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Michelle Gutierrez - Care, General Care Projects in Senegal

Playing with puppets

As a Global Studies major focusing on human rights, I found myself drooling over the opportunity to complete my internship requirement in Saint Louis, Senegal. I was overjoyed when I received the information regarding the care program where I would be placed. This was the beginning of the challenging preparations I had in store. Challenging is defined as finding the “perfect” mosquito net, looking to where I would receive my required/ recommended shots, and searching for a store with the greatest supply of mosquito repellent.

I did not grasp what I got myself into until I returned home to Phoenix. It was more of a reverse culture shock. While in Senegal I got into the groove of my new lifestyle, and it felt natural, as though I didn’t doing anything too extravagant; my course work from Arizona State University had prepared me for an experience of a lifetime. I am amazed of the courage I had on-site and how it still lingers long after my internship. Awareness about talibé exploitation and abuse has touched people of all nations to reach out and lend a helping hand.

Singin to the children

In Saint Louis there is a classification that is much stronger than the term ‘little boys’. Not just any little boy, but those young as 4 years of age who have flocked to a city, without any parents or siblings accompanying them, far from their humble villages to learn the Quran. ‘Talibe’ is their Senegalese name. In Senegal, the talibés often spend little time in their home, a daara (‘school of life’; similar to a boarding school), and beg for most of the day on the streets.

Talibé children have the same right to education, health, security and protection as all other Senegalese children. The centre is a holistic, humble centre that cares for the talibés and provides them with many of these basic needs. Here, Touba Diop (the founder) and his volunteers, local and foreign, work together to provide basic treatments for any illnesses and injuries the children may have. This greatly varies depending on the funds that are available for supplies.

Treating wounds

Friday afternoons are especially exciting; food and entertainment is provided for all of the talibés. Local volunteers generously devote much of their time to the talibés centre. They have given up going to the University, or cutting back at work to treat children. At times the illnesses and injuries the little boys bring in can be very difficult to treat. These infections and wounds are something I’ve only seen in movies and on television. Working in such a dramatic setting can be difficult. The language barrier can, at times, create an overwhelming atmosphere. Wounds, aches, and pains, both emotional and physical are brought in daily. Volunteers, including myself, would colour, read, teach basic French, and play games. Some volunteers brought in puppets, crayons, and paper. This ‘rehabilitation’ centre is a small escape away from everyday life.

Wolof is the regional dialect, though French is the official language of Senegal. Lucky for me, I could get by with the French I know. My host mother, Madam Bawa, and roommate would help me with basic phrases which greatly helped me out in the everyday routine of buying baguettes and green tea.

However, many local volunteers only communicate in Wolof and most talibés only know Wolof. At times it was amusing hearing a tangled web of languages all around me and would find myself trying to communicate the best I knew how. But, at the end of the day everyone communicated to one another, regardless of language or opinion on how to treat a talibé, to successfully completed another day at the center.

Michelle Gutierrez

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