News from Maison de la Gare

A Most Extraordinary Journey

Issa Kouyaté marvels at Arouna’s journey from abused child to international ambassador for the talibés

Maison de la Gare has always worked to improve the conditions of talibé children in their daaras, but also to understand why they have left their home communities. When they leave their villages most of these children have no idea what they are going to do in Saint Louis and even why they are leaving their villages.

From our investigations with families and with Koranic teachers or marabouts in remote villages, we have found that many live in extreme poverty caused by global warming and desertification, and this is what pushes them to seek a sustainable way to live. Many marabouts have found refuge in urban areas with a new method of living, mixing Koranic education with child exploitation.

A young talibé by the name of Arouna Kandé is an example of many who have had the opportunity to obtain a good education. He lost both his father and mother at a young age, and had to endure the abuses inflicted on him by society, by his marabout and by the older talibés of his daara. This did not prevent Arouna from redoubling his efforts and gaining confidence in himself. He was determined, at all costs, to be successful by devoting himself to both Koranic and academic education.

It is very difficult for a talibé who is sent from the streets of his village at a very young age to move to Saint Louis to live in a daara in conditions of extreme poverty. He suddenly finds that he must feed himself and that he must live without water or electricity, without a bed to sleep in, and with no blanket to protect himself from the cold. However, this reality did not stop Arouna or cause him to abandon his vision. On top of these challenges, once he was attending school the torture and the aggression continued, this time verbally, inflicted by teachers and other students.

Arouna had faith, and he succeeded. He had to pass his baccalaureate to qualify for a place at university, but the unseen examiners did not allow him to pass this year. He will have to try again next year. Still, Arouna has become an icon and a role model for his fellow talibés and a beacon of hope for those of us who see endless possibility in the eyes of these children.

I must tell you that as long as there is life, there is hope! This year has been sacred and full of surprises. A documentary is being made about Arouna’s life over the past twenty years and will be distributed in early 2022. This has opened the doors of knowledge for Arouna, and he has met famous people including Imam Ratib of Saint Louis and Pope Francis in Rome.

This documentary follows Arouna’s journey from his home in Casamance as he struggled with and adapted to the cruel life of his daara. At the age of just seven years old, he had to forget family life with his parents and learn to meet his needs on the streets for food, clothing, and the money that his marabout demanded. A decade ago, he was introduced to Maison de la Gare by some of the talibé children in his daara, and he became a committed participant in our literacy classes. He showed enormous promise and agreed to start formal schooling, not realizing that this would lead one day to taking entrance exams for university.

Arouna’s rather troubled path led to an invitation from the Holy Father Pope Francis, in Rome, where they met in a 40-minute audience. In Arouna’s words: “I had the chance to talk with him about the problem of begging, the poor and the injustice that I suffered in Senegalese schools and in the daaras. He was very surprised. He said that he will build a strong bond with me so that I can defend the poor and people who are not recognized throughout the world.”