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Sometimes it's a Grandfather's Love That is Needed

Chuck Hornsby is an inspiration to us all

"When I began the search for a volunteer post in French speaking Africa, it was just by accident (or luck) that I ran across Maison de la Gare. I thought I'd find a place to teach English, as I'd done in three previous postings at schools in Thailand, Laos and Mexico. I had come to international volunteering late in life, but what I'd found had been both fascinating and adventuresome, a compelling combination for me. So, at 80, I was not going to back off quite yet.

The Maison de la Gare website was immediately appealing, a chance to help out with these boys who are forced to beg daily on the streets of Saint Louis. I didn't know how exactly I could lend a hand, but thought that perhaps I could teach something - or just do whatever was asked. I sent off a query to Issa Kouyaté, the director.

And received an immediate reply. I took the live-with-a-family option (over the hotel) and family living turned out to be key in my plunge into the local scene with all the challenges and satisfactions that go with cultural immersion.

So, after a few days in the chaotic, colorful capital of Dakar to get my Senegalese bearings, have a look around and get tuned in to the local French accent, I arrived in Saint Louis on the doorstep of Mme Soda Beye with just enough time to meet the family - son, daughter and grandson - before sitting down on a carpet and sharing the main meal of the day from a large common bowl and eating either with fingers or a soup spoon (my choice) and, this being a Muslim country, right hand only (I only had to be reminded once or twice with a poke in the ribs). The meal was the national dish called Thiéboudienne, cooked fish and vegetables over rice and covered with a spicy, tasty sauce. I was to see numerous variations of this dish over the coming weeks. Sitting side by side with family members, sharing from the same large pot and engaging in animated conversation, made me feel like one of the family right away.

The next morning, Issa picked me up and walked me the 20 minutes to Maison de la Gare's center just off a main street across from the soccer stadium. Staff members were warmly welcoming and, although the first boys I met initially looked wide-eyed at the stranger, it wasn't long until they were all smiles and high-fives. The Maison de la Gare compound is made up of a basic office/computer and TV/library building, a common outdoor clothes washing and bathing area, a row of toilet stalls, a kitchen, an emergency shelter, three classrooms and, separately, an infirmary, all grouped around the central play yard of sand.

After some orientation and observing I wandered into the infirmary and there found my place. After seeing a succession of these boys aged 5 to 15 - mostly in ragged, much used clothing - be treated for wounds and cuts (to bare feet), abrasions, skin and scalp conditions and sometimes burns or scabies, I was asked to help out.

And so began my daily routine, showing up at the opening bell and taking my place beside my co-workers, Awa and Abibou. It wasn't difficult to learn the routines of cleaning, bandaging and assisting other procedures, but it was very rewarding to offer these helpful treatments to the boys, the talibés, so poignantly in need of comfort, support and attention. It wasn't long before I felt like one of the team.

Often the infirmary wasn't so busy in the afternoon and the activities director Abdou, a wonderful, talented guy, got me involved in helping run the simple games, races and more that these kids so loved. Watching them enjoy themselves, happily free and at play, was sheer joy. After helping hand out a late afternoon snack, I went to a classroom and taught basic conversational English and French. The lack of materials was sometimes frustrating but the kids were so enthusiastic and full of energy that it was a happy class experience nonetheless. Yet when the gates closed, it was sad to think of these happy faces going back to the squalid, overcrowded and often abusive living conditions to which they are subjected by the so-called Koranic teachers who exploit them.

I'm a longtime city biker, so Issa found me a bike which not only took me daily to the center, home for lunch and back for the afternoon session, but also propelled me to explore all corners of the city and, on the weekends, the countryside as well. There was much to take in, from colorful markets to teeming shopping streets and stark, gritty poverty. Saint Louis, once the vibrant capitol of all of French West Africa, is now a tale of faded glory. Yet exploring the remnants of French colonial times, the vital fishing port with its hundreds of brightly painted boats and the Artisan Village that was home to many friendly and talented craftsmen, these were just a few of the myriad of wonders to be discovered during my stay.

This has been about the journey of a volunteer, yet the real story is about the boys, the talibés, sent from impoverished rural homes to Saint Louis to 'study' (read memorize) the Koran and who find themselves beggars, horribly exploited by their teachers. The practice is in fact illegal, but so ingrained in the local culture that it stubbornly persists. Maison de la Gare has made important inroads, provided heightened awareness, improved hygiene, nutrition and, perhaps most importantly, given hope to so many boys. Yet there remains much to be done.

To my colleagues Abdou , Bouri, Awa, Abibou, Mamadou, Kalidou who taught English with me, Souleymane who led karate class, Aïda my French teaching friend and Issa, just to name a few of the dedicated staffers, I was in awe of your fierce dedication to the talibé cause. It doesn't take long, observing these rag-tag boys washing themselves and their clothes, brushing teeth (many for the first time), making friends with one another and playing their games, to understand the dedication to their cause that grips the staff as well as the international support network that sustains their efforts."