Confinement and curfew tragically complicate the lives of thousands of children. With no one on the streets, there is no one to beg from.
"The situation is explosive," says Issa Kouyaté.
In Saint Louis, you normally can not take a step without tripping over a child dressed in rags who asks for some coins for food. However, since the coming of Covid-19 everything has changed. The measures taken by the government to try to contain the spread of the virus and the fear that is beginning to spread among the population have resulted in people staying in their homes. Thousands of begging talibé children are left with no access to food. Some families in remote regions of the country demanded that their children be returned home. However, the government’s prohibition of travel between different regions of the country prevents this.
When this crisis first arrived in Senegal, Maison de la Gare responded quickly by closing its center and providing soap, disinfectant and hygiene instruction for the children in their daaras. We reported on this last month. However, we soon realized that this is not enough. The children have nothing to eat, and we have committed all our resources to feeding them.
We are now providing nutritious daily meals to over 1,500 talibé children each day in their daaras.
How is this possible? It is thanks to the brave and dedicated women of the Ndèye daaras, the “Godmothers” in each neighborhood of Saint Louis who have committed themselves to responding to the desperate situation of the talibé children. We are working with groups of these amazing women in each of ten neighborhoods of Saint Louis, including the north and south island, Pikine, Balacoss, Ndiolofène, Darou, Diamimar, Médina Course, Eaux claires and Léona.
In each of these neighborhoods, the women are cooking each day for the children of four to seven daaras located close to their base. Each of these daaras typically has 30 to 70 children, so many children are being reached. We provide funds at the beginning of each week so that the women can do the shopping. They are very effective at this, asking vendors in the market for their support for the needy children. Many respond generously, with the result that the funds go much further than they normally would.
The food is distributed to the children’s daaras in the large stainless-steel bowls that are very common for communal meals in Senegal.
With this program now underway, we have been able to give more attention to hygiene awareness for the children and everyone involved. The apprentices in the sewing program in our centre have been working long hours fabricating face masks; over a thousand of these have now been distributed.
We are deeply grateful to everyone who has responded to this situation with emergency support of our efforts. We received emergency grants from Global Fund for Children and from GO Campaign which will allow us to keep going for over five weeks. Many individual donors have also stepped forward to help us sustain the effort. And other organizations in Saint Louis and the city government are beginning to adopt this model in neighborhoods and daaras that we have not been able to reach.
Thank you, everyone. The struggle continues.
Maison de la Gare faces an extraordinary challenge in responding to this global pandemic
Not just one life, but a whole nation!!!
Maison de la Gare has had to make a very difficult and consequential decision, to temporarily close its welcome center for the talibé children. We and the children we serve are facing very serious challenges as a totally unexpected threat is upending normal life.
The coronavirus Covid-19 made its way from Asia to Europe and America, and it is now spreading around the world. The countries that were affected first, although rich and developed, could not do anything to stop it other than by isolation. African countries like Senegal are not prepared to deal with this pandemic. Senegal registered its first case on March 2nd. Three weeks later, there are more than thirty cases. The Senegalese Head of State, Macky Sall, has ordered the closure of schools and universities and even places of worship, as well as the cancellation of all public gatherings.
Maison de la Gare works with talibé children who have been left stranded, along with others of the most vulnerable in society who are most affected by infectious diseases. The government has made no decisions regarding the daaras. The ban on welcoming children to schools to prevent transmission of the virus should be applied also in daaras where there is much less hygienic protection and where children are exposed to all kinds of contagious diseases. The danger in some daaras is very high and potentially fraught with dire consequences.
Having had to close its welcome center, Maison de la Gare’s team is now carrying out an awareness campaign in the poorest Saint Louis daaras, doing their best to protect the most vulnerable against the Covid-19 threat.
Among other initiatives, we are distributing hygiene kits in dozens of daaras housing more than 2,000 talibé children who are particularly exposed to communicable or contagious diseases. We are educating both the marabouts and the children about the threat and are encouraging the marabouts to keep their talibés off the streets. And we are demonstrating to both the children and the marabouts how to wash their hands effectively and to respect basic hygiene practices. The hygiene kits that we are distributing typically include soap, hand sanitizer and bleach.
We sincerely hope that this scourge will soon be under control so that we will be able to relaunch our programs for the talibé children, to help them find hope and direction in their difficult lives.
In the meantime, we will be adapting day by day to the changing situation, doing everything in our power to help the most vulnerable. We are grateful to everyone in the global community who supports our work and makes it possible for us to do this.
Patricia reflects on her volunteer experience with Maison de la Gare
My life has more than considerably changed for the better thanks to my experience during the two months that I spent at Maison de la Gare as a volunteer. It will be impossible for me to forget all the lovely kids and adults I met at the center. My trip revolved around them and I will always be grateful that they made it as wonderful and lively as it was.
The talibé children in Saint Louis face a lot of hardships but, no matter what, they are brothers to one another. They laugh and play together. They also wrestle and fight like all kids. But there won't be a day when they won’t smile at you when you make a funny face. And working at Maison de la Gare meant leaning into that happiness and providing a space where the kids can be kids.
Through my experience, I was exposed to a totally new, totally different culture. As someone who has rarely had fewer than two jobs, spending two months in Africa has allowed me an immensely happy and calm season. In this brief moment, and for the first time, I wasn’t terribly worried about everything. I loved my job and I had friends who loved me; it was everything I could have ever asked for. Of course, the stay wasn’t comfortable like my life in the United States and there were things I could have done without, but I was so grateful to have the opportunity to be there in a strange place, surrounded by kind people and kids, without a thing clouding my mind.
As a student, I am determined not to waste the opportune environment I am in. I attend an excellent university full of extraordinary people, and such a position is scarcely attainable in most other places around the world. I have gained valuable experience working through a significant language barrier. I have gained cultural immersion in a foreign country and greatly expanded my ability to communicate and be courageous in new situations. With these new skills, I have new confidence and can expand my work prospects internationally with valuable experience already under my belt.
As a citizen, I am now capable of bringing a culturally educated voice to my life’s range of influences. I can raise awareness and contribute to refined views of certain types of social issues. Now, I can advocate for those that might not get a voice otherwise.
I will have to use incredible will to not let what I learned through my experience fade away. In the future, I will struggle to ward off my ingratitude, my self-destructive behavior and my temptation to place my own needs above those around me. Watching old habits return to my life terrifies me; I just hope the terror is enough to keep me from returning to my old lifestyle. In any case, in the future I will seize my opportunities to make known the reality I came to know in Senegal; the good and the bad, the personal and the public.
We invite you to read the full reports written by each of the former volunteers who are quoted below: Sam Kenney, Alessandra Battioni, Tommaso Arosio and Myah Freeman.
Cheikh Diallo is achieving a miracle, modelling a better childhood for begging talibé street children
When Ndèye’s husband sent her 8-year-old son Samba from their home in Thiagale to a daara in faraway Louga, Ndèye collapsed on the ground sobbing. She was inconsolable and ate very little for many months. She was permitted almost no contact with her son. As the weeks and months went by, she became weaker and weaker, and no longer wanted to live. Ndèye begged her husband to allow the boy to come home, but he would not consider this. Eventually the family concluded that Ndèye had a serious illness, and they sent her to the hospital in Dahra Djoloff. Saint Louis shoemaker Cheikh Diallo became aware of this situation. Ndèye’s village of Thiagale is close to Cheikh’s own village, and it is one of the four places where he has built schools. Cheikh presented Samba’s father with an ultimatum … bring the child home or Cheikh would do it. The father relented and called Samba’s marabout, giving Cheikh permission to get the child and bring him home.
Cheikh describes the reunion of mother and child in the Dahra Djoloff hospital in a scene reminiscent of Lazarus being raised from the dead. Ndèye was slumped on her bed, near death. When she saw her son she screamed and embraced him and, apparently, was instantly recovered. They returned to Thiagale where Samba is now one of the students in the school that Cheikh build there.
We visited Cheikh’s schools in the Mbaye Aw region two years ago, and told his story in an earlier report. Believing that boys should not be sent away from their families at a young age, Cheikh resolved to build schools for them near their homes. His first school was in Medina Alpha where the village chief offered his daughter – also named Ndèye - in marriage if Cheikh truly completed the school. Cheikh and Ndèye are now very happily married and have just had their second child. When we visited, there were three thriving schools, in Ndigueli, Thiagale and Medina Alpha, while a fourth in the village of Belel Ndioba had failed due to lack of funds to pay the teacher.
Mouhamed, a talibé who had come home from begging in Dakar to attend the new school in Medina Alpha, was at the top of the first graduating class. Cheikh supported him in attending the 5th grade in Kaolack where Mouhamed again excelled. When his host family moved away however, Cheikh brought Mouhamed to live with him and continue his schooling in Saint Louis.
Djibi was also a student in the first classes in Medina Alpha, but academics were not his passion and he had to repeat the 4th year. All he wanted to do was to play soccer, and he excelled at this. Now also with Cheikh in Saint Louis, Djibi is registered in a soccer school and shows great potential to develop as a professional athlete.
The three surviving original schools are doing well, although it is a constant struggle for Cheikh. At Ndigueli, 7 km from Dahra Djoloff, 35 boys who would otherwise be begging talibés and 25 girls attend regular classes. Happily, the father of three of the children is a storekeeper in Dahra Djoloff and he pays the salary of the teacher.
The school in Thiagale, where Samba is now, has two teachers and they share a modest monthly contribution from Maison de la Gare. The villagers provide free food and accommodation for the teachers and food for the students. School supplies are the major challenge here, and Cheikh has financed these through contributions from his own network of contacts and from his own meager earnings.
At Cheikh’s original school in Medina Alpha where Mouhamed and Djibi had their start, the government has been convinced to provide two teachers for the approximately 50 students. One of these teaches math, language and other subjects in French, while the other teaches English and sports. Here also, the villagers supply food for the children and the teachers and Cheikh does his best to cover the necessary school supplies.
It was at Belel Ndioba where we had met during our earlier visit with the village elders discussing possibilities for replacing the school which had failed after Cheikh had been unable to pay the teacher. In fact, this is the most hopeful story of all. Two marabouts from the village had set up their daaras in distant cities with children who were also from the village and surrounding area. Cheikh convinced both of these marabouts to return with their children. Thierno Kalidou brought 11 talibés from Richard Toll in the north, and Thierno Omar Kâ brought 22 talibés from Kaolack in central Senegal. The two marabouts have combined their children in a new school, pictured at the beginning of this report, and this school now has a total of 36 boys and 35 girls! The marabouts teach classes in Arabic while a teacher from the Thiagale school teaches math and other subjects in French.
Meanwhile, at his shoe-repair stall on a street corner in Saint Louis, Cheikh continues to connect with talibés from the Mbaye Aw region, and works with the children’s families and their marabouts to return as many as possible to their villages and register them in one of the schools. The final photograph in this report is one of many groups of these children. In this case, Cheikh took this photograph home to his village and showed it to the children’s families, explaining how he had found their sons on the streets at night. Two of the families relented and accepted their sons back home.
During a recent visit with Cheikh at Maison de la Gare’s center, our administrator Adama Diarra said, “If there were twenty more like Cheikh in Senegal, there would be no more begging talibés.”
Dominika Kulczyk exposes child slavery in Senegal for CNN Freedom Project and Kulczyk Foundation documentary series
Forced begging is the most prevalent form of human trafficking in Senegal. Human Rights Watch estimates that every day more than 100,000 talibés – children living in religious schools to learn the Quran – are forced onto the streets under the threat of violence to beg for food or money.
Most live far away from home, sent by their parents to study the Quran, and live under the care of marabouts, teachers who run a daara or Quranic school. However, many of these children end up living without food, medical care or even a roof over their head, and receive little or no education.
CNN and the Kulczyk Foundation have produced a half-hour documentary that focuses on Dominika Kulczyk’s visit to Issa Kouyate and his organization, Maison de la Gare. Maison de la Gare provides talibés in Saint Louis with food, shelter, clothing, education and medical and psychological support.
The Kulczyk Foundation is supporting Maison de la Gare to reach more children, including through funding transport for the organization's night-time rounds looking for children sleeping in the street, so they can cover more of the city.
“The lives of most talibés in Senegal are shaped by violence, fear and despair and I was shocked to see the conditions many are living in. But when I visited Maison de la Gare during the filming of Begging for Change, I saw children filled with hope. With the Kulczyk Foundation’s support, Maison de la Gare will be able to reach more boys in the city of Saint Louis to offer these children safety and security,” said Dominika Kulczyk, Founder and President of the Kulczyk Foundation. “Collective action is now needed to change the mentality of the people who have allowed modern slavery to become an everyday norm in Senegal.”
“People say human trafficking happens in the shadows. In Senegal, it’s not like that. In Senegal it’s so obvious, so out in the open. It’s shocking … this is just exploitation. It's trafficking. It's slavery,” said Kouyate.
We are grateful to the Kulczyk Foundation and to photographer Tatiana Jachyra for their permission to use this text and Tatiana’s photographs. The Kulczyk Foundation has made generous financial contributions in support of Maison de la Gare’s work for the talibé children.
Dominika Kulczyk, the foundation’s president, featured in the CNN Freedom Project documentary about our work, Begging for Change. She also wrote an opinion piece published by CNN entitled Slave Schools: Tackling Forced Begging in Senegal.
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