On The Road Blog
FT Behind the Scenes: Saint-Louis, Senegal
- By Stephanie deWolfe on December 7th, 2012
- Category: Blog, Featured, Featured Blog, Home, Sub-Saharan Africa
An hour after our arrival in Saint-Louis, we hit the dirt roads on foot, walking through the heart of residential neighborhoods. Financial Times journalist Orla Ryan, photographer Holly Pickett, my colleague Melanie Durian, and I were being led by Issa Kouyate, founder of Global Fund for Children grantee partner Maison de la Gare (MDG). It seemed as though with every step we took, Issa was stopped and greeted by yet another person, many of them young boys. Issa works with talibés, male students of the Qur’an, who spend the majority of their days in Qur’anic schools called daaras, studying under marabouts—religious leaders. Qur’anic education is deeply valued in Senegal, and attending daaras is quite common.
The presence of talibés is commonplace in some parts of the country. In recent years, as publicity around the talibé presence has grown, so has the stigma of daaras. Issa has a close rapport with over 150 marabouts who run daaras in Saint-Louis, where two of the country’s presidents and many elites of Senegal received their Qur’anic education. We spend the morning talking with marabouts about what it’s like maintaining their daaras. Maison de la Gare’s presence in the community is impossible to ignore. Each marabout we speak with points to rooms, ceilings, or reinforced frames at their facilities, thanking MDG for providing them. One tells us that before MDG, there were no toilets in his daara. Another says that Saint-Louis needs more organizations like MDG in order to provide a better experience to those talibés who are mistreated.
After a packed day of visiting daaras, we move to MDG’s center to meet some of the boys served by the organization. Every evening from 5:00 to 7:00, dozens of talibés who live in daaras across Saint-Louis show up for accelerated courses at MDG; eventually, they are transitioned into the public school system. The space is a safe haven—kids are playing, and there is a garden, maintained by the boys as part of a skills-training program, where mint, watermelon, lemongrass, and other plants grow.
We pull aside two boys who have been attending MDG’s evening classes for over two years. One has enrolled in French school, with the help and negotiation of MDG. He juggles a busy schedule of working to earn enough to pay his marabout, taking regular classes at school, getting academic support at MDG, then studying the Qur’an until late into the night, maintaining a commitment he made and wants to keep.
Before I know it, it’s past midnight, and Orla and I are waiting for Issa outside our hotel. We are meeting for a routine “night walk.” On a weekly basis, MDG staff scour the streets in the dead of night for runaway talibés who are sleeping unsheltered. Each time, MDG checks about eight spots throughout the city where children commonly end up.
Ten minutes in, we reach the first spot, the foyer of a tiled building not far from the Faidherbe Bridge. There are eight young boys, limbs intertwined, sleeping in a row. They likely chose this space because of the sturdy awning that would keep them dry. Issa is familiar with a guard who watches the building; they have met several times on these night walks. Together, Issa and the guard gradually wake up the children, asking them what they are doing here and why they are sleeping in such a dangerous setting. Hesitant, and visibly scared, the boys don’t want to admit where they are from.
With some coaxing, enough information is shared for Issa to lay out the next steps: offer temporary shelter to the boys overnight; line up a visit to the local social services office in the morning; submit a report to the local child protection agency; and for those boys who have fled daaras, attempt mediation between the boys and their daaras.
As Issa is sorting this out, El Haj, the program manager, explains to me that it’s crucial for MDG to establish a sense of safety for the boys during the first interaction and to get them off the streets as soon as possible, or they might relocate or run away to another spot when day comes. Living on the streets of Saint-Louis, they risk abuse from older boys, sexual abuse, and general absence of care. This sort of real-time intervention is critical to Maison de la Gare’s advocacy for talibés on the island. Saint-Louis is small enough that collecting anecdotal evidence about the gravity of talibé problems can inform the local government’s approach to and support of child protection efforts. MDG actively works with the local government to document cases of abuse and suggest structural changes that could improve the conditions in which talibés live in Saint-Louis.
What’s evident is that MDG staff members grasp the complex social and cultural role that daaras and marabouts play in the rights and needs of street children in Saint-Louis. Their comprehensive approach—supporting marabouts to provide better facilities; offering French education to enhance the boys’ professional success in a country whose official language is French; addressing immediate health and food-related needs; and rescuing and reintegrating talibés who have fled abusive situations—enables them to have their fingers on the pulse of the problems facing talibés at all times.
On our walk back to the hotel, I am struck with gratitude to have spent the day alongside our partner MDG. Marabouts are among the most influential members of Senegalese society; talibés among the most stigmatized. Growing up in Dakar, I was well aware of the talibé problem, but a chance to speak intimately with marabouts about the volatile topic and visit their daaras is very rare. This is what GFC means when we describe our grantees as community-immersed: my mere association with Issa has granted us unfiltered access into private spaces where we can ask questions and observe more freely than if we were unaccompanied. It’s apparent that Issa’s relationships with the various social groups he engages are founded on trust. While MDG is only four years old, its success is a testament to the relevance of its approach in ensuring that the children of Saint-Louis are safe and have productive futures ahead of them. I’m humbled to be part of a true partnership; despite representing the funder in this setting, I am the one learning from our grantee.
Read more about GFC on FT.com