness and opportunity, and the change to come. This is surely the hardest time. The traditions of child forced marriage remain. But the reasons for it do not, thanks to the schools built in these villages. I have no doubt that change will come. But, in the meantime the testimonies in the envelope that Cheikh gave us, and the pictures of the hopeful, newly educated young faces looking as if into my eyes, what of them?
“My name is Aïssa. I live in the village and I am 12 years old. I am a student at the school. I live with my father and mother and my brothers. My father wants to give me in marriage but I refused, as I want to continue with my studies. I have even spoken with the old man he wants to give me to and explained I want to study at school. It will not be easy, but I am determined to fight to continue to study. I am also determined to fight against forced child marriage. But I can’t do it alone.”
- name and details changed to protect her identity
Sulayman tells in his own words his story of triumph over unimaginable obstacles
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 laborer then as a forced begging talibé. But education was all I wanted. Eventually I took control over my own life and found a way to go to school.
The way I became a talibé is a bit funny actually, in a tragic way. My elder brother and I would always be arguing about who was going to be a schoolteacher and who was going to be a marabout (Islamic teacher). I was the one that would say I want to be a marabout and my brother would say he wants to be a teacher, but I was not really being serious. One fateful day, my late father called my brother and me 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 as I was not familiar with the system of slavery that many West African marabouts practice. 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. My marabout would beat me up when he discovered this. 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 where I was given over to another man and left alone with him. I remember that my shoes disappeared on the second day,. I started crying, realizing my life was to be real hardship. I was so young that I can't even remember what my age was.
There were many talibés in this village. We talibés were the laborers and we were forced to work on huge farmlands where we grew groundnuts and maize. We consumed some of this and the rest was taken for sale. We also took care of gardens for our marabout’s son, cultivating mainly 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. For a long time, I had only the clothes I was wearing and no shoes on my feet while I had to do this hard work every day. 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 every day to fetch firewood. We would burn that wood for our light at night and when we had to wake up at 4:00 in the morning to learn the Quran until 7:00 am. Then we would be sent to work all day.
I was there in this village when my father passed away. I wanted to go home but was not allowed. My mum visited me there in the village only twice and I would cry when 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.” So, there I remained until I was finished learning the Quran. But then my marabout 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 with one of my daara-mates who was also a Gambian. When we arrived in the city around 8 p.m., we found that the daara was full. But the marabout let us stay there with some of his talibés despite it being overcrowded. I have such dramatic memories of that night!
I woke up on my first morning in Saint Louis and was sitting waiting for breakfast. We were famished after our long journey and the chaos of the previous day without food. One guy came and told us: “I know you boys are newcomers, but here in this daara you have to go out to beg for food or to look for a 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, not enough to even buy food. That was how we lived for several more years.
I was forced to do many tedious jobs in Saint Louis just for survival to take care of myself, and to be able to give my marabout money. No one took care of me even though I was a child. I remember that my first job away from the market was sweeping. There was a wicked woman named Adja that I was working for, and 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 with no days off. For this I was paid 2,000 francs a week (about US$3.15). But this woman often would not even pay me that small amount, so I left there and returned to the market to earn what I could.
In 2015 I learned about some centers helping talibés like me. 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 often come back in the afternoon and eat free food they gave us. I joined karate classes too and I started falling love with it. Maison de la Gare was a break from my very hard life, and I spent as much time there as I could. I started getting used to the people at Maison de la Gare and trusting them, especially the teacher Abdou Soumaré. He always would encourage me go to the classes and learn French or English, saying that this would help me a lot in my life.
I could not understand anything in either English or French at that time, so I found it pointless to sit in the classroom. 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’s advice. He had always been telling me I should try to go to Maison de la Gare’ classes and at least learn to understand one language that could help me in my life. So, I started learning English with some of the volunteers at the center. I remained at the center until I started speaking a bit of English, and I even joined the karate dojo and earned my yellow belt.
I went home to Gambia in late 2018, but found my mum had a heart attack and that my elder brother was not working. My uncle was the one taking care of the whole family. I felt that I needed to make a change, 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.
So I went back once again to Saint Louis, and my main objective was to try to support myself, enrol in 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 in friends’ rooms, and sometimes in Maison de la Gare’s emergency shelter. I continued to attend the classes at Maison de la Gare.
I explained my situation and my desire to go to a real school to some of my talibé 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 have very 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 was going to graduate from high school! He was in Senegal only briefly to visit Maison de la Gare. Tijan convinced and inspired me to return to Gambia, this time to go to school. Abdou and Issa Kouyaté, Maison de la Gare’s founder and president, 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, having already been through so much hardship, I would have dropped out of school the very first week that I enrolled. I will never forget … I earned zero out of one hundred in my very first test in school. The teacher called me in front of the class and embarrassed me in front of everyone. 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 so much older than my classmates. I have completed my high school studies with the help of tutors to get caught up for all the education I missed as a child. And I have qualified to write the WASSCE, the West African Senior School Certificate Examination, which I will be attempting this year.
My hope now 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.
Jade describes successful community mobilization in response to devastating fall flooding, a new start for talibé children living in Darou
We reported some months ago on the utter devastation caused by the exceptional fall rains of 2021, particularly in the Darou neighborhood of Saint Louis where dozens of daaras are located and many hundred of the begging talibé children live (see “Flooding! The Talibés are So Vulnerable”). Undaunted by early challenges, our English volunteer Jade Wheldon extended her stay by several months and worked hand in hand with Issa Kouyaté to drive this project to a successful conclusion, a new beginning for the entire community. This is Jade’s report.
The devastating fall flooding in Saint-Louis left many of the talibé children exposed to the harsh climate without access to clean water, fresh and nutritious food, or even basic clothing such as shoes to protect their feet. The floodwater was toxic and contributed to the spread of disease and infection, putting the physical and mental health of the children at further risk.
One of the worst affected sites was in the Darou neighborhood, shown in the first two photos of this report. It is a large square surrounding by housing with two road entrances. Two further nearby sites flooded to the same extent, and the talibés living there as well as the wider community had no choice but to walk through these places to get to connecting roads.
When we started this project, we were given some really amazing opportunities to raise awareness within the community by participating in a couple of large-scale street cleaning campaigns. When the restoration project itself was delayed due to a lack of access to industrial pumps, we focussed on mobilizing the community through a series of talks. After a very productive meeting in late November, a committee was formed to assure regular street cleaning in the district, working with local organizations.
The relatively modest project that we had originally proposed in response to the flooding somehow blossomed into a much larger mobilization of the local community. On the busiest day, over 120 people volunteered to clean the streets with us. But we did not stop there. We spent time talking with the families in the area we were going to restore, discussing the importance of maintaining the land once it was restored and of using the space to bring the community together.
Our original restoration plan was to begin with pumping the flood waters back into the river, and then cleaning up the debris before restoring the landscape. We were unsuccessful in obtaining pumps that could handle this job, but during the resulting delay most of the water had evaporated.
So, with the support of the community, we plunged into the restoration project. We removed the rubbish and deposited it in a dumpster, using pickaxes and wheelbarrows. We then levelled the land using the pickaxes. In areas where the water had created small pits, we used gravel to raise the level, ready for the sand to be laid. Many truckloads of sand were needed along with much muscle power to spread it.
In total, the task took ten days to complete; we had enough materials to restore all three sites. The finished result is a clean, fresh landscape. The community was incredibly grateful for the transformation of their public areas. And the talibés immediately took to the space, building sandcastles, playing football, and running around freely in their bare feet.
This project has really helped the local community take a huge step in the right direction. There is also hope in the newly formed bridge of communication between the marabouts, the community and Maison de la Gare, as well as in the clean-up committee that is now running events in the neighborhood. The project has been lifechanging for the young boys who can enjoy a game of football in a space that was previously a huge health hazard.
Even though this project has been completed, there are many more sites in areas where the talibés live that are in disrepair and damaged by the yearly flooding. What Maison de la Gare has done for the Darou community is very special and greatly appreciated, and it can now be used as a template for other such projects in the future.
We once again express our gratitude to Off The Fence of Amsterdam and to Caminos of Switzerland whose grant made this project of community renewal in Darou possible.
The story of each successful apprentice is a small miracle
We recently shared with you the encouraging progress made in our sewing apprenticeship program, with eleven talibé youth completing the program and being set on their paths to self-sufficiency (“A Chance at Life” at this link). The story of each of these boys is a tribute to their courage in triumphing over unbelievable adversity, true stories of transformation and of the victory of hope over despair. The tales of two of these aspiring entrepreneurs are recorded here.
Samba was born to a very poor family living in Casamance in the south of Senegal and was sent to learn the Koran in a daara in Saint Louis at a very young age. He has an independent spirit and refuses to give in to the abuse and repression he suffers in his daara. Samba does not want to be in his abusive daara, and he does not want to go home either as he says that his parents will simply send him back to the daara since the marabout is his mother's uncle.
Samba's marabout is very harsh and forces him to beg for a daily quota of money. He is regularly beaten and is deprived of nutrition, medical treatment, formal education and adequate shelter. He is severely psychologically intimidated.
Samba had been introduced to Maison de la Gare’s center by other talibé children and loved going there. He participated regularly in soccer games and had begun training in the karate program. However, his marabout forbade him to participate in these programs and confiscated his karate uniform. Samba persisted in coming to the center however, calling it the only joy in his life. He was repeatedly treated for his injuries in Maison de la Gare’s infirmary.
Finally, Samba ran away, unable to tolerate any longer the severe abuse that he suffered in his daara. His parents refused to accept him coming home, so he had nowhere to go and spent many days and nights alone and dangerously exposed on the street. This is where Maison de la Gare’s team found him, after someone had reported seeing him alone sleeping under the hot sun.
Samba was taken to our emergency shelter and spent many days there recovering from his ordeal. After our street educators had gained his confidence, he told them that he wanted to participate in the sewing program because his first ambition had always been to become a great tailor. He was enrolled into the GO Campaign program. Maison de la Gare met with his marabout and obtained his agreement. Samba returned to his daara and is living there, with regular monitoring by Maison de la Gare’s staff to ensure that the severe abuse does not happen again.
Samba came faithfully to Maison de la Gare’s center to participate in the program, avoiding his daara as much as possible. He has been a quiet but very good student, learning quickly and well. Maison de la Gare has become his family, healing his wounds and providing comfort and psychological support in his very difficult life. Sewing has become a passion for him, allowing him to focus and find a purpose. He says: “I want to become as good as my instructor Baka. After the training, I will lead workshops and help children who need it."
Samba is very ambitious and made great progress in the tailoring program. He got excellent marks in the assessments and looks forward to the future and to being able to take care of his mother.
Ibrahima was born in Gambia to a father who is now a mechanic living in Dakar and a mother who sells products in the market in Saint Louis. He was found asleep in the market by Maison de la Gare’s night rounds team, covered with empty rice bags. The team took him to Maison de la Gare’s emergency shelter, where our street educators worked with him patiently to learn his story.
Ibrahima is the eldest of six children from several different fathers. He grew up in Gambia with his maternal grandmother until the age of five, when he was sent to Louga to a maternal aunt where he stayed for several years.
Ibrahima’s mother had moved to Saint Louis, but she could not take care of him due to the number of children and her small income from selling fresh water and juice in the market. He was sent to a daara in the Darou area of Saint Louis. He found the conditions there intolerable and was often not able to beg for enough money to satisfy the daily quota that his marabout demanded of him. His only refuge was the street.
Ibrahima’s daara was particularly bad, with no doors, windows or light, and located in a dangerous area without security. During the winter season, the children were left to fend for themselves without protection from the cold while the marabout lived next door. Because of these conditions, Ibrahima ran away repeatedly, leading to our night rounds team finding him in the market.
Ibrahima began to get involved in our programs after a few days at Maison de la Gare’s center, playing in the yard with other talibés and talking with our staff. Our team found that he was very polite, and courageous about his situation. He saw the apprentices involved in the sewing program and wanted very much to be involved. He was accepted into the program and worked very diligently and successfully. Thanks to this program, Ibrahima now has a promising future.
In his words: "It was not easy for me because neither my father nor my mother supported me or cared about me. I spent years in the daara and on the streets, fending for myself. Now, thanks to this project, I have been able to find my place in society. I hope to become a great tailor and be able to help my mother, who does not have the means to support herself.”
Thank you again to GO Campaign of California for their grant that made Samba and Ibrahima’s program possible, and to all our donors who continue to support us and who will make it possible for many more youth to follow in Samba and Ibrahima’s footsteps. Samba and Ibrahima’s names, and their regions of origin, have been changed in this report.
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