Children
 Senegal
Project #10053

Hope for begging talibe children, St-Louis Senegal

by Maison de la Gare
Vetted
Sam with Kalidou, in Maison de la Gare
Sam with Kalidou, in Maison de la Gare's center

Sam reflects on his eleven weeks as a volunteer with Maison de la Gare

Like many American volunteers, I arrived in Senegal an idealist.  I had studied French colonization of West Africa and had volunteered with immigrant education in my community.  I wanted to expand on this experience, to widen my understanding of the Senegalese society that had been previously confined to the writings of Senghor and Diouf.  I wanted to practice and improve my French.  Above all I hoped to make a positive difference.

I believe I achieved all these goals; I’m proud of the work I did.  I’m thankful for the daily lessons in French and Wolof.  I’m incredibly impressed by the staff at Maison de la Gare, who work tirelessly to improve the lives of the talibé children.  What is harder for me to convey is how, over the course of eleven weeks, Saint Louis, Senegal, became my home. 

My daily routine consisted of waking up, eating a small breakfast with my host family and walking to work.  Now that the summer is at its end, it seems like every event, routine, and interaction augmented my understanding of Senegal.  My walk to work was no exception.  Adults and children ran up to shake the foreigner’s hand, learn his name, and wave.  Soon the whole neighborhood knew my name, and instead of yelling “Toubab!” (the Wolof word for a white person), they would yell, “Samba!” with a grin and a thumbs up (one of my greatest joys of the whole summer was clawing my way to conversational competency in Wolof).

At work I would be greeted by all the staff, who went out of their way to make me feel welcome.  Because the first month of my stay corresponded almost exactly with Ramadan, I usually stayed the whole day at the center and broke my fast with the older talibés and staff in the evening.  We fed the small talibé children first—those who would go hungry without the bread—but when it came time for us to eat, everyone would offer me the best piece and the first cup of ataya (tea).  Though I did my best to be polite and considerate—telling them to eat, that I could wait—my co-workers were insistent.  As one friend explained it to me, “They’re not doing it (being hospitable) because you’re white, but because you’re a visitor in Senegal, our home.  We want to show you the best of our home.”

During Ramadan and the month after, my day generally started by working in the office with Noël.  We would use an Excel spreadsheet to record the attendance at the center and, with over 3,000 names in the database, the logistics became fairly arduous and complex.  It was during these mornings that I became accustomed to the flow of spoken Wolof and learned all the essentials for basic conversation.

In the afternoon and evening I would spend time with Abdou, leading group games or songs for the younger talibés.  Nearly all of the games served some sort of purpose.  We sang in Pular, Wolof, French and English about brushing teeth and showering.  Through games like tug of war, the talibés began to understand the value of rules and organization.  It was during the games more than anywhere else that I could see the effects of street rule on the children.  In an effort to see each talibé as a human being with a unique story, sometimes it was easy to forget that they grow up without parents or mentors, and that they are uneducated in the most basic social principles.  It saddened me, but it also angered me.  It felt like we were fighting a losing battle, and I felt awkward in the role of a disciplinarian.

One of the hardest parts of my existence in Senegal was that I could never forget my role as a white person, and sometimes that reality made my job difficult.  Because I could never step out of my skin, I made myself be careful around the kids.  I wanted them to see me as a Senegalese adult, parent or big brother and never a colonist. 

Most evenings, I would teach a language course in English for some of the older (15 to 22-year-old) talibé students.  Though I had experience tutoring, I had never taught English as a foreign language before, much less held the attention of an entire class.  It was challenging, and I know I made many mistakes.  On several occasions, I tried to push my students, only to find out that they retained none of the lesson.  Other times we made moderate progress with grammar, writing and critical reading.  By the end of the summer, my students became some of my best friends.  I reveled in each small success—a well pronounced word or correct sentence—and sympathized with any blunder.  I made many mistakes, to be sure, but I also gained a huge amount of hands-on experience. And all in all, I learned so much.

Some of the coolest experiences in Senegal happened away from the center.  From attending weddings to wandering the vacant, moonlit streets of Saint Louis, I was lucky to see Senegal from a hundred different perspectives, and to speak with a variety of people about their country, their society.  Even after two months, I feel like I only got a fleeting glance at the culture.  I saw enough of Senegal, however, to realize how rich and complex it truly is.

When asked about my summer in Senegal by friends and family, I always start with the challenges.  I like to build my story as it happened, to describe my experience without a sugarcoating.  I hesitate to start with challenges, however, because, over these past two and a half months, I’ve realized the beauty and incalculable value of Senegalese culture to the world.

When I arrived in Senegal, I was overwhelmed.  A part of me wants to forget my initial fears and inadequacies.  I want to remember Senegal as the home it became, not the stress of being alone in a foreign land.  Those moments are perhaps the most significant, however.  They throw into sharp relief the amazing stories, the small day-to-day triumphs and the friendships which have come to define my summer.  When faced with the choice between romanticizing my experience and recounting my fears, I won’t lie: it was hard.

And if I had the choice to do the whole experience over again I would do it…in a heartbeat.

 

With friends on his last day at the centre
With friends on his last day at the centre
Ceremonial breaking of the fast during Ramadan
Ceremonial breaking of the fast during Ramadan
A typical evening language class
A typical evening language class
Sam
Sam's host mother serving a lamb stew
Sam with talibe leaders and US ambassador Zumwalt
Sam with talibe leaders and US ambassador Zumwalt
Sam and Iman in traditional Senegalese dress
Sam and Iman in traditional Senegalese dress
With host family members Maniang and Babacar
With host family members Maniang and Babacar

Links:

Djibi, shocked learning about slavery
Djibi, shocked learning about slavery

Sonia LeRoy reports on a horse-drawn carriage ride around Saint Louis that became a window on the past

Maison de la Gare is a place where talibé children have the opportunity to learn, as well as to just enjoy being children while being appreciated as the unique individuals they are.  This recently manifested itself in a unique way for the begging street children of Saint Louis.

A group of Canadian high school students, each with a parent (myself one of them) organized a unique excursion for the talibés of Maison de la Gare.  The excursion was at once an outing to relax far from their daily trials of forced begging, while at the same time being an opportunity to bond with the volunteers and to spend time experiencing a tour and seeing local historical sights.  And, these talibés learned about the history and heritage of the city in which they live, in many cases for the first time.

Initially it was planned that sixteen talibé children, their Maison de la Gare teacher Bouri Mbodj and the volunteers would participate.  When our group met at Maison de la Gare's center to gather for the walk to the tour departure point on the island of Saint Louis, the group of interested talibés had become 26.  A few more Maison de la Gare talibés joined the group as we walked and, by the time we prepared to board the horse drawn carriages to begin the tour, our group had swelled to 35.  As the tour progressed, two more stragglers hopped on.  Only four carriages had been ordered for 23 people.  However, all 35 squeezed happily into the carts, with the little ones balancing on the laps of adults and teenagers.  Only the hard working horses were unhappy with the situation.

As we set out on our journey, behaving like tourists, bystanders gaped in astonishment as they realized it was mainly talibés on board, some barefoot and filthy, but with beaming smiles emanating pride and happiness.  Many held our hands, enjoying moments of affection as might a parent and child on a family outing.

At each point of interest, the group disembarked for a history lesson.  The information was repeated in French as well as Wolof by our thoughtful guide, to ensure that the talibés understood.   Most of the talibé children had never crossed the bridge to the ocean-side Langue de Barbarie; a few had never before ventured even onto the island of Saint Louis, remaining forever in their familiar begging grounds of Sor on the mainland, a 500 meter footbridge away.

At one historical stop, meat pastries were being fried and offered for sale at a roadside stand.  The children were delighted to be treated to a pastry each for dinner.

As a description was offered of the riverside colonial warehouse that in past centuries housed the trade goods of ivory, rubber, gold and slaves, one child asked: "What is a slave?"  Sober and astonished silence descended as the guide explained, as gently as possible, the history of the transatlantic slave trade in Senegal.  Most of these kids had never heard of slavery, and could not absorb even the concept of the barbarism that dominated four centuries of their own history.  Watching these children whom the United Nations defines as modern day slaves trying to accept such historical horrors, I was struck by how little had, in fact, changed from those difficult times for these beautiful talibé boys.

For information about opportunities to volunteer with Maison de la Gare or to support the education programs for the talibés, please visit Maison de la Gare's web site at this link

Children and volunteers gather ...
Children and volunteers gather ...
Sonia organizing her carriage, awaiting the driver
Sonia organizing her carriage, awaiting the driver
In the streets of Saint Louis
In the streets of Saint Louis
Happily enroute
Happily enroute
Over the bridge to the Langue de Barbarie
Over the bridge to the Langue de Barbarie
A stop for meat pastries
A stop for meat pastries
Teacher Bouri and the children listen attentively
Teacher Bouri and the children listen attentively

Links:

Secretary John Kerry recognizes Issa as a "hero"
Secretary John Kerry recognizes Issa as a "hero"

Secretary of State John Kerry honors Issa Kouyaté as a Hero of the struggle against child trafficking

Every year the U.S. State Department honors individuals around the world who have devoted their lives to the fight against human trafficking, the highlight of release of its annual report on progress in countries around the world. 

Issa was presented to Secretary Kerry with these words: "In recognition of his selfless dedication to protecting talibés, his commitment to providing them comprehensive care, and his vital role in building support among local officials to prevent human trafficking, Issa Kouyaté ..."

This is Issa's personal report of the experience:

"My journey to the US to receive the TIP Hero award was one the most moving experiences of my professional life.  This award honors all of the work that Maison de la Gare has done over the past five years, especially in child protection.  The report covers the world and gives each country a sense of where it stands in the areas of corruption, human trafficking and respect of international conventions that it has ratified.

The visit brought together nine individuals from different countries who are leaders in the struggle against trafficking.  Each of these counties has its own challenges.  For Senegal, represented by Maison de la Gare, the problem area is street children and children who are suffering abuse or are otherwise in vulnerable situations.

I met first in Dakar with U.S. Ambassador James Zumwalt who congratulated me for the tremendous work that Maison de la Gare does.  The Embassy covered my travel expenses.

In Washington we visited organizations like Polaris, a leader in the global fight to eradicate modern slavery and restore freedom to survivors.  And we learned in our exchanges that there are trafficking victims everywhere, even in the United States.  The meetings were successful, as many of these organizations want to stay in touch with us and our work.   We were also taken on a guided tour around Washington, visiting its monuments and statues; this helped us to understand the past and how it links the present with the future.

It was in meetings with Ambassador Susan Coppedge (Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons) and Secretary of State John Kerry that I really appreciated the impact of what we are doing.  Although we are on the other side of the world, we are key players in this struggle.  I became aware of how important our work is and how much we have accomplished in so short a time.  This has required great sacrifices and these leaders acknowledged this with generosity and  conviction.  I have reached a point personally where there is no room for error, especially in protecting the children.  

This award is very important for the thousands of people struggling to end human trafficking.  The Secretary of State and the ambassador took us into their confidence, emphasizing the importance of our work for the entire world.  We also met with US security chiefs who explained how they work to fight against human trafficking.

Many issues raised during the visit focused on the situation of talibé children in Senegal.  As the Senegalese representative, I had to explain the roles of Maison de la Gare and various government services.  In fact, the very next day the Senegalese government announced a decision about stabilizing the situation of street children, a decision to ban begging of street children throughout the country.

I returned home satisfied and full of hope that the children's situation and their living conditions will change for the better in the near future."

Issa proudly displaying his award
Issa proudly displaying his award
Issa advocates passionately for talibe children
Issa advocates passionately for talibe children
A working meeting with US anti-trafficking unit
A working meeting with US anti-trafficking unit
With Awa Ndour of Senegal anti-trafficking office
With Awa Ndour of Senegal anti-trafficking office
Martin Luther King
Martin Luther King's words touched Issa deeply

Links:

Jerejef logo painted on the wall of MDG
Jerejef logo painted on the wall of MDG's library

Lydie reports on the extraordinary contribution of Asociación Jerejef

They only stayed a week, but what a week!

When Amaia Alonso contacted us to say that she had seen Maison de la Gare's work and that her association would like to support us, we couldn't imagine how this proposal would mark the everyday life of the center and especially of the children.

The association's name, "Jerejef" (thank you in Wolof), could not have been more appropriate as we can't thank them enough for their physical, psychological and emotional support.

They arrived on a Monday morning like a hurricane, renewing the energy level in the center.  After a brief meeting where the volunteers asked a thousand questions about the street children's situation, we defined the plan of work and distributed the tasks.

They got to work and involved everyone.  There were fifteen of them, fifteen Spaniards working in the center; the word "solidarity" has never had more meaning.  It was a bit difficult in the beginning because they were animated by a "toubab" approach but, in Senegal, things are more "nank nank" (gently).  You have to know in Senegal how to pace yourself without getting stressed.  The children got more and more curious as they saw the volunteers dig in and, as they love to feel needed, they were delighted to be able to help.

The infirmary was turned upside down and moved temporary into the entrance hall of the emergency shelter.  Awa, the nurse, was blown away.  Volunteers who treated the children did an extraordinary job; they cared for children from morning to night with tenderness and good humor, without flinching.  The infirmary is one of the hardest places to work in the center; it is in healing their wounds, scabies and other ailments that you can really see the suffering that these children endure.

Most difficult and heart-wrenching for the volunteers was the "night round" they went on with Bathe, looking for runaway children.  They were able to see the enormous work that Maison de la Gare is carrying our finding and taking charge of these children, bringing them to the security of the center's emergency dormitory.  It is a very traumatic experience to see young children choosing to sleep in the streets where they are exposed to great danger, instead of returning to their daara for fear of being beaten.

Teachers Abdou and Aunt Aïda, and especially the children, were delighted to have improved lighting in the classrooms.  I have to say that the volunteers were outstanding do-it-yourselfers!  They repainted three workshop rooms with the children's help.  The children left proud of themselves and a little stained with paint, but very happy.

The center was abuzz.  There were toubabs everywhere hard at work with the children, and many friendships were born.  The carpenter worked tirelessly side by side with one of the volunteers; they learned a lot from each other.

Imam went to Bango every day with two volunteers, to the property where the older talibé children are caring for a garden.  The volunteers taught Imam how to grow the wormwood plant and to appreciate its qualities.  The two women laughed a lot because Imam is a born comic, and I think that he found in them the aunts that all children should have close to them.

And, despite all the work that they did every day, each of the Spanish volunteers found time for children, to play football, to attempt Senegalese wrestling, to dance to the sound of the djembe, or just to talk with them ... although they did not speak the same language, they communicated easily with each other with the language of the heart.

It was an unforgettable week for the volunteers, the children and Maison de la Gare's staff, a week of solidarity, friendship, good humor and sharing.  The day of the celebration organized for the volunteers was one that we will not soon forget.  The children took charge.  There were many of them at the center that day and they wanted to thank their friends for everything they had done, and to say goodbye to them.  Everyone danced in groups to the sounds of the djembes and laughed together; the atmosphere was more than magical.  There are no words to describe this moment.

Each member of the center's staff presented a diploma to the volunteer whom they had worked most closely with during the week.  It was a surprise.  People do not often show their emotions in Senegalese society but, that day, everyone shed a few tears.  Awa came and snuggled in my arms to try to hide her emotion, trembling and weeping warm tears.  She was overjoyed with the renewal of the infirmary, with all the medical supplies that the volunteers had brought, and especially with the new treatment table for the children.

The climactic moment was when the fire eater put on his show.  The children's eyes were literally ready to pop out of their sockets; they could not open them more.  They were stunned and motionless, normally an impossibility for them as anyone who knows them can tell you!  We all had tears in our eyes.  When you know what the lives of these children are like and have the chance to see them happy, if only for a moment, emotion runs very deeply.

No one wanted the evening to end; it was so beautiful and moving.  But the children had to return to their daaras.  Otherwise they would be punished.  The hardest part was bursting the bubble of happiness and making them leave against their wishes.

Children kept talking about the toubabs and asking after them long after they left.  When they look at the Jerejef logo on the wall or at the benches they painted together, there is a smile on their faces.  These children do not forget; they are very grateful ...

Nurse Awa with donated medical supplies
Nurse Awa with donated medical supplies
Volunteers offer health care - temporary infirmary
Volunteers offer health care - temporary infirmary
Restoring one of the center
Restoring one of the center's murals
Volunteers repair the library
Volunteers repair the library's thatched roof
Children gather for thank you celebration
Children gather for thank you celebration
... amazed by the fire-eater
... amazed by the fire-eater
The Jerejef team  -  Mission Accomplished!
The Jerejef team - Mission Accomplished!

Links:

Deputy Governor Sahite Fall with Issa and Diodio
Deputy Governor Sahite Fall with Issa and Diodio

A major grant from the European Union opens promising possibilities for Maison de la Gare and the talibé children whom we serve

On Thursday, June 2nd, a project for "Improving the lives of talibé children, children living in the streets and vulnerable children" was launched at Hotel Keur Dada in Saint Louis, a four-year project made possible by a grant from the European Union.

Mr. Sahite Fall, Deputy Governor for Development for the Saint Louis region, presided over the ceremony.  It brought together people working in child protection in Saint Louis including representatives of government agencies, Koranic teachers ("marabouts") and women who act as godmothers to the children, along with representatives of the various movements and associations working in this area.  Personnel from Maison de la Gare and from Concept, our partner in the project, were also present.

Diodio Calloga Sané coordinates this initiative for Maison de la Gare and she presented the project.  She highlighted Saint Louis's situation as a renowned centre for Koranic learning, resulting in a concentration of talibé children from remote areas of Senegal and from neighboring countries such as Gambia and Guinea.  One of the first activities under the project was to carry out a census of talibé children in the city.  Close to 15,000 talibés were identified, most of them in difficult situations which call out for appropriate responses to improve their living conditions.

But the new project is not only devoted to the talibés.  It is also concerned with children from poor families or otherwise affected by family breakdown or incapacity.

Maison de la Gare and Concept are collaborating in the project with a network of associated organizations.  These include Action Femmes Enfants - a local association supporting child mothers in difficulty; Terres Rouges - an international NGO committed to the psychological and social support of street children, talibés and other vulnerable children; and Univers de l'enfant - which has worked with Maison de la Gare for years finding and caring for children living in the street.

We are also working closely with government organizations including Action sociale, AEMO (Educational Action in an Open Environments - Ministry of Justice), the regional Community Development Service, the police and the courts.  In addition, local artisans, school principals, marabouts, neighborhood representatives and other associations working in child protection are contributing to achieving the goals that have been established for this project.  All these actors were present at the project launch.

For Maison de la Gare, this new project reinforces the educational, health care and hygiene, artistic, sports and other activities in our center in Saint Louis, with two specific targets: welcoming over one thousand children at the center each year; and obtaining identity papers for 100 children every year.  The latter objective is of paramount importance as many talibé children have no identification papers and this blocks their access to formal schooling, banking activities and in fact to becoming full participants in Senegalese society.

Most important, this new project is making possible major progress on two critical objectives:

Finding, taking charge of and monitoring more than 350 children a year who are living in the streets.  For years, we have carried out "night rounds" to find children sleeping in the streets and to reintegrate them with their families.  However, these efforts have seemed like a drop in the ocean. Now we believe that we will be able to find and appropriately care for effectively all of the children living in the streets of Saint Louis.

Awareness campaigns.  We will organize awareness campaigns once every two months in the main areas of Senegal from where boys are sent to Saint Louis's daaras.  Going door-to-door, meeting with local media, organizing meetings and performing theatrical skits, we aim to make people aware of the violations of rights and freedoms and the abuse that their children are subjected to, and of the urgent need to protect these children.

With these two initiatives, our objective is to reduce the number of begging talibé children in Saint Louis by 25%.  The census that we have just completed will be the reference point for this quantitative objective.

The project provides for apprenticeship opportunities for older children, specifically targeting training of 600 children in sewing, carpentry, metal work, auto mechanics and computer science including 25 talibé children per year committed to Maison de la Gare's agricultural apprenticeship program in Bango.

In addition, the project will improve the living conditions of 300 vulnerable children or victims of violence, and support 1,000 vulnerable children enrolled in formal schooling.  Programs are also planned to strengthen the knowledge of prevention and protection mechanisms for thousands of children.

This project marks a new chapter, a watershed in the protection of vulnerable children in Saint Louis.  It is the opportunity for Maison de la Gare, Concept and everyone involved to make a major breakthrough in building a better future for these children.

A note to our precious supporters ... This new European Union grant provides a proportional contribution to the project costs.  It is your donations that are the base of the pyramid.  It is your support that is making it possible to change children's lives. 

Our EU application  -  an enormous team effort
Our EU application - an enormous team effort
Deputy Governor Fall presides over the ceremony
Deputy Governor Fall presides over the ceremony
Diodio presents the project ...
Diodio presents the project ...
... while the assembly listens attentively
... while the assembly listens attentively
Maison de la Gare
Maison de la Gare's team was there
Concept
Concept's president Amadou Dione takes the podium
Diodio interviewed by the media, after the event
Diodio interviewed by the media, after the event

Links:

 

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Organization Information

Maison de la Gare

Location: Saint Louis - Senegal
Website: http:/​/​www.mdgsl.com/​eng.html
Project Leader:
Rod LeRoy
Saint Louis, Saint-Louis Senegal
$63,314 raised of $67,500 goal
 
755 donations
$4,186 to go
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