Children
 Senegal
Project #10053

Hope for begging talibe children, St-Louis Senegal

by Maison de la Gare
Proud of their colorful alphabet
Proud of their colorful alphabet

Our Catalan partner Lydie shares her sense of wonder at the creativity of the talibé children

One day follows another at Maison de la Gare, but no two are alike thanks to the children who make every day different. They love to learn and are constantly pushing us to find new ways of teaching to motivate them even more.

If you pay attention to them and follow their moods, their capacity for concentration, for learning and creativity will astonish you. Maison de la Gare offers workshops which give them opportunities to create with their hands.

Paco, a Saint Louis artist, was introduced to Maison de la Gare by Terres Rouges, a Belgian non-governmental organization. He started to teach the children how to make use of the incredible assortment of diverse objects that they collect every day on the streets. The children are relaxed and attentive during Paco's workshops. Working either alone or in groups of three or four with an adult to guide them, they follow Paco's explanations for making statues from bits of iron and objects that they have found.

The children plunge right into the activity; they twist and cut the iron wire until it takes the shape that they want. They pierce the plastic and cut the fabric scraps, watching from the corner of their eye what their neighbor is doing and, when they see an idea they like, they copy it or try to improve on it. They bang in the nails, cut cans and tissues and, little by little, they see the results of what they imagined taking shape and are impatient to see their finished creation.

They get angry with adults who are helping them when they see them having as much fun as they are. The children want to do it themselves; this activity is for them and, to hear them laughing and chatting, they really enjoy themselves. As soon as they are finished, they proudly raise their statue and parade around the garden showing it to everyone, seeking approval from the adults. They all want a photo taken of their masterpiece. They are surprised to see what they have been able to create using only their imaginations and the garbage that they collect and carry around with them throughout the day, which otherwise would just have ended up back on the ground.

Seeing the creativity, concentration and imagination of the children, and especially hearing their laughter, we immediately decided to repeat the activity. Issa Kouyaté, Maison de la Gare's president, summarized what had happened this way: "Art gives the children a chance to reflect as they must take the time to think about their subject. This activity brought out hidden talents in these children, whom society does not judge to be worthy of respect ... The real reason for this recycling activity is to allow the children to find a spiritual foundation, to help them fill the void which their marabout has created in their spirits. We are ready to direct them in whatever direction the spirit takes them, but the starting point must be to recognize them as human beings full of potential who can exceed our expectations."

It was watching the children coloring in the letters of the alphabet on cards, asking us to call out the names of the letters, that gave us the idea for another activity.

No sooner said than done. That day, Anna and Annette had come to help us. We set up the desks from the classrooms in the garden and grouped the children by age and ability. We all recited the alphabet while writing the letters on cardboard poster boards. The children were very attentive and eager to know what was going to happen with these letters. Diodio explained to the children that they had to fill in the letters by cutting pieces of fabric that were spread around on the tables and then pasting these inside the letters. At first we had to insist on some order because the children naturally wanted to cut and paste everything together. However, they soon realized that if they worked as a team they would have more have fun than by squabbling. If at first they hesitated a little and wondered how to do it, they surprised us all once they realized we had complete confidence in them.

Very focused, they cut the fabric scraps, chose where to put them before gluing them and made sure that the glue did not run elsewhere. We really had fun. Each letter was recited aloud as they finished it, and we were very surprised by their capacity for concentration. They were the ones who saw that we had made a mistake ... after the "q" on one of the poster boards we had written "s" instead of "r"; we burst out laughing as they corrected us.

This morning was one of those magical moments that these children give us, seeing them so relaxed, confident and happy realizing what they are capable of achieving.

The most surprising and spontaneous activity took place the day that we brought seashells to the center. In Senegal, these are perfect for all kinds of crafts as they are already full of holes. Anna and Annette were there again that day, along with Cara and, as always, Diodio serving as an intermediary with the children, explaining how we were going to make mobiles with the shells. We carefully distributed the same number of shells to each group as, like children everywhere, the talibés always check that their neighbor does not have one more than they do. This time there was no argument over who would get the scissors, because we pre-cut the wire to be used in threading the shells to make mobiles.

We were again amazed by the children's creativity in making these mobiles; some of them were truly beautiful. And, when the activity was finished, they continued, making necklaces. All of a sudden Malick began making music with his necklace as though it was a maraca, and we all followed. Everyone grabbed an object or used the tables as djembes, turning the seashell activity turned into a musical jam session, surprising everyone and attracting many curious onlookers who wanted to see what was happening in the classroom.

The colorful letters of the alphabet and the mobiles were used to decorate one of the classrooms, and woe be to anyone who made the mistake of damaging them; he would be accountable to the artists, who were very proud of their work.

Since I have come to know these children, I know that angels exist because, despite their extreme living conditions, they are able to give the very best of themselves.

Far too much talent is lost with these children, in spite of Maison de la Gare's efforts to reintegrate them into society.

Peace Corp volunteer Tim supports intense artists
Peace Corp volunteer Tim supports intense artists
Talibe artists bursting with pride
Talibe artists bursting with pride
Art gallery on the infirmary porch
Art gallery on the infirmary porch
Creating beautiful letters
Creating beautiful letters
Seashells into mobiles and necklaces
Seashells into mobiles and necklaces
Lydie and Diodio surrounded by happy artists
Lydie and Diodio surrounded by happy artists

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Talibe children, proud of their creations
Talibe children, proud of their creations

Thanks to Rose Mbaye, Eyram Adedze, Ben Ouattara, Mame Coumba and "Davis Projects for Peace", Senegalese university students have joined the struggle for justice

This project came to pass thanks to the initiative of four African students from the University of Rochester in New York and a grant that they received from Davis Projects for Peace”. The project made it possible for close to fifty Senegalese volunteers to address a problem close to their hearts, a problem they thought they could eliminate or reduce. Many of these volunteers, however, were only beginning to learn what exploitation truly is.

The volunteers were mainly students from Gaston Berger University in Saint Louis and Alioune Diop University in Bambey. They gave up their summer vacations to help Maison de la Gare in its efforts for the talibé children, and to learn more about how organizations committed to child protection act on behalf of the victims of abuse. The project was actively supported by the Ministry of Justice through its office for social action in open environments (AEMO), along with the Prefect, the Governor and the General Secretary of Maîtres Coraniques du Sénégal (Quranic Teachers of Senegal).

The university volunteers divided into groups for the activities in Maison de la Gare’s welcome centre, to allow everyone to be fully involved and to energize the activities with friendly competition between the groups. The talibé children felt the warm embrace of these university students and were open to discussing with them while cooperating fully with their instructions for the various activities. The students animated creative activities such as coloring, making collages, playing checkers and making masterpieces out of recycled materials. And they taught French and basic math classes. They reinforced for Maison de la Gare that it’s not necessary to wait for help from the outside in order to take action on behalf of the talibé children.

Maison de la Gare has always worked to provide the talibé children with possibilities for developing their personal potential. In addition to education, gardening, football and karate, there is one activity that the children have embraced to show their awareness of the challenges of society and their ability to contribute. Working with the volunteers, many of the children focused on creating their own small cars. Others, more daring, made masks with used oil tins, drink cans and empty deodorant bottles. There is a promising future ahead for many of these young people. About fifty young talibé children showed us what they were capable of, through objects, colors, shapes and even morphology. They bequeathed their personalities to these works, marking them uniquely with a symbol which was their true name.

In another initiative, groups of ten volunteers went into the streets of Saint Louis to collect money and clothing for the children. The idea was to ask for donations of clothing for the talibé children from homes and stores, but many people preferred instead to donate money and other things. At the end of the project, the clothing collected was distributed to the talibé children, and the money was used to contribute to the cost of renovations carried out in a number of daaras.

Mapaté summarizes the project in this way: “For us, this project was a great success. The objectives that had been set both by the volunteers and by Maison de la Gare were achieved. For Maison de la Gare, the project supported us enormously in our daily efforts to come to the aid of the talibé children. We were able to revisit many daaras and to improve conditions there. Also, the volunteers carried the message about the situation of the talibé children to many people in the local community, with the collaboration of families linked to the daaras and of the marabouts themselves. And in terms of education, the university student volunteers reinforced the children’s abilities in French, in math and in creative art.”

Above all, this project made it possible for the Senegalese university students to be volunteers in their own country. Even though much infrastructure is lacking, this very visible initiative gave local organizations an understanding of the collaborative efforts that Maison de la Gare has set in motion. And we were able to see how Senegalese volunteers can contribute to improving the lives of the talibés children, in parallel with the invaluable contributions made over many years by volunteers from the developed world.

Volunteers organize for the day
Volunteers organize for the day's activities
Drawing with the talibe children
Drawing with the talibe children
Rose, helping with math
Rose, helping with math
Volunteers back from collecting clothing donations
Volunteers back from collecting clothing donations
Delight at making a work of art from garbage
Delight at making a work of art from garbage
Volunteers organizing games with the children
Volunteers organizing games with the children
"Talibes have rights like everyone ..."
"Talibes have rights like everyone ..."

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The marabout says "Thank you" in a Pikine daara
The marabout says "Thank you" in a Pikine daara

"Davis Projects for Peace" volunteers throw light on this hidden world, while making it a bit better

Four students at the University of Rochester in New York conceived and led a remarkable mobilization of Senegalese university students during the summer of 2015, in support of Maison de la Gare's work for the begging talibé street children … A New Beginning for the Talibé Children.

With its long experience in this struggle, Maison de la Gare was able to help Rose Mbaye, Eyram Adedze, Ben Ouattara and Mame Coumba to understand the situation that had led to establishment of its welcome center in Saint Louis.  And, to help them to take action towards eradicating the so-called education system maintained by false Quranic teachers, and to appreciate the challenges that must be overcome.

In its 2010 report "Off the Backs of the Children", Human Rights Watch described the lives of the talibé children in their daaras in this way:

“Morning to night, the landscape of Senegal’s cities is dotted with the sight of the boys - the vast majority under 12 years old and many as young as four - shuffling in small groups through the streets; weaving in and out of traffic; and waiting outside shopping centers, marketplaces, banks, and restaurants.  Dressed in filthy, torn, and oversized shirts, and often barefoot, they hold out a small plastic bowl or empty can hoping for alms. On the street they are exposed to disease, the risk of injury or death from car accidents, and physical and sometimes sexual abuse by adults.

Daily life for these children is one of extreme deprivation.  Despite bringing money and rice to the daara, the children are forced to beg for their meals on the street.  Some steal or dig through trash in order to find something to eat.  The majority suffer from constant hunger and mild to severe malnutrition.  When a child falls ill, which happens often with long hours on the street and poor sanitary conditions in the daara, the teacher seldom offers healthcare assistance.  The children are forced to spend even longer begging to purchase medicines to treat the stomach parasites, malaria, and skin diseases that run rampant through the daaras.  Most of the urban daaras are situated in abandoned, partially constructed structures or makeshift thatched compounds.  The children routinely sleep 30 to a small room, crammed so tight that, particularly during the hot season, they choose to brave the elements outside.  During Senegal’s four-month winter, the talibés suffer the cold with little or no cover, and, in some cases, even a mat to sleep on.”

The Senegalese university students were able to see with their own eyes the children’s living conditions in Saint Louis daaras, and to appreciate the difference between a good and a bad daara.  They visited seven of the daaras where the children live In the course of the project, donating sleeping mats, soap, shoes, clothing and first aid supplies.  They also undertook a major clean-up of these daaras, sweeping and removing refuse, and they donated brooms and waste bins and installed mosquito nets, all to allow the children to live in slightly better conditions.  In daara Serigne Abdoulaye Bâ in Pikine the volunteers washed the young talibé children’s clothing, providing an example for others to follow.

These visits also gave the students the opportunity to express directly to the Quranic teachers, the marabouts of the daaras, their lack of support for the philosophy responsible for the children’s situation.  From these discussions, the idea emerged of carrying out some renovations in order to make a real difference for the children.  Many of the daaras have no means of providing health care and no provision for basic hygiene.  As an example, in daara Serigne Alioune Sow in the Darou area, the volunteers installed showers and built a new toilet facility.

By the end of this project, a network of new friends had developed among the university student volunteers.  Together they had come to understand that the condition of the children living in these daaras is a Senegalese problem that must be resolved by the Senegalese themselves.  The project transformed the volunteers’ perceptions of the situation of these very vulnerable children.  And it gave the children themselves new hope that there are Senegalese men and women who are aware of their situation and are committed to giving them the chance to have a better life.

Toilet for 50 boys in daara Serigne Yoro Ba
Toilet for 50 boys in daara Serigne Yoro Ba
With children after installing mats, mosquito nets
With children after installing mats, mosquito nets
Cleaning daara Serigne Ousmane Barry in Cite Niakh
Cleaning daara Serigne Ousmane Barry in Cite Niakh
Installing mosquito nets in daara in Darou
Installing mosquito nets in daara in Darou
Cleaning in daara Serigne Abdoulaye Ba in Pikine
Cleaning in daara Serigne Abdoulaye Ba in Pikine
Volunteers washing laundry for talibe children
Volunteers washing laundry for talibe children
Issa and volunteers dig septic sump for new toilet
Issa and volunteers dig septic sump for new toilet
Happy volunteers, justly proud of their efforts
Happy volunteers, justly proud of their efforts

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Issa with (l to r) Ben, Rose, Eyram, Mame Coumba
Issa with (l to r) Ben, Rose, Eyram, Mame Coumba

Fostering Understanding and Stopping Abuse - Davis Projects for Peace fellows make a difference

Four African students at the University of Rochester, New York were selected in early 2015 to receive the Davis Prize for Peace. Rose Mbaye had witnessed first-hand in her hometown of Dakar the extreme physical abuse and social marginalization of the begging talibé street children. She shared her determination to do something about this problem with her teammates at Rochester U., Mame Coumba Mbodji from Senegal, Zanga Ben Ouattara from Burkina Faso and Eyram Adedze from Ghana and, together, they received this prestigious award.

 Rose reports that the group contacted several Senegalese organizations working with the talibé street children, seeking both to understand the issues better and to identify a partner whom they could work with to effect change in a short-term project. They selected Issa Kouyaté and Maison de la Gare. From Issa's point of view, "We had discussions about the feasibility of this project over three long months. I shared the experience and ideas that have made Maison de la Gare what it is, working in close collaboration with our partners and with the world around us. And I expressed my conviction that, to succeed in this work, Maison de la Gare must work hand in hand with civil society and all of the organizations that work for the protection of children."

The main goals of the project were to promote awareness of the exploitation, abuse and stigmatization of the talibé children, and to collaborate with different local stakeholders to improve the conditions of material, educational and psychological deprivation in which these children live. The aim was not only to promote empathy but also to engage the children themselves, parents, spiritual leaders, youth service organizations, educators, public officials and ordinary citizens to take action for the betterment both of the children them and of society at large.

The project lasted from July 31 to August 26, 2015, and the team was assisted by 45 Senegalese volunteers, mostly university students, who had been recruited a few weeks earlier.

The activities planned during the four weeks included visits and clean-up of seven of the daaras where the boys live, renovation of three of those daaras, providing 18 vocational training workshops in gardening, pottery and artistic recycling, organizing eight collections of clothes, shoes, soaps, etc. in different locations around Saint Louis, and organizing awareness campaigns in three different communities. The volunteers also led French, English and basic computing classes as well as other educational and sports activities in Maison de la Gare's center. Volunteers were organized into four groups, and each of these worked in turn on each of the activities. This provided all of the volunteers with the opportunity to have an all-round experience of the project, and this contributed to maintaining their interest and commitment so that over 90% of them stayed for the full four weeks.

The activities were all a great success, and their completion was even more satisfying. Rose, Ben, Mame Coumba and Eyram received positive feedback about the project from marabouts, parents, the local media and other organizers. Over 500 talibé children were touched by the programs at Maison de la Gare's center and in their daaras. And the awareness campaign sensitized over 300 other stakeholders to the phenomenon of forced child begging, child abuse and the associated stigmatization.

On their return to university, Eyram, Rose, Mame Coumba and Ben summarized what they had learned:

"Through the conversations that we have had with different classes of Senegalese people on the issue of the talibés, it has become clear that it is human nature to refuse to take responsibility for social injustice. Fingers are always pointed at the government as the agent to rectify this issue. These conversations pushed us to think about our complicity in this system; we can't help but wonder how much responsibility we have refused to take on different issues in our lives and the lives of people around us.

This project reminded us that it is essential to take charge of the challenges we face in our lives. It takes a dedicated mind and heart to tackle a problem as complex as the exploitation and abuse of child beggars in Senegal. However, we believe that an idea, no matter how small, can make a significant impact if properly empowered. We must never underestimate the power of collaboration for a noble collective purpose, as the satisfaction one gets from addressing social injustice is worth more than a thousand words."

As for Issa, he summarized the project this way: "This project gelled quickly around all of the people involved ... Maison de la Gare, university students, talibé children, Quranic teachers and the authorities. Thus was born 'A New Beginning for the Talibé Children.'"

Project logo
Project logo
Planning the opening ceremony with Issa
Planning the opening ceremony with Issa
Opening ceremony in Maison de la Gare
Opening ceremony in Maison de la Gare's center
What it
What it's all about
Senegalese volunteers, ready to go
Senegalese volunteers, ready to go
An event in the population awareness campaign
An event in the population awareness campaign
Issa and Rose present award at closing ceremony
Issa and Rose present award at closing ceremony
Where it all began - winners of Davis fellowship
Where it all began - winners of Davis fellowship

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Liem with talibe friends in MDG center
Liem with talibe friends in MDG center

Liem reflects on his two months with Maison de la Gare

Senegal can be a bit of an overwhelming place at times.  My morning walk from my homestay to Maison de la Gare’s center was an experience in itself.  The cacophony of sounds that fills the air is unlike any place I’ve ever been: the high-pitched honks of taxis trying to attract customers, the loud voices of chatting Senegalese women as they tend to their mango stands next to the road, enthusiastic vendors holding out souvenirs for sale and greeting you with an over-the-top, “Hello, my friend!!”, and little children yelling, “Bonjour, Toubab!” as they pass you on the sidewalk, pointing and giggling at your sun-burnt, sweat-covered skin.  "Car rapides" whiz by, so filled with passengers that young men hang off of the back, holding on for dear life.  It’s always a trip riding them - the buses have been aptly nicknamed “s’en fout la mort” – French for “don’t care about death”.

And, of course, wherever you are in the city of Saint Louis you will hear the call to prayers and sermons broadcasted in Arabic from the loudspeaker of the nearest mosque.  At this point, we’ve already heard four different languages on our walk – Wolof, French, Arabic, and English.  This is what makes Senegal so unique; the influences of French colonization, strong Islamic traditions and a tribal history have combined to create a complex and rich culture unlike any other.  For me, throwing myself into this completely new and complicated environment was extremely fascinating but also difficult at first.  Difficult because I really did not understand the culture when I arrived, and this meant I committed a lot of embarrassing and awkward faux pas, leaving me feeling a little bit out of place.

Maison de la Gare, however, was a place that I always felt at home – as it is for many talibés as well.  Part of it was the appearance of the center.  One can’t help but feel calm and relaxed sitting in the center’s quiet garden with its banana trees and grape vines, looking out at the colorful murals that cover the surrounding walls.  But, in addition to the garden, it was the people of Maison de la Gare who made me feel welcome and comfortable there from day one, regardless of the cultural mistakes I made.

The first morning, and every morning after, I was greeted by smiles and handshakes from everyone at the center.  I was accepted.  Then, it was the work I did that began to give me confidence and a real sense of purpose.  One of Maison de la Gare’s staff members, Noël Coly, immediately showed me how to take attendance electronically as the talibé children arrived at the center each morning.  With over 100 boys showing up daily, this was a great way to meet them and learn their names.

Other days I spent my mornings working individually with older talibé children who wanted to improve their English, French, or math skills.  These sessions were really helpful because, for every word I taught in English or French, the boys would teach me the word in Wolof.  Besides being helpful for my Wolof ability though, working with the boys was a very inspiring experience.  As I learned more about their stories, I was continually blown away by the motivation and character they possess despite their harsh circumstances.  One student named Abou would walk for two hours to get to the center every day, waking up at 4:00 am to fulfill his responsibilities at his daara before leaving.  There were many other stories like this one.  They humbled me and motivated me to work even harder, while reminding me why I had come there.

In the evenings I would return to the center for the nightly language classes.  I began working with Omar, a Peace Corps volunteer who led English classes for the older talibés (15 to 20 years old).  Our classes began at 6:30 p.m. and, because it was Ramadan, went until Ndogou at 7:30 p.m. – the time to break the fast.  The boys, despite not eating or drinking anything for 13 hours, were always positive, driven and focused during class, always wanting to learn more and asking questions.

When I arrived, I was nervous about teaching.  I had never taught a language before, and I had no credentials or certification.  When I started, my limited Wolof speaking ability made it sometimes hard to explain words or phrases.  But I was lucky to have Kalidou in my class, a talibé who spoke some English.  Kalidou was a translator, a teacher and a student, all at the same time – acting as a middleman between the boys and me whenever we had trouble understanding each other.  Over time, I learned some Wolof too.  The boys found it very amusing and entertaining when I would attempt to explain things using the Wolof words I knew.  Although embarrassing, using my Wolof brought me closer to the boys and erased a wall that could have developed between us.

Outside of the classes and work, I spent a lot of time at the center just having fun and talking to people.  Playing ping pong with Bathe and Abdou.  Finding a pizza place with Diodio and Issa.  Talking about school with Arouna.  Playing soccer video games at the local arcade with Kalidou and Samba.  Having these strong friendships gave me people to share my experiences with, making it slightly more bearable to deal with some of the sad and challenging aspects of working with the talibés.

I came to Senegal expecting to discover a new culture, gain experience teaching, improve my French and support a cause that was bigger than me.  Looking back on it, I gained so much more.  It sounds cliché, but being in Senegal changed me in a way.  Before coming to West Africa I, like many Americans, had little understanding of how the non-Western world works and struggles.  Being exposed to a different way of life and the realities of living in a developing country made me reflect and reconsider many aspects of my life at home.

There were cultural differences that I just couldn’t figure out when I first arrived, but over time they really became endearing.  Now that I’m back in the US, I kind of miss being able to eat rice with my hands and greeting people Senegalese-style every morning.

But more than anything, I miss people and relationships.  With Facebook I chat regularly with the boys and staff members to stay in touch, but it does make me sad to think that I may never see some of them again.

When I came back to the US, people often asked me, “Was it a good experience?”. It’s kind of a complicated question, and at first I had trouble determining what “good” really meant to me.  I’ve had some time to reflect on everything though, to put into words how I feel.  Now, I always respond, “It was challenging and difficult at times, but it was extremely rewarding”.

On the beach with Arouna and Abdou
On the beach with Arouna and Abdou
With Samba, who often helped register arrivals
With Samba, who often helped register arrivals
Liem corrects Issa
Liem corrects Issa's short story, Kalidou watches
With Assana, who always asked for more work!
With Assana, who always asked for more work!
Liem with host brothers Maniang (left) and Babacar
Liem with host brothers Maniang (left) and Babacar
Some of the hardest workers, who became friends
Some of the hardest workers, who became friends
With Abou, who walked 2 hours each day to class
With Abou, who walked 2 hours each day to class

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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
$65,361 raised of $69,900 goal
 
783 donations
$4,539 to go
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