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Treasured and Troubled Memories of Maison de la Gare

English volunteer Joy Bowers reflects on her experience

"I find it nearly impossible to put in to words everything that was my experience in Saint Louis with Maison de la Gare. When I close my eyes and take myself back, I picture the love of my host family, the mother who cared for me when I fell ill in the first week. All the different faces of the many children, their excitement and eagerness to play, for attention and to learn. The incredible older talibés living at the center, all our conversations, the crazy party I threw for them; we danced all night drunk on adrenaline. My daily walk to the center from my host family’s home, the beautiful sea, the Langue de Barbarie, all the colorful pirogues (fishing boats) and of course, in between all this, the life, the color and the love and warmth of all the Senegalese people I met, and the poverty and unimaginable suffering of little children.

I found Maison de la Gare a couple of years ago whilst browsing the internet looking for a French-speaking organization to volunteer with. I had just returned from teaching English abroad in Nablus, the West Bank. I had such an incredible experience and wanted to again be able to work for a small NGO, and Maison de la Gare is small. I doubt I would have heard of it or the situation in Saint Louis if I hadn’t really wanted to speak some French! Nobody I know knew anything about it before I explained where I was going for a few months. It was two and a half years later when I was able to become a Maison de la Gare volunteer. During that time, in the back of my mind I thought about the horrible situation that the young talibés are subjected to. But it wasn’t quite real.

As much as one can read about the talibés and the work of Maison de la Gare, I don’t think anything can prepare someone for the first few days in Saint Louis. The realization that one must live alongside this bizarre and unimaginably cruel situation and accept that the theft of these children’s childhoods is a part of everyday life. Perhaps most humbling, that most people in Saint Louis are powerless to do anything but live alongside it. It is so very far from stepping outside my flat in England, where children would never be confronted with something as distressing as this, let alone be forced to experience it.

As citizens of the world shouldn’t we be coming together to end once and for all this tragic situation, recognizing that a matter of chance has given us the lives we have and that we are only a few hours away on a plane from something so unimaginable?

Walking past all these little children on the street as an adult, of course I feel a responsibility to do something. I would buy little biscuits, sweets and fruit, and give them something. But it is impossible to give to everyone. Another great tragedy of the situation is that there are so many children fighting and competing over so little; there is never enough.

In my first hours as a volunteer, I was approached by two slightly older boys, Kalidou and Souleymane. They asked me if I was English would I teach them English? They had a great starting level. I was happy to and from then on, every evening Monday to Friday, I taught a beginners’ and an advanced English class. More students arrived. I spent the hours in the office later in the evenings planning lessons. I still feel guilty about some students who arrived mid-lesson with no English or French. With too many students and not enough time I had to tell them to wait, I’ll teach you the alphabet and basic phrases when I can. But sometimes these students were discouraged by their lack of understanding and they didn’t come back. I hate that I was unable to schedule a beginner class for these boys and teach basics. I had no way of contacting them again. They vanished, and I hope they will have a chance to learn English another time.

I was continually impressed by the intelligence and passion for learning of many of the pupils, especially since none of them had been to school. Being able to help them learn new words and answer their grammar questions and watch them progress was wonderful. I was also aware, through the relationships I built up with these older boys, how alike they were to kids of their age in the UK. We are all so similar and I hope that many, many more volunteers will follow me and continue teaching them and helping them improve. Their English abilities have opened the door of education that is the internet, and that is the way forward for them.

I had brought with me a set of theatre masks, designed to encourage play and creativity as well as emotional expression. We had some fun and interesting lessons with talibés of all ages. However, watching some of the smaller kids interact with the masks, it was clear how developmentally behind they were compared to kids I had taught before. I enjoyed greatly blasting Senegalese music from my speaker and setting up tables with the little kids drawing, making crafts and playing games together.

I personally have volunteered with different grassroots organizations and experienced many different testing situations therein, but my experience in Saint Louis was definitely the most difficult to cope with and the cruelest thing I have seen in my life - the sicknesses of the children living in terrible conditions, the lack of resources and the inability to give each and every child the love, comfort and support they deserve, not to mention clean clothes, shoes, enough food...

I would urge anyone with a passion for helping others and a desire to become a Maison de la Gare volunteer to do so keeping in mind the weight of the situation and the ways in which you will affect many children’s lives. You will become a glimpse of stability and care and then literally disappear. Stay as long as possible, two months was what I was able to afford. I wish I could have stayed longer. The more time you can spend building up relationships and working out how you can make a difference, the better. Most importantly the contribution to the center as a volunteer is vital to its invaluable work in fighting for the rights of children and maintaining a safe space for them.

I hope everyone at Maison de le Gare, the staff like Abdou who were so welcoming and supportive, the local volunteers like Lala whose generosity and commitment to the talibés is remarkable, and all the older kids who showed me around Saint Louis and became great friends, know how much I appreciate you and am grateful for having you in my life."