Rowan and Arouna share the adventure of an incredible week ... of karate
Rowan and Arouna worked together on preparation of this report of karate’s arrival at Maison de la Gare and among the talibé children. First, in Rowan’s words:
"Well here I am in Senegal for the 4th time. And with my whole family, my little brother Robbie included. Robbie hasn’t ever travelled to Africa until now and, like me for years before I came, he has just been dying to come for years. Robbie decided he wanted to conduct his own special project, and suggested teaching karate to the talibé children. At the time, he could not possibly have known how successfully it would turn out. Last October Robbie had travelled to Ireland to compete in the world karate championships, and he won a bronze medal for Canada. He has been training in karate for years, and spends his evenings doing practically nothing else, seven days a week. Robbie is now a black belt and it is clear that karate is his true passion.
A week or so before the big trip, Robbie started to organize the collection of gi (traditional karate outfits). Using the logo "Karate Can Kick Poverty", he pasted posters in the Ottawa, Canada “dojos” of his home organization, Douvris. The karate community responded with nearly one hundred gi. After the long haul to get our family and all the karate equipment to Saint Louis, the real work began.
We found that karate instructors in Saint Louis follow the same code of ethics and morals as the creed that all the members of my brother Robbie’s dojo are committed to:
'My goal is to become the best person I can be. I will achieve this objective by disciplining my body and my mind, working to overcome obstacles that hinder my positive growth. I know this will take discipline. I am ready to make this commitment to myself in order to become the best person I can be and to share this progress with others.'
Looking ahead, Maison de la Gare will register talibés who want to practise this discipline in the Charles de Gaulle dojo. The master of this dojo is the lead coach of the national Senegalese karate team. Who knows what opportunities this could hold for the future!
But what are the talibés getting out of this? Well anyone who knows anything about talibés knows that they lead a hard life, and that they potentially face sexual abuse and other forms of street violence. Hopefully, with these new skills they will be better able to defend themselves and others. Talibés also grow up without parents in their lives. We often take for granted that our parents teach us to be respectful of others and ourselves. As much as I love these kids, they can be quite rude sometimes; with karate you don’t just learn fighting - you must learn respect. It is about disciplining your mind and body, and you can’t do one without the other. This is a new program for Maison de la Gare but I can see so much potential."
Arouna recounts this experience in his words, from the perspective of a talibé:
"Robbie Hughes is a 13 year old student in the 8th grade at Queen Elizabeth School in Ottawa, Canada. He has just made his first visit to Maison de la Gare as a volunteer, traveling with his mother Sonia, his big sister Rowan and his father Robin. Robbie has played a very important role at Maison de la Gare in helping young talibés in Saint Louis to improve their lives. His first objective was to provide karate classes for talibé children in the center. This is not only a welcome sports activity for them, but it gives them confidence, discipline and self-defense skills.
Robbie’s idea was to find a local karate master (a ‘sensei’) to teach at Maison de la Gare’s center in the mornings. With Noël Coly’s help, he invited several senseis to teach classes. He was looking for a sensei who had the same values and showed the same gentleness with the children as his karate master in Canada. Robbie identified some talibés who showed potential to advance in karate, with the objective of enrolling them in the dojo located Saint Louis’ Charles de Gaulle high school. The master of this dojo is the head coach of Senegal’s national karate team.
In educational terms, karate is a noble activity that encourages the development of the mind. And socially, it promotes mutual respect and fellowship among its practitioners.
After only four days working in Robbie’s classes, the children mastered the first karate positions. For many children, they had to learn the difference between left and right. But when they learned a new karate position, they never forget it. From the first day, Robbie earned great affection from the talibé children of Maison de la Gare.
Robbie, this young Canadian, has amazed us with his gentleness, his exemplary behavior as a person of strong values, and the openness of his big heart to children in extremely deprived circumstances. We thank Robbie’s dojo, Douvris, and everyone who is behind what Robbie did here, especially his mother Sonia who moved heaven and earth so that karate could become one of the sports activities of Maison de la Gare.”
An American volunteer’s unusual winter “vacation” with Maison de la Gare - This past winter break, I embarked on a journey from Colorado Springs, Colorado to Saint Louis, Senegal in order to serve the talibé children and work with Maison de la Gare. What an experience! The trip began with my flight to Dakar followed by a four hour car ride to northern Senegal and Saint Louis. My first experience in Dakar was right outside the airport as I failed to stay inside wait for my ride. Instead, I walked outside only to be convinced by a friendly Senegalese man that he could help me find my ride. I took his help, not realizing that afterword he would insist that I pay him for his “kind services.” Lost $20 within 30 minutes of being in the country, but it was a lesson well-learned.
The drive to Saint Louis was amazing – from the agricultural lands surrounding Dakar and Thiès and into the brush, semi-arid landscape of northern Senegal. I arrived at my host family’s home around noon, and lived with them throughout my stay. With four daughters and a son, the Diouf family provided an amazing experience learning about Senegalese culture and about the daily life of a Senegalese family. My first meal was incredible – four eggs, onions, fries, and a baguette. The mother of the house, Madame Diouf, treated me amazingly! She always made sure that I knew when meals would be served, and insisted that I stay in contact with her … not to mention the wonderful meals that we ate together on a rug on the floor in a comfortable circle around one big plate in a very friendly, communal manner that was much different from my meal times in the United States.
The first few days I was there I hung out with the youngest children the most, Mohamed, Sokhna and Adja Ngossé. We would play soccer on the roof of their house, take walks around their neighborhood together, and go to buy treats at the local boutiques. Then, a few days into my time there, “les vacances” began for all the kids and I met their older two daughters Ndeye Yandé and Mama. It was great speaking French with them as they explained to me how daily prayers work in the Muslim city, how their schools operate, and what they like to do in their free time. This was a very important and meaningful part of my trip to Saint Louis – living with the Dioufs and experiencing on a daily basis their amazing hospitality and care for me. Senegal is known as the land “Téranga”, of hospitality, and it certainly showed in the time I spent with the Dioufs.
A typical day, including Christmas, began with me waking up around 9 a.m., working at Maison de la Gare’s center from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., hanging out at home from 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., and then working at the center again. After work, I spent the evenings either touring Saint Louis, hanging out at the Diouf’s house, or socializing with Issa, Bathe and Abdoul at their place until midnight. Issa, Bathe and Abdoul were the primary workers at the center while I was there, and they treated me with nearly as much hospitality as the Dioufs did.
On my first day at the center I met the staff, and then helped the nurse Binta change the bandage on the badly burned foot of a young talibé boy. Nearly half of his foot, I found out from Issa later, had been burned off by other young talibés. He had been sleeping on the streets when the other children lit his foot on fire as a prank to wake him up. I realized during my time in Saint Louis that this kind of event is common in the lives of these young talibés. They come from rural parts of Senegal or are trafficked from other countries – I met kids from Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and Mali – and are forced to work and beg for their marabouts who provide them little means of survival and extort money from them.
Although the children are often physically abused by the marabouts, I was shocked at the toll the poor living conditions and the absence of a family had on the kids. Another young boy I met, whom Issa had taken in, had been found on the beach terrible stricken by scabies to the point of not being able to use his hands. Bathe told me that this was very common in daaras (the Koranic schools where the talibés “live”) due to the terrible living conditions there. This helped give me the right perspective as I worked at the center, which was a huge highlight of my time in Senegal.
Each day except weekends and Christmas I would work in the mornings in the garden or in the nurse’s office or help the talibé children wash their clothes. Sometimes, I would play games or just chat with the older talibés as well. There were a good number of older talibés who had been living in daaras for a long time. One such youth was Kalidou. He spoke French, Wolof, Peul and some English and lived in a daara right near the Dioufs. I would often walk home with him, talking to him about football, our families, or one of the hundreds of other questions I had about Senegalese culture such as: why do Senegalese people often chew lemon branches? Or, how does the taxi system work?
In the evenings working at the center, I quickly became the resident French/English teacher to the older talibés, mostly ages 15-21. Every evening we would conjugate verbs or learn useful phrases in French and English, repeating them over and over again and copying them down until they could functionally use them. It was an amazing time, and I was truly humbled to teach these guys who were nearly my own age something that might one day at least help them if not motivate them to pursue a more meaningful life. They were so grateful, but I was really the one grateful to them.
As I wrapped up my time in Saint Louis, I could not help but remember all the great times I had had with Bathe, Abdoul and Issa when I was not at the center. They invited me to play soccer with them, had me over for dinner and tea, and helped me get gifts for my family back home. One of the biggest takeaways I had from the trip was just humility about our way of life in the United States. It is often too busy and too focused on us. I served and relaxed in Senegal, building relationships that will hopefully last me a lifetime and, maybe in some small way, changed people’s lives. That’s what life is really all about, and I would not have traded in my winter break … Christmas, New Year’s and all … for anything other than the experience I had in Saint Louis with the amazing people I met there!
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.
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