By Olivia Roberts
I had the honor of visiting Empire Des Enfants, a boarding reception center for the ‘Talibe’ (homeless children) of Senegal. Anta Mbow established the center in Dakar, Senegal in 2003. The facility shelters and provides for adolescent boys aged 5 through 18. Most of the boys who are brought to the center have been abandoned, homeless, lost or have family critical problems at home. The center offers, shelter, clothing, food, educational and recreational activities as well as psycho-social therapy. There are several educators and monitors who instruct and oversee the daily activities of these adolescent boys.
The manager of the center described the impoverished situations of the children as a pity due to the lack of government support to eradicate the problem. “There is not enough effort” he explained. Parents send their children to school with the Marabout (the Islamic spiritual leader) to receive an Islamic education. Instead, the way that it works is the Marabout sends the boys to work in the street and collect money for his personal profit. Sometimes the Marabout physically and sexually abuses the children. It is a continual system of child labor and abuse. It is important to note that the Marabout plays an important role in the politics of Senegal. Senegal is a 90% Islamic country. The manager explained that if the government were to intervene in the situation and stop the Talibe children from begging, it would correlate with an interference of the children learning the Quran. As a consequence, the government will not get the support from the Marabout for their candidacy, to win elections and ultimately stay in power. The end result of this dilemma is the risk of a continuum of child abuse. While it is illegal for the Marabout to send children to beg the occupation still exists.
It was explained to me that children from other West African countries, are sent to Senegal to beg. For example, children from the Guinee and Guinee Bissau have record of boarding at Empire Des Enfants. Children from these countries are sent to Senegal to beg. The center maintains the records of every child that has ever boarded the center and their information is kept extremely confidential.
When any child arrives at Empire Des Enfants they are given a shower and then taken to the facility’s clinic for an initial health examination. Before the children are integrated into the larger communal group, they must be treated for any serious disease. The nurse explained that when most of the boys arrive they have a skin disease from being outside too long without showering. The most common illnesses are malaria, the common cold and flu, all of which the center provides medication for. If there is medication that Empire Des Enfants cannot provide at the clinic, they will take the child to the hospital and pay for the child’s medical expenses. It is a concern of the staff for the children who leave Empire Des Enfant to continue to take their medication as instructed. It was explained that the children often times do not. The nurse also explained that there is a need for medical assistance, moreover, a specific need for doctors to come in to give checkups for the children.
In terms of finance, Empire Des Enfants receives donations from the regional population, the United Nations, European Union, Sonatel CO., international athletes and musicians. A former member who is now a responsible adult and staff member explained that the staff comes together and brainstorm their ideas to find ways to raise funds. His personal story was inspiring. He explained that when he was just a boy he arrived at the center, in a homeless circumstance. He expressed that Empire Des Enfants had less resources for his generation in terms of education and access to health services. I asked him about other boys in his generation at Empire Des Enfants. He explained that some of them did in fact come from other West African countries such as Guinee, Guinee Bissau and Benin. When I asked him if he remembers and kept in touch with some of the other boys from his generation, he explained the frightening realities of their lives “Some of them have job, have wife and car… some of them are in prison and some of them are dead now.” He explained that with the lack of resources that his generation had correlated to the relapse in corrupt street activities once the adolescents were reintegrated into society. His experience at Empire Des Enfant now inspires him to help today’s generation of Talibe children. “I wanted to come back and serve my community… We will put an end to children being out on the street! We will win!” he exclaimed. Another staff member shared his experience as a boy who regularly attended Empire Des Enfants with his uncle who consistently brought donations to the center. “I wanted to keep coming.” Today he is a dedicated staff member at the center who works closely with the children.
Program activities include, puppet shows, painting and gardening. In the afternoon the boys engage in physical activities such as swim, taekwondo and basketball. Other activities include learning how to safely cross the street and psychosocial therapy includes regular discussions about their feeling at Empire Des Enfants designed to help the boys cope with their living situation.
“The boys share everything” the manager explained. They share clothes and shoes. Each boy however, has his own single bed or mattress. The manager explained that in a time of crisis where there is not enough beds for all other boys the staff will put mattresses on the floor for the boys to sleep on. To avoid the spread of disease the clothes and bed linens are washed every two days.
Empire Des Enfants is currently exclusive to aiding adolescent boys due to insufficient funding for the expenses of girls however the facility is planning on a girls project to also get some of the girls off of the street.