Children
 Senegal
Project #10053

Hope for begging talibe children, St-Louis Senegal

by Maison de la Gare
Vetted
Arouna in September 2012, already a mentor
Arouna in September 2012, already a mentor

A talibé shares his experience of life, and the role played by Maison de la Gare

My name is Arouna.  I am a talibé and Administrative Assistant at Maison de la Gare.  I grew up in Kolda in Casamance in the south of Senegal.  I was sent to a daara in Saint Louis in 2006 when I was nine years old, to pursue my study of the Koran.  I left behind my parents and three younger sisters, who are always in my thoughts.  And, while I've been in Saint Louis, both my father and mother died and I became an orphan.

When I arrived in Saint Louis, I saw children all around the city with begging bowls in hand, wandering barefoot with torn and filthy clothes and having no way to wash or get medical treatment.  I thought in my head: "What kind of a world is this?  What's the point?  Why be alive when there is no possibility to be yourself?"

I was sad from sunrise to sunset, wandering with my hands in my pants pockets.  At such moments, my thoughts always turned to my family.  Ah!!!  With my family I could have discussed things; I would have been able to express my opinions.  But, in the marabouts' world I was, like all the other children, a slave.

After three years of living this ordeal, I came upon an association called Maison de la Gare.  I was introduced by one of my comrades who had been going to Maison de la Gare's center every day.

Maison de la Gare is a non-profit organization, non-political and secular, that was founded in 2007 by a group of Senegalese driven by a desire to improve the living conditions of talibé children in their country, Senegal.  Maison de la Gare's objective is to help the talibés to integrate into Senegalese society, both socially and professionally, by providing them with access to education, sports and artistic activities and apprenticeship opportunities.

From my early days at the center, I saw many children in the courtyard.  Others were in the classrooms, in the infirmary, in the library or showering.  It was unimaginable for me to see all the talibés at home in the center as though they were with their families.  After a week, I started attending basic literacy classes with Bouri Cherif Mbodj, one of the center's French teachers.  I would go to the center in the mornings to wash and sometimes to get treatment for ailments or injuries.  And I would return every evening on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays for Math, French, History and Geography classes.  On Thursdays and Fridays, we organized soccer games with other children from around the city of Saint Louis.  Sports make a great contribution to children's development, helping them to better prepare their future.

I mastered basic French grammar in just three years. Finally I announced to Issa Kouyaté, Maison de la Gare's president, that I wanted to go to school.  He asked me "Arouna! Are you afraid to speak out in class?"  I said "No".  Then he asked me "Arouna!  Are you afraid to play with your classmates?"  Again, I answered "No".  He enrolled me in a public institution named CEM Amadou Fara Mbodj, a school located in the north of Saint Louis.

By the age of only sixteen, I had gained enough knowledge to become a leader and an example for the other talibés.  I devoted myself to my studies and often missed the football games or other activities as a result.  At times, I studied and did my homework in my daara until midnight by the light of the moon.  Despite my experience of the street, no one forced me to beg.  I always devoted time to obtaining a small quota of money for my marabout.  To do this, I sold fish in the local market that I had found on the banks of the Senegal River, discarded by fishermen.  Still, I always had time to look after the young talibés.  I was also available to help with the many chores required for the smooth running of the center.

Even beyond questions about life for children in the daaras, I asked myself about their lives after the daara: what can they do in life if they don't speak French (the official language in Senegal) and have no professional skills?  The best of them become themselves marabouts or Arabic teachers, but what about the rest?  Throughout my entire childhood, the age when a child learns about life in society, I was marginalized from everything ... because of my smell, my clothing and the fears of the other children's parents.  I also lacked any of the skills necessary to find a job, even a most rudimentary one!

People say that today's youth are the society of tomorrow.  What type of society can we build if our children are treated like this?  Let's not delude ourselves; a Muslim education is fine but we must also have technical skills.  The truth is that if I find myself as an adult without skills or employment, I will be lost to society and will swell the ranks of those outside the law.

Maison de la Gare has become my family.  I am also encouraged by my contacts with my correspondents in Canada via the Internet, and by volunteers at Maison de la Gare who know my qualities and my potential.

Myself and so many other children like me, we are the future of Senegal.

Today, Wednesday June 15th, is a perfect time to renew your support for the begging talibé street children.  It is Bonus Day at GlobalGiving and GlobalGiving UK and, after 9 a.m. EST, your donation will earn up to a 50% matching contribution.   It is your generous donations that makes possible Arouna's story, and so many like it.

Sept. 2014 - Reunited with his sisters after 8 yrs
Sept. 2014 - Reunited with his sisters after 8 yrs
Jan. 2012 - with Issa in Maison de la Gare center
Jan. 2012 - with Issa in Maison de la Gare center
Apr. 2013 - with young talibes at door to center
Apr. 2013 - with young talibes at door to center
Nov/13 - Talibe sleeping quarters, Arouna
Nov/13 - Talibe sleeping quarters, Arouna's daara
Mar. 2014 - Exchange with astronaut Chris Hadfield
Mar. 2014 - Exchange with astronaut Chris Hadfield
New Year 2015, with Kalidou at Maison des esclaves
New Year 2015, with Kalidou at Maison des esclaves
Mar. 2016 - a leader at Maison de la Gare
Mar. 2016 - a leader at Maison de la Gare

Links:

Issa proudly shows off new tomatos at Bango
Issa proudly shows off new tomatos at Bango

Maison de la Gare's agricultural apprenticeship program in Bango is born

For many years, the garden in Maison de la Gare’s centre in Saint Louis has been an oasis of greenery and tranquility in the lives of the begging talibé street children.  For the many children who have been directly involved in planting, cultivating, watering and otherwise caring for the garden, it has provided stability in their lives, giving them a sense of pride and responsibility and providing them with skills that will help them to eventually reintegrate into the farming communities that they come from.  Gardening has become a doorway to autonomy for these children.

The garden is small, however, too small for the ever increasing numbers of vulnerable children who see it as an opportunity to work towards a better future.  Many of the older talibé youth, typically between 17 and 25 years old, have wanted to take part, but there just has not been enough space for them to assume meaningful roles. 

Issa Kouyaté, Maison de la Gare’s president, has dreamed for over six years of acquiring a plot of land that could be used to establish an agricultural apprenticeship program for these older talibé children.  He has found many potential properties over the years, but has never had the financial means to go forward.  The possibility became real during a discussion with GO Campaign of Santa Monica, California in early 2015.  GO Campaign had given a grant to Maison de la Gare in 2014 that made it possible to build the emergency shelter in our Saint Louis center.  With the success of this project, they were looking for another way to help.  We prepared an application and, shortly afterwards, they provided funding to enable us to buy the land and start the project.

We found an ideal site for our purposes in Bango, a town seven kilometers from our center in Saint Louis.  The property, 621 square meters in size, is located next to an irrigation ditch that supplies water.  Thanks to the location in the delta of the Senegal River, the soil is rich and well suited to growing market vegetables.  Purchase of the land was completed by mid-summer of 2015 and the first sections were planted shortly after.  The plants grew well and we were expecting an early crop.  However, a short time later, everything was destroyed by the incursion of a herd of cattle.  We realized that we had to start over, after building a solid wall around the field.

Everything was ready by the end of the year, the wall, doors and a ten-meter deep well.  Issa was the first to taste the water from the new well and, fortunately, he confirmed that it is very good.  We started  2016 with new plantings, this time very successfully.  Seydou, an experienced local farmer, agreed to supervise the property and to serve as a teacher and mentor for the children.

Several initial crops have now been harvested, helping us to see what can be most successful as a base for the future.  Many of the young people are only beginning to appreciate the opportunity that this new space offers.  As more and more of them visit the property and as the children who are involved talk about their experiences, the numbers are growing.  The first harvests have shown how fertile the land is, and the experience has let us see which of the young people are ready to fully commit to this activity.  For these children, they are already feeling more independent and can see clearly how their involvement can lead to a meaningful future.  Maison de la Gare is making great strides both in developing the property and in supporting the talibés who are involved, encouraging them in their efforts and helping them to become increasingly self-confident.

Imam is one of the talibé youth committed to this project.  In his words, "Everything is going well, a good start.  It's good to be busy.  For the future, I hope this will continue and help me to find work."

We express our profound thanks to GO Campaign and to everyone who has made possible this new adventure for the children of Maison de la Gare, a pathway to becoming self-sufficient contributors to society.

Site of the project ... rich, well-watered soil
Site of the project ... rich, well-watered soil
The dream ... first peak at the possible property
The dream ... first peak at the possible property
Irrigation canal next to the property
Irrigation canal next to the property
Walls and well under construction
Walls and well under construction
The dream comes true
The dream comes true
Arouna and Imam draw water from the well
Arouna and Imam draw water from the well
Berengere, Imam & Arouna discuss development plans
Berengere, Imam & Arouna discuss development plans

Links:

Issa with Rowan, Alicia & Katherine in MDG center
Issa with Rowan, Alicia & Katherine in MDG center

Arouna reports on Canadian high school students teaching his fellow talibés

"Alicia, Katherine and Rowan are high school students from Ottawa, Canada.  Alicia, 15, is a student at Glebe Collegiate while Katherine, aged 16, and Rowan, 17, are studying at Ashbury College.  The three girls came to Senegal in March, specifically to Saint Louis to visit our center, Maison de la Gare.

The three girls travelled with Katherine's father Martin and Rowan's and Alicia's moms, Sonia and Karen.  They spent nine days with us at Maison de la Gare, but they also visited the city of Saint Louis where they met the talibé children begging and even living in the streets.  The talibés live in extremely difficult conditions, walking barefoot in the streets wearing only rags, begging for what then must give to their marabouts.  Most of these children are between 5 and 15 years of age.  They come from poor families far from the city, from distant regions of Senegal and from neighbouring countries (Casamance, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Mali, etc.).  Instead of teaching the children the Koran or giving them a good education, the marabouts use them to enrich themselves.  The talibés are forced to live in very marginal conditions like abandoned houses where access to water and electricity, and even food, is very limited.  And the health of these talibé children is severely compromised.

The first days at Maison de la Gare were challenging for the Canadian girls.  We saw the concern in their faces, reflecting their lack of understanding of the children's situation.  They felt badly for the children.  And they did not understand what people were saying in the context of African culture.  Their objectives were to share some of their knowledge with the children and to contribute to development and to the fight against child abuse.

They began by animating games in the center's open courtyard, and this proved very successful as a way to establish good connections with the children.  Their goodwill and their desire to contribute were very obvious to everyone.  After three days at the center, the girls began to talk with the children about their living conditions and other aspects of their lives, with strong support from teacher Abdou and some of the older talibés.  They taught English classes to older talibé children.  Karen and Sonia were always close at hand to guide them, while Martin played the role of a wise grandfather.  Outside the classroom, the three girls regularly read books to the children in the courtyard and in the library.  Like children everywhere, the talibés love stories and identify themselves with great enthusiasm with well-illustrated books.  They always crowded around in large numbers when the girls were reading to them.  Katherine was able to share a special skill, creating origami birds, and many children were fascinated by the magic of this art.  And the three girls were able to teach children crammed into the library to sing "Happy Birthday" to Issa in English, to celebrate his birthday!

Despite the unthinkable conditions in which talibés live, these children always seem to have a ready smile and to be able to forget their life problems.  They are very open to people who treat them with respect, and many of them rapidly become very attached to Rowan, Katherine and Alicia.

This visit to Maison de la Gare allowed Rowan, Katherine and Alicia to learn many things about the talibé children and Senegalese culture.  They learned that there are thousands of young people who are suffering because of begging or poverty.  This trip allowed them to understand better the complexity of what is happening in Senegal.  To address this scourge, these young talibé children need help, protection and constant support in their fight against abuse.  But they also need the support of centers such as Maison de la Gare so they can have a better future.

In conclusion, on behalf of all of the talibés and of Maison de la Gare, we thank you, Rowan, Katherine and Alicia, for this visit and for your commitment to the talibé children.  We also express our thanks to Ashbury College in Ottawa which chose to give their students the opportunity to come to Senegal to visit us and to support us.  And, finally, we call on everyone to join the fight against begging and against the abuse of talibé children, who are themselves the future.

Stop our brothers' begging."

Alicia and Katherine animating games
Alicia and Katherine animating games
Teaching an English class to older talibe students
Teaching an English class to older talibe students
In library teaching talibes to sing Happy Birthday
In library teaching talibes to sing Happy Birthday
Reading to children amassed in the courtyard
Reading to children amassed in the courtyard
Katherine taught the children to make origami
Katherine taught the children to make origami
With Abdou, distributing the evening snack
With Abdou, distributing the evening snack
Farewell celebration, a meal for 120 people!
Farewell celebration, a meal for 120 people!
Tearful goodbye to their English class
Tearful goodbye to their English class

Links:

Idrissa Diallo & Issa Kouyate, angels of St-Louis
Idrissa Diallo & Issa Kouyate, angels of St-Louis

Karen and Sonia describe their experience joining a "Ronde de nuit"

In late March, a group of six Canadian volunteers participated in a ronde de nuit (night round) led by Maison de la Gare's partner Idrissa Diallo of Univers de l'enfant.  The group consisted of three parents and their teenage daughters.

Sonia recounts: "I didn't participate in my first ronde de nuit until a few years ago.  In fact, I had been completely unaware of this other side of Issa Kouyaté's life, although I did know that talibés sometimes run from their daaras and marabouts.  The boys can risk severe beatings when they fail to deliver their begging quotas.  Sometimes they prefer to run rather than return to an abusive marabout and suffer the consequences of an unfilled quota.  Sometimes, the conditions at the daaras are so bad that children run when they cannot bear it any more.

As hard as Issa works by day, for years he has gone out on the streets late at night on weekends or whenever he hears word of the location of a runaway, to search for and rescue runaway talibés.  No one pays Issa to do this work.  When he found children on the streets at night in the past, he took them back to his own apartment and settled them in for the night.  . He could have 4 to 10 children staying in his living room at any one time.  He cared for them, fed them, and spent as much time as he could with the often severely traumatized boys." (Please click on this link to see a brief documentary describing this aspect of Issa's work.)

"Since the emergency shelter was built in Maison de la Gare's center in 2014, the runaways have been staying there for a few days or weeks under the care of "house mother" Mame Diarra, a petite long-term volunteer from France.  Every now and then a child who has suffered severe abuse and has no home to go to settles in for a longer stay.  Recently, a grant from the European Union has enabled a Maison de la Gare team led by Idrissa to be dedicated to finding runaways, taking them into care and, where appropriate, repatriating them to their homes.  Issa's own home is once again his own, most of the time."

Karen continues: "The second to last evening before we left Saint Louis, we met Idrissa, Bathe and Abdoulaye at 11 p.m. at Place Faidherbe in the center of town, armed with flashlights.  The streets of Saint Louis are a different place at night.  Quiet, not as inviting.  It was a brisk night; the temperature hovered in the high teens but the soft blowing wind made the air temperature feel much cooler.  We all wore jackets.  I can't imagine what the cooler temperature would be like for boys forced to sleep outside.

As a group we headed over the bridge toward the Guet Ndar fishing village on the Langue de Barbarie, a world unto its own with a highly concentrated population.  Fishing boats litter the shoreline.  Dilapidated vendor stalls, make-shift shacks and garbage strewn everywhere give the impression of poverty, but a closer look beyond the squalor reveals a prosperous community with multiple television sets, expensive fishing boats and huge families.  Needless to say, there are lots of nooks and crannies where runaway talibés can find refuge.  We shone the beams of our flashlights into boats, street corners and parked cars in search of boys sleeping. 

Idrissa stopped at a food stall to ask a woman if she had seen or heard reports of any runaway talibés.  She had not, so we continued our search, walking the streets.  There was a surprising amount of activity on the street at that hour.  We continued our walk along the shoreline and then snaked our way back into a more residential area.

Less than 50 meters from the food stall, we discovered three boys nestled behind a knee-high wall.  The boys were sleeping on piles of rags, huddled together.  They were quite startled, but the Maison de la Gare staff members spoke quietly with them, asking what daara they were from and why they were sleeping on the street.  After a few minutes of questioning with few answers, the staff told them about the emergency shelter at the center and explained that they would be taken there.  Suddenly one of the boys broke and ran, too quick to be caught.  Idrissa summoned a taxi and Bathe seated the two boys in the back seat with Abdoulaye on one side and one of us on the other side.  The boys names were Mamadou and Seydou.

We arrived at the center a bit after midnight.  Mame Diarra appeared completely at ease in this situation.  She communicated fluently with the boys in Wolof, and then left the room to fetch sweatshirts for them.  Then she sat down to ask the boys questions and to fill out the intake forms for each of them.  The boys seemed quite reticent, although I think they were somewhat comforted by the fact that Mame Diarra is a woman; most talibés haven't had any motherly attention in years.  We left the boys with her to resume our ronde de nuit."

Sonia reflects on the experience: "While on the run, the children are vulnerable.  I have come to understand more of why Issa and Idrissa are so driven to do this work in their own 'free' time.  The children flee for fear of the life in the daaras.  But, what waits for them on the street could be even worse.  Sexual assault is common against talibé boys on the streets, late at night as society sleeps.  No one will be asking about them or care much for their wellbeing.  Easy marks!  I knew this terrible fact; I had seen the results of such trauma with my own eyes.  On my first ronde de nuit we had found a boy, six-year old Gora, who had been sexually assaulted on the streets the previous night.  My daughter and I are haunted by thoughts of him still.  But this night, Idrissa warned me of a greater risk.  He told me that he and many others believe that children have been disappearing more often than in the past.  He thinks because there are more talibés, and thus more runaways, the opportunity for abduction is increasing (it is estimated there are over 10,000 begging talibé children in Saint Louis).  The children themselves would certainly be fearful of these dangers, which underscores just how bad their circumstances must be for them to prefer the risks of the streets to those of the daara.

Idrissa says that, on the nights when he is not on a ronde de nuit, he cannot sleep as he imagines the dangers lying in wait for the children he will not pick up that night.  Issa feels the same way. This is the reason Issa and Idrissa value sleep so little."

Issa and Idrissa are truly the "angels of Saint Louis."

Issa found this talibe child in this condition
Issa found this talibe child in this condition
Mame Diarra completes register for new runaways
Mame Diarra completes register for new runaways
Two talibe children in MDG
Two talibe children in MDG's emergency shelter
Making friendship bracelets with Mamadou & Seydou
Making friendship bracelets with Mamadou & Seydou
Stop talibe begging. I demand an immediate end ...
Stop talibe begging. I demand an immediate end ...

Links:

Abdou gives Kaylin cards MDG children made for her
Abdou gives Kaylin cards MDG children made for her

Kaylin studies economics at Seattle University, specializing in International Economic Development.  Coming from Anchorage, Alaska, she has always loved to travel and fell in love with Africa after her first trip in Malawi in 2013.  Ever since, she has been looking for a way to return while doing something meaningful.  The opportunity to intern with Maison de la Gare was a no-brainer, a chance to practice French, return to a continent she loves and gain meaningful experience while making a difference.

Kaylin’s work in Saint Louis includes helping to develop the system for monitoring and tracking the boys who come to Maison de la Gare’s centre, in addition to teaching English classes to older talibé children, helping in the infirmary and much more.

In this report, Kaylin reflects on what she has learned working with Maison de la Gare and the talibé children. 

“As my time here draws near to a close, I’ve begun to realize (and to try to come to terms with) that, when working as an outsider in a foreign country, there are some things that simply cannot be done.

Perhaps most glaring has been the simple fact that one cannot expect work to be carried out in the same way as it is at home.  One of the differences I’ve noticed working here is that people put life before their work.  If there’s a baptism, a funeral, they’re too tired, their child got momentarily lost (all things that I’ve heard from various people), these are the things that come first.  Baptisms and funerals are attended, they rest, and they find their child and spend time with them.  As a result, the efficiency and diligence I am used to tend to go out the window.  This relationship between life and work is one I think many people and nations struggle with.  I think many Senegalese are still working out how to work in a country on the verge of development, yet with a subsistence lifestyle not so far behind them.  I’ve learned valuable lessons in patience and persistence, as both are necessary to yield long-term results.

Also interesting and challenging has been my experience as a white, agnostic young woman coming from a country where none of this is out of the ordinary and women’s rights are (relatively) progressive.  Working for an organization like Maison de la Gare, that deals so intimately with some of the deeply religious Muslims in Senegal, it’s impossible for me to understand the nuances and complexities of the Islamic faith, which in turn limits how helpful I truly can be in tasks such as implementing our census of the begging talibé children of Saint-Louis.  While to me it may seem relatively simple, dealing with the marabouts here is sensitive both due to the fact that they want some benefit for them if we expect them to give us verifiable information, and that they may understand that some of what we do at Maison de la Gare may undermine their power as many of them are exploiting the boys we are trying to save from exploitation.

In a country where religion is paramount and some religious leaders benefit from the mistreatment of children, and where women are seen less as agents of change and more as objects to be admired, adored and responsible for a household, it’s been challenging to find where I can truly have an impact beyond the doors of the center.  Part of what I’ve realized is that, even if the best I do is get to know the boys, teach an English class that many talibés desperately want to attend and help where the organization needs help, that is enough.  Though I have been helping with the register and the census, the times where I feel most valuable are in my interactions with the friends I have made here, both young and old.

And, of course, what affects everything I’ve mentioned and more is the challenge of working in a country that speaks my second language, with an unfamiliar accent, and more commonly speaks a language I speak none of at all.  Although this is certainly something for which I take responsibility, as I knew where I was going, and although I expected French to be more commonly spoken, I was aware that Wolof was the unofficial language.  It does pose a challenge when it comes to understanding all of what’s happening around me.  I miss out on conversations and, even during meetings where I am present, they often begin in French and then digress into a French-Wolof hybrid.  Although between my limited Wolof, my French and my questions I always understand the key takeaways of the meetings, I still miss the nuances of why one idea may not work, or why something else is better.  When these involve the marabouts and the obstacles involving them and their faith, it often becomes even more confusing as I struggle to grasp the weight that religion has for many people.

My time here has been a cultural awakening, truly.  Before leaving home, my fellow interns and I were told repetitively to acknowledge that we were going somewhere we were unfamiliar with, into an organization that has been doing their jobs for long enough to likely know better than us, and that we should be open to understanding their perspectives.  While all of this has been true and I have learned a lot, I feel that most of what I have learned has been incredibly humbling, not because it turns out I know very little academically or work-specific but because I know so little about the culture and the importance of religion here.  Not understanding the strongest values of the people limits my ways of understanding how to best work with or around them.

My stay in Senegal has been my own sensitivity training, becoming sensitized to how the beliefs of the people we are with affect how we can and cannot make progress.  I think this is a lesson that I need to continue to learn, as there are still many times when I get frustrated with the rate at which projects are accomplished.  However, I am also learning how to know when my way may be better, and how to demonstrate to others why I do things the way I do them and why they may benefit from this as well.”

"Trust" - Kaylin registering children
"Trust" - Kaylin registering children
Proud of her Maison de la Gare employee badge
Proud of her Maison de la Gare employee badge
Kaylin with talibe children of her English class
Kaylin with talibe children of her English class
Her impressive effort to explain the solar system
Her impressive effort to explain the solar system
Kaylin
Kaylin's very own production of thieboudienne!
Kaylin
Kaylin's host family enjoying her thieboudienne
Cutting talibe children
Cutting talibe children's hair in the infirmary

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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