It’s always wonderful to be present when a child is in the midst of discovery. Yesterday, I watched a six year old boy named Hamdi listen to music with an MP3 player for the first time. Someone put the earphones in for him and passed him the phone, and we waited to see his adorable reaction: a combination of giggles and slight confusion. We would try talking to him, asking what he was listening to, what he was holdingÛ_ meanwhile, he still had the earphones in and couldn’t hear, so he would reply, “Huh?” with his enlightened eyes and the youthful giddiness we all get when we’re introduced to something we like. It was such a beautiful moment to be apart of, especially knowing the same six year old was chained at the ankles three weeks ago, found hopping along the streets of St. Louis in the middle of the night trying to escape from his abusive marabout (Quranic teacher).
“TalibÌ©” is a word used to describe students learning the Quran, but is more commonly used when referring to the street children of Senegal. Boys, like Hamdi, are sent to a marabout by their families, often too poor to provide, in hopes that their children will be educated and taken care of. Typically, Quranic schooling takes no more than five years, however, it lasts much longer when the majority of their time is spent begging for food and money instead of learning. Each boy is given a set quota by his teacher who collects the daily profits, and failing to meet said quota results in punishment, including but not limited to being chained at the ankles. They sleep in daraas, which are overcrowded, concrete structures where disease runs rampant. Malaria and skin diseases are often contracted but not treated by those in charge. Due to the harsh conditions these children live in, many choose trying to sleep outside or end up running away.
No matter where I’ve gone in Senegal, in cities and villages alike, I’ve been approached by these barefoot children, wearing tattered clothing, with loose change in one hand and an old butter container holding a cup or two of uncooked rice and sugar in the other. During lunch and dinner, groups of three to five talibÌ©s, give or take, wait at the entrance of my compound for one of my aunts to tell them whether or not we have enough rice to spare a few scoops. I remember I was walking home from work one time when I saw one boy sitting across the street from where I live, shoving the few fistfuls of rice he had into his mouth. It was one of the less beautiful moments I’ve experienced during my time here, but something beautiful came out of it.
Naturally, being the X generation child that I am, I went straight to the internet. I wanted to see what kind of information I could dig up about these so-called “talibÌ©s” that I saw everyday. I ended up stumbling upon a website for a drop-in center called “Maison de la Gare.” This organization is located in St. Louis, and is an entirely Senegalese initiative “dedicated to helping the talibÌ© street children become productive participants in Senegalese society.” St. Louis is roughly two hours north of my village, so with its relatively close proximity and my desire to learn more, I was determined to get up there and see it for myself.
After much back and forth with emails and phone calls, I was able to visit Maison de la Gare for the first time during our second training seminar. I went with one of my team leaders on a Saturday for a tour of the facility and to meet the president, Issa Kouyate. I just want to put this in writing: Issa is the coolest person you will ever meet. Even if you can’t understand what he’s saying because, admittedly, even after eight months in country your language skills are alright at best, you can see how genuine and passionate he is about improving the lives of these children. I’ve gone back three times since, have become a familiar face, and have been so happy to finally see these little boys being the little boys that they are! Reading books, tending to a garden, playing football, washing their clothes, having access to an education and health care… It truly is an amazing place.
I knew I wanted my Final Community Project for Global Citizen Year to revolve around helping the talibÌ©s in some way. I had a lot of trouble solidifying an idea, because it’s such a sensitive topic and I didn’t want to overstep any boundaries. Senegal is 94% Muslim and there is great religious influence in the government. A national child protection strategy was validated two years ago, along with a plan to eradicate child begging by 2015. The government hasn’t been following up on its promises as to not upset the marabouts that play such powerful role in society, so how am I supposed to initiate a solution to this problem when even the government itself has been struggling to do so?
With a little help from my fellows, I decided to create a flyer including background information about the talibÌ©s, Maison de la Gare, and how people can help. I’ve given some out to the local high school, passed some along to my new friend Issa, and even met a doctor in Medecins du Monde that wanted a copy. I figure, with the limited time I have left in Senegal, all I can do is make sure people are informed, and let them decide what these children will wake up to tomorrow morning.