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Elhage's Passion - Sonia LeRoy shares her experience with a remarkable young man
Elhage does not lead an easy life. He is
an example of how Maison de la Gare’s intervention can offer hope and opportunities to talibés
who are willing
to take advantage of those opportunities. And, for those who do not, at least
Maison de la Gare offers them daily respite from very challenging situations. Elhage is an
intelligent person. He pays attention, and he has a positive, optimistic nature despite
his years of abuse in the daara. When opportunity knocks, Elhage will answer. Even more,
he does not forget where he came from, or those who were not as fortunate as he to grab
hold of hope that leads to change.
Elhage joined the karate program a few years ago when it was introduced at Maison de la Gare. And, he participated in the classroom programs from the start. He is always here, watching, learning, ready to help others when needed. When the tailoring apprenticeship program began, Elhage joined it too, seeing the trade of tailoring as the key to a successful life.
Speaking about his apprenticeship, Elhage said “Not having a trade at my age is like walking blind." Most talibés face this challenge. Talibés can remain under the thumbs of their marabouts until perhaps the age of 20 or later, never having had access to any formal education or apprenticeship opportunities. And their only companions are other neglected children. Their only teachers force them to beg and abuse them. What does a child learn growing up in this environment? At what point do they learn to support themselves and contribute as citizens should?
These days Elhage is a busy person. He spends two days a week, usually Sunday and Monday, in the market, hoping for the chance to work at odd jobs to earn enough money to feed himself for the week. He works the remaining days of the week in the tailoring apprenticeship program. But, he also takes responsibility at Maison de la Gare. Elhage sleeps in Maison de la Gare’s center at night. So, when the runaway talibés discovered on the streets during the twice weekly night rounds are delivered to Maison de la Gare's emergency shelter at 1 or 2 in the morning, Elhage is there to greet them and help set up their beds, get them some food, and tuck them in. He is also trusted with the keys and is available to help with whatever is needed anytime. But, this is not all Elhage does. He has taken it upon himself to provide health care in the daaras.
Several mornings a week Elhage packs a bag of supplies from the medical clinic and heads out to the daaras to deliver health care on site to talibés who cannot make their way to Maison de la Gare. If there are international volunteers, he invites them along to help. I asked Elhage why he does this - going out early in the morning to walk dusty, dirty back alleys in search of remote and neglected daaras, to toil cleaning, disinfecting and bandaging little boys' wounds, applying ointments, and determining who might need antibiotics or hospitalization, taking away from the time he has to apply himself to his apprenticeship. He said it is because he was a forced begging talibé for many years, beaten by his marabout and neglected. He said he knows what these boys suffer. He does not want them to be forgotten. He knows they need help and that he can give it. Elhage pointed out that Maison de la Gare supported him while he was immersed in the life of his daara and is providing him with the opportunity to make his way in life. Elhage says the boys from these remote daaras have trouble regularly making their way to Maison de la Gare’s clinic. He says it is therefore something he just must do.
One morning, I accompanied Elhage on his daara medical rounds. Because we left late, we took a taxi to the area near the first daara. Elhage says he usually walks. It must take him over an hour to reach the area on foot. We approached the daara and Elhage politely greeted the marabout.
Upon entering the daara Elhage was immediately surrounded and greeted by many little boys. They clearly knew him well and welcomed his presence. We sat down, and the boys presented themselves to us one by one. We donned medical gloves, examined their wounds, and then got to work cleaning, disinfecting and bandaging. A group of boys huddled around Elhage while I worked on a very badly infected toe. Elhage's crowd had all been circumcised not long ago, but their wounds were not healing. I glanced over as boy after boy uncovered a swollen, infected penis for Elhage to treat. Elhage took what seemed to be hours carefully cleaning and bandaging the wounds. I later asked Elhage if it is usual to have such extreme problems after circumcision, and he said not at all. This is very unusual - but common at this particular daara.
The toe I was treating had swollen to about twice its normal size. And, after I cleaned away the dried blood and caked-in filth, I saw that the skin was entirely missing from almost all of his toe. Every touch was agonizing. I shared some Advil with the boy, and he gritted his teeth stoically, tears squeezing out of his eyes, as I did my best for him. In bare feet, I do not know how long his bandage will last. Elhage says he will consult with Awa the nurse and return soon, hopefully with antibiotics.
At the second daara we visited, we treated just a few boys. But, one was quite a serious case. Elhage said that he must come at least every three days to re-clean and disinfect this boy's wounded leg. The leg felt hot as I did my best to clean it without water. And, it was swollen over a large area. Elhage added this boy's case to the list to consult on with Awa. A few talibés came for medical care who only had slight scratches. However, as they seemed to revel in the care and attention being showered on them as we cleaned and bandaged them, we welcomed the opportunity to do this.
Eventually we made our way back to Maison de la Gare, all our bandages and "cotton" used up, and my Advil bottle empty. Most of the other staff and children had long since left for the mid-afternoon break. Elhage, on the other hand, made his way to the tailoring room and got right back to work.