Talibé victims of a contemporary form of slavery visit the island of Gorée
Arouna Kandé, a senior talibé and Maison de la Gare’s Administrative Assistant, prepared this report of the very moving visit that thirty talibé children made to the island of Gorée on December 31st, 2014. Arouna writes: “The Portuguese, French, Dutch, Spanish and English controlled the slave trade. Their products were traded for slaves, provided mostly by African kings. The overloaded boats headed for the New World, many from Gorée. The crossing of the Atlantic was a terrible ordeal, lasting four weeks or more. The slaves were chained in the holds crammed like sardines, branded with a hot iron. Once in the Americas, they were sold at auction. The proceeds from the sales allowed the Europeans to benefit from the products of the plantation fields: coffee, tobacco, cotton and sugar cane. This visit taught us how Africa has experienced a great challenge before independence.”
Arouna interviewed seven of the talibé children who participated with him in the visit, and he has recorded their accounts for us here.
Karfa, age 13 – “When the marabout gave me permission to join the other talibé children going to Dakar to visit Gorée, I was surprised because I never thought that I would go to the capital one day. I couldn’t sleep on the way. All along the road I watched the houses and woods in the dark. Arriving in Dakar, my heart started to beat faster because we got on a boat and the sea in front of us seemed so large that I was thinking in my head, ‘Where is this going to take us?’ Arriving on the island of Gorée, there was no one there; it was like a dream. We all stayed together until people woke up. Later, I understood the purpose of our visit to the House of Slaves. There were empty rooms, but Issa explained the meaning of these empty rooms. Why did people want to be sold by the Toubabs (the whites)? How were they sold?”
Oumar, age19 – “It was on December 31, 2014 that we went to visit the island of Gorée. We left Saint Louis at around 1:30 am and arrived at Gorée at 4 am. After spending the night, we woke up at 7 am to visit the House of Slaves, and we took the boat to cross to it. Once there, we had breakfast in the company of our friends and the president of our association.
During our visit, we discovered a lot about the history of Gorée, for example, how the slaves lived, where they were gathered, and where the boats were moored that would take them away. We saw monuments that showed the abuse and suffering that these people were subjected to. We also visited the rooms where the slaves lived ten to fifteen people per room, with women, men and children being separated. We learned from the person responsible for the House of Slave how the slaves were treated by the whites. The visit allowed us to learn many things that we did not know about Gorée as well as about the history of Senegal, in particular of slavery.
After this visit, we can say that Gorée is a city full of history like Saint Louis, but the difference is that when we speak of Saint Louis we allude to the arrival of whites in this city that became the first capital of Senegal. But Gorée is a city that reminds us of bad memories, of the suffering and pain experienced by our society before independence.”
Idrissa, age 15 – “This was the first time I visited Gorée. I saw a lot of things that I have never seen. The scenery is beautiful, and we discovered a lot about the island of Gorée: monuments, the rooms of the slaves and the slaves’ door of no return. We were also told about the conditions in which the slaves lived, ill-treated by the whites. This visit allowed us to know a lot about the history of the slave trade and especially about the slaves.”
Amadou, age 16 – “This visit to Gorée was a great highlight in our lives, as it has allowed us to discover a lot about the history of our country and especially about the human trafficking of slaves and the precarious conditions under which they lived.
Also during this visit, we discovered the monuments that showed us the abuse suffered by these slaves, and their departure point leaving for Europe and the United States.”
Ousmane B., age 8 – “When you hear Dakar, it feels like cars are roaring in heaven and there are plenty of planes there too. The buildings are large, there are police officers in the city, and the roads are very wide. We got into a boat to go to a place like another country. There was nobody in the houses and no one was speaking. We entered a house where there was no one, the rooms had no beds, no TV, no toilet. We saw a statue that was speaking with a sword in its hand. It was like being in a movie.”
Ousmane D., age 14 – “At the end of December I went to Gorée. We learned so much about the history of Senegal and the slave trade and the fate of slaves. This trip makes it possible for us to have a better life. And it was as a part of this adventure that I was able to go to the palace of the President of the Republic of Senegal.”
Souleymane, age 20 – “It was an unforgettable day when I visited Gorée. I've never been there and, thanks to this visit, I had the opportunity to learn many things. We were shown rooms for men, women and children slaves. They also showed us some very important things about the slaves, for example the chains which bound their necks and ankles. There was a small door called the “door of no return” though which the slaves departed to go to the Americas. I am really happy to have made this visit, because it taught me so much about the island of Gorée and the slave trade.”
Strengthening a resource at the heart of Maison de la Gare's center
The library has become the heart of Maison de la Gare's center in Saint Louis for many of the talibé children. This amazing resource was made possible by a generous donation from the Stockholm International Rotary Club, and it opened to the children in the fall of 2011. The Rotary donation covered bookshelves, furniture, painting, a TV and DVD player, DVDs, intelligence games, teaching materials such as paper, watercolors, modeling clay and art supplies, and several hundred books.
Almost immediately, the children began to discover the magic of books and reading. We have many pictures of boys enthralled as they thumb through books for the first time. Reading to talibé children in the library has become a favorite activity for Maison de la Gare's international volunteers, and the children love this as well. Teachers, and the volunteers supporting them, have come to use the library's resources as an integral part of their teaching programs.
It is challenging to find appropriate books for children who have little formal education but may be ten to eighteen years old. We look for "low vocabulary, high interest" books, with subject matter which is appropriate for these begging street children. They love technology subjects, books that focus on different areas of the world, and stories of children with whom they can relate. A Senegalese publisher, BLD Éditions, produces some very suitable books in French, or French and Wolof, and we have purchased many of these with the help of Canadian donors.
In early 2012, three computers donated by Associaciò Un Petit Pas of Catalonia, Spain were installed in the library, greatly enriching its mission. Talibé children in the library now connect with "penpals" in Canada and, via Facebook, with former volunteers and others around the world. The computers are also great teaching tools, for example using Google Earth.
The most recent and most moving donation to the library consisted of 142 books delivered in late 2014 from Francine Perkal who, at the time, was in the last days of her courageous struggle with cancer. These books, all in French, are a remarkable collection of teaching materials suitable for all levels of learning readers ... collections of the continents, Olympic games, books of discovery, travel around the world, sounds and learning to read, water around the world, animals, atlases, and much more. The children of all ages are enchanted by the new worlds that these books open for them.
We are grateful to everyone who has contributed to making this wonderful and transformative resource possible. There is still lots of room on our shelves, if you can help!
There is an African proverb that says, "When an old man dies, a library disappears". But Francine has not disappeared in our eyes; she is still here in the books that show us the ways of the world, and will always be with us with her smile, around the children, around the center and above all forever.
This article is dedicated to the memory of Francine Perkal, a devoted Canadian teacher who succumbed to cancer on December 21st, 2014. Francine was passionate about books. A long-time supporter of Maison de la Gare and its library, one of her last wishes was that her lifetime accumulation of book credits be used for the talibé children; over $1,000 worth of books were delivered to the library shortly before her death. Issa Kouyaté wrote in response: "I am truly devastated that this woman has been struck by cancer. It seems that only the best people disappear too quickly, but they always leave behind them the marks of their goodness." Issa proposed that these books be labelled accordingly: "Property of Maison de la Gare's library from Francine Perkal, a cancer victim who gave her credits to the most vulnerable children. Treat with care. And thank you to Francine; may God take you into his care!". He added "This is just a way to thank Francine, whose memory will live on forever in Maison de la Gare's library."
Frida's volunteer experience
A little more than a year ago I had the craziest idea. I said to myself "Let’s go to Africa; that sounds exciting!". And yes, exciting it was. I found Maison de la Gare through a friend of my sister, a former volunteer. I basically knew nothing about Senegal or the talibés. All I knew was that I wanted to go somewhere where they speak French. I wanted to see and experience the real deal, a completely different way of life, so I signed up for six months in Saint Louis.
Three nights prior to my departure, I was so nervous I couldn't fall asleep. I literally had no clue what to expect or how to communicate with people. I had studied French in school, but it was a long time ago and my knowledge was terribly basic. I had traveled and lived in foreign countries before, but this was nothing like it. This was my life’s adventure. To be honest, the reasons as to why I wanted to go volunteering were primarily selfish. I thought it would be a good way to experience a country from the inside and I hoped it would bring perspective to my own life. I have no education in teaching, nursing or gardening. All I have is a big, open and curious heart, and I wanted to do what best I could with it.
The first weeks in Senegal, I constantly looked and felt like a big question mark. I did not understand what people were saying and, the few times I actually did, the cultural context confused me just as much. I felt like a baby in almost every single way. I did not know how to eat and behave around the huge bowl of thiéboudienne (although delicious!). I accidentally insulted my host mum while trying to joke around. I was useless washing my cloths by hand and always had to ask for help, and I was terrified of going anywhere even close to the market. I felt like a newborn that needed constant help and supervision. I thought I would never survive six months.
But people were nice to me. My host family made it their most important cause to turn me into as much of a Senegalese as possible and little by little I advanced. In Senegal, it is easy to make friends and soon everyone in my neighbourhood knew me and greeted me whenever I walked by. Abdoul in the little kiosk around the corner pointed at the products he sold, said their name in Wolof, and then tested me the next time I showed up. He said it was important that I learn Wolof so that we could get married, a statement (not a question!). I soon became very good at responding, as all female volunteers have to.
My host sister Penda took me with her to visit her friends and, although I could say nothing, they somehow seemed to appreciate my presence. That’s one thing I love about Senegal. People like to just have you around so they know that you are fine. My host mum told me on my very first day in her house that she would treat me as one of her own, and she really did. To have someone that cares for you that much, someone with whom you have no earlier ties, is just amazing. She had dresses sewn for me, she took me places, and she always made sure I was happy and not hungry. I really got the chance to take part in Senegalese family life. During the six months I spent there, my family held a wedding, a circumcision ceremony and the baptism of my host sister’s baby for whom I was chosen godmother(!).
But although I really loved my host family, my favourite place to be in Saint Louis was at Maison de la Gare. When I could not talk to anyone, the talibés were there and they did not care because we could still play. I realized that THEY were the ones helping ME. They were the ones who showed me not only Senegal, but what is important in life. On the bad days, they were the ones who reminded me to smile and made me laugh. I think back on precious moments when I could sit down with Arouna and discuss Senegalese politics, or joke around with Moussa that he could be a model for mascara (those eyelashes!), or see Mamadou blush when I ask how he’s doing with the girls. Moments like these are so precious because we are nothing but humans and equals.
The relationships I got the opportunity to build with these kids are among the finest things in my life and not one day goes by that I don’t think about them. When I was at Maison de la Gare, I saw many awful things. I saw how these kids live, how they grow up, and what little chances they have in life. I saw how they learn to beat each other because their marabout beats them, and I saw how itchy their bodies get from the lice that live in their clothes and where they sleep. But I also saw a lot of wonderful things. How they take care of each other and make sure everyone gets a slice of bread in the evening. How much they want to learn, even though they have not slept or eaten. How happy they become when someone cares and when someone sees them for who they are – not just talibés.
My six months definitely had its ups and downs but, thanks to the Senegalese easygoing way of life, I had no reason to stay down. One second of self-doubt or a low mood was always treated by someone teasing me for being homesick and sending me the most heart-warming smile that reminded me to focus on the positive things in life.
Going to Senegal is the best decision I have ever made. It made me believe even more in the fact that we are all just humans and share the same basic traits, values and goals in life. I got to see things in a different light and I learned to understand my own problems from a new perspective. I was given the chance to meet people who really know what hard work means and the importance of it. People who are passionate about something and strive to contribute to the greater good. There is no way I can explain how much they inspire me, and I am forever grateful for the love and compassion they have showed me.
Thank you to all our supporters for making possible the chance for a better life for the begging talibé street children that Frida describes.
Sonia and Rowan share an extraordinary experience
I have had the good fortune to travel to Senegal on many occasions to support the work of Maison de la Gare in aid of talibé street children. My teenage daughter, Rowan, has accompanied me in this work three times, becoming personally committed to the cause of ending forced begging and supporting Maison de la Gare in bringing hope to the talibés of Saint Louis. On a previous visit, we accompanied Issa Kouyaté on one of his regular midnight "Rondes de nuit" in search of runaway talibé children. And, on our most recent visit, we spent an evening with the runaway boys currently in the care of Maison de la Gare.
Rowan writes: "I volunteered for the first time with Maison de la Gare in 2012. I had an amazing experience delivering books, organizing the library, and setting up e-mail accounts for some of the talibé children. It wasn't until my second trip that I went out onto the streets and into some daaras. I was shocked and very emotional at the conditions I saw in the daaras where my friends had to live. But the most powerful part for me was going out on what are called night rounds.
On night rounds Issa, and in this case me, my mother, my grandfather and a man who helps Issa find runaways, went out in search of talibé boys who have left their daaras and are living on the streets. Issa talks with them and convinces them to go back to his home where they can stay until authorities give the go-ahead for Maison de la Gare to take them back to their villages or, in some cases, return them to their daaras. We headed out at one in the morning when it was pitch black.
The usually chaotic streets of Saint Louis were dead quiet, and after a day of about 35 degrees (95 F), it was suddenly cold. We met Issa and then took a taxi to a place where an informant had told him that there may be kids sleeping. The first place we checked was a parking lot for buses and taxis. It was explained to me that runaways will often sleep under cars to stay hidden from pedophiles or others who could hurt them.
We were leaving the lot and heading back into the streets when we saw them. Four young boys in a lighted corner huddled together. They used their tee-shirts to cover their whole bodies by pulling them over their heads and tucking in arms, legs and feet. Issa gently woke them one by one, talking to them in Wolof, and convinced them to come with us. I couldn't help but wonder what they might be thinking. Imagine some strangers waking you up in the middle of the night and asking you to go with them. Issa pointed out that one of the little boys named Gora had likely been sexually assaulted. He couldn't have been older than 7. My heart almost broke. There he was shivering in the corner, looking at me. I wasn't sure what to do; all I wanted to do was give him a hug and tell him everything would be okay. But of course I can't speak Wolof, so I gave him my sweater.
We took the four boys back to Issa's apartment in taxis and got them settled down with blankets. The next morning we went to the centre and the boys from the night before were there. Despite the heat, I saw Gora was still wearing my sweater, and I swear I saw him smile at me just once."
During our most recent trip, Maison de la Gare was caring for four other runaway talibés in Issa's small apartment. Rowan and I brought a take-out meal and colouring supplies and settled in for the evening while Issa had to be out of the house for a meeting. Each child has his own story. But what they have in common is that they are all children denied their basic human rights. And they are denied what all children need, attention and affection.
Mohammed is a fifteen year old boy. He is from Dakar, and he came to Saint Louis to work. He seems even younger than his age, and was soon being exploited. He loves to draw. Mohammed drew pictures of a marabout whipping a crying child, and of crying children holding insufficient coins for their quotas in their hands.
Ousman, about age 8, and Mousanger, age 12, were picked up by the local police for stealing. Talibé children who are desperate to meet their quotas will resort to stealing to avoid feared consequences. The police had entrusted the children to Issa. Both boys thoroughly enjoyed their meals and the company. They both drew picture after picture of the food we ate that night, offering some of the drawings to us as gifts.
The most heartbreaking case was Pape, a child of only five years. He had severe injuries on his ankles where his marabout had kept him chained for days. His situation is considered severe and the police have called his marabout to present himself for questioning. The marabout, however, has made himself scarce. Perhaps the marabout will reappear once the wounds have had a chance to heal and he considers the evidence erased. Issa's photo record will be waiting. Pape was shy and quiet. He drew many pictures of his village and clearly indicated his desire to go home. He climbed quietly into my arms and settled in for a snuggle too long denied him. He stayed with me, leaning close for hours, and was disappointed to be gently laid on his mat when it was time for Rowan and I to leave.
Rowan gave friendship bracelets to each of the boys to remember us by. They wore them proudly. We will think of them as they navigate their challenging lives in the days and years to come. At least we are comforted by the knowledge that Maison de la Gare, at least, watches out for children such as these, and will do all they can to guide them on their way.
Transition to an independent life - The talibé children served by Maison de la Gare are boys, often as young as age four, who live in horrific conditions in daaras and are forced to beg or work for monetary quotas as well as their own needs. Maison de la Gare offers hope to these children by providing an oasis of safety and caring, as well the key to a better life through education. Some talibés, despite a life dominated by discrimination and forced begging, attend Maison de la Gare’s classes and programs for years, achieving a level of literacy and skill that will enable them to lead a successful independent life, be enrolled in the formal school system, and realistically aspire to higher education.
Some talibés who have long been involved with Maison de la Gare’s programs have taken the initiative to provide guidance and support for younger talibés and to involve themselves in the operation of the centre, while developing an admirable commitment to Maison de la Gare’s objectives. Some are still tied to their daaras with forced begging commitments, while others are old enough to be released by their marabouts but have no place else to live. Despite their developing competencies, these boys are not ready for full independence due to on-going education, not yet having fully gained the necessary tools, and lack of any family support.
Several of these particularly competent senior talibés of long association with Maison de la Gare are being involved formally in the operation of the centre and its programs.
Arouna Kandé serves as Assistant to the Administrator. From the Kolda region of Senegal, Arouna has attended classes and participated in Maison de la Gare’s programs for many years. Arouna's perseverance and recognition of the importance of education as the key to a better life has led him to successfully navigate formal public schooling. He has struggled with discrimination at school, the death of both parents, and living conditions which have made studying near impossible, and yet he persists. And, thanks to Maison de la Gare, Arouna is currently registered in the fourth level of secondary school. He is determined at any price to complete his education. Arouna is well known and admired among the talibés, and continues to be a shining example for them. He is always on the lookout for talibés in difficulty and has long been willing to lend a helping hand wherever needed.
Mamadou Kandé is working as Site Manager of Maison de la Gare’s centre. An older talibé, also from the Kolda region, he was neglected by his family and has been in Saint Louis for many years. In 2012 a friend in Mamadou's daara suggested he visit Maison de la Gare. He began attending classes daily and has been making progress in learning French. He took a particular interest in the garden and it soon became apparent that he has a natural affinity with plants and horticulture. He has become known as "Mamadou du jardin". Mamadou has a very gentle and supportive manner with the younger talibés. Due to his reliable nature, Maison de la Gare's team had been entrusting him with increasing responsibilities at the centre, leading to him taking on this new role.
Souleymane Ndiaye assists Maison de la Gare’s medical staff with health care and hygiene. He was introduced to Maison de la Gare in 2012 when he needed to be hospitalized for anemia. Maison de la Gare paid for his treatment and followed his progress when his marabout left him on his own. Souleymane has lived in a daara for many years, but has found the time to attend Maison de la Gare’s literacy classes regularly. Souleymane’s medical history has led him to take an interest in the health care and hygiene programs at the centre, and he has assumed leadership of a tooth brushing program for the younger talibés. He works in collaboration with the nurses to improve the children's oral hygiene, and otherwise in support of the healthcare programs.
Ablaye Mballo is Maison de la Gare’s Maintenance Manager. He is one of the centre's pioneers, and has been involved with Maison de la Gare since its beginnings in the former train station in 2008. There, he attended French classes and participated in other activities such as sport and wrestling. Ablaye has become a quiet but constant presence at Maison de la Gare. He has a strong mechanical aptitude, and has assisted Mamadou for several years in the development and care of the garden, helping to make it the oasis it is today.
Your donation can support these senior talibés as they settle into their roles in Maison de la Gare’s leadership team. Inviting older talibés to take responsibility in this way is a natural next step in realizing our hopes for them. After all, what better example could be set for young talibés grasping for hope and meaning? And, who could have a better appreciation for Maison de la Gare’s objectives or a more fastidious commitment to achieving those objectives than the very people this centre was created to help?
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