On Tuesday mornings, I walk M and Z over to their school and then I race back home, grab the car, and drive 10 minutes to the neighborhood of Mamelles/Ouakam where I volunteer in a makeshift school for street kids.
The school is run by an incredible Brazilian couple-Ado and Francis Franco. Both quit their well-paying jobs to open this school for hungry, neglected, abandoned, often-abused kids. If they do happen to have a home, their parents cannot afford to feed them or send them to school. Most of the children, though, live on the streets and are at risk of violence, physical and sexual abuse. Francis and Aldo fund the school with money from a soccer camp that they run (Mia plays for them) as well as regular Brazilian Churresco barbeques that they serve on their rooftop. They have become dear friends to Sacha and myself over the course of the past two years.
The children in the school either don’t speak French at all or their French is very minimal. So I am, very slowly, learning to communicate with them in their language, Wolof. I can say things like “Please be quiet”, “everyone sing with me”, and “very good”. Along with French, a spattering of Wolof, and some (unofficial) sign language, we get by. And I throw in a ton of singing and dancing to keep things fun.
My “students” are a group of about 12-15 boys and girls, their ages range from five-ten years old. None of them have ever had any vaccines before. Most of them don’t take baths and they do not know what a toilet or a sink are. This school is their first experience with a toilet and running water. Many of them have lice. A large majority of them are clothed entirely by the school or donations. They take whatever they can get and this often means a mishmash of odd patterns and sizes. One of the girls last week was wearing old-fashioned ladies heels most likely 2-3 sizes too big for her. She was about 7 years old and teetered all over the place in those ridiculous heels. I will bring her a pair of Mia’s sandals this next week.
Despite all of these strikes against these small human beings, they are still children. And they love to smile, giggle, belly –laugh and be silly. They are yearning for love and attention and they are thriving in this school setting. Although they are still learning how to communicate with words and kindness versus physicality and fighting (they are, after all, kids who are growing up on the rough streets of Dakar), the heart of who they are is still good and we still have time to make a difference in their lives. The reality, though, is that most of them will continue to barely scrape by and perhaps just one or two of them will make it out of this vicious cycle of poverty and neglect. As much as I am hopeful, I still have to be realistic. Still hopeful, though.
For many of these children, this is their first experience in “school”. Some of them have only been at the school for a month or two. A few have been regulars since the school opened a few years ago. Those who are new have most likely never held a pencil in their hands before. We do VERY basic lessons when I work with them-simple letters and sounds, coloring, drawing, singing, and dancing. The first time I drew with them, I handed out the paper and coloring pencils and noticed several of them sitting there with the pencil on the table. I had to go around to each child and show them how to hold a pencil. Just drawing a stick-figure was difficult for them. Even a line! So I essentially held the pencil and drew with them. I made a big deal out of every child’s picture, making sure to carefully work with each student. They were SO proud of the results. And astonished!
Okay, so I am no Barbra Streisand, but I CAN hold a tune. And I have a big imagination. So, every week, I make up another verse of a silly little song that I created and I teach it to them. I use the most basic of melodies and the simplest of words. School, teacher, reading, writing-these are all words I use for them to learn in French. It’s a HOOT! I use silly gests and dance moves and belt it out in a way that sends the children into peals of giggles and smiles. I have learned to leave my modesty at the door and find the inner dancing and singing fool within me.
Part of the allure of the school is that Francis and Aldo feed the children breakfast and lunch. Often, these are the only meals that the kids will have all day. Breakfast is a small piece of baguette, a half-banana, and a cup of warm powdered milk. Perhaps the only protein and vitamins for the students
at all. Lunch is also very simple-rice and fish and rarely, chicken. They gulp it down and I am reminded how lucky I am in my home to be able to feed my children more than they ever truly need. However, the other part of the allure is just for them to be able to go to school. Something that simple and what we Westerners think of as a basic right. The looks on the their faces when they are told that they did well. A little pat on the back or a kiss on the cheek. Every kid here in Senegal wants to be in school. They don’t want to be out wandering in the streets begging for food or money.
My children are little, but I am already trying to get this message across to Mia and Zoë. That they are INCREDIBLEY lucky to be in a school, and a GOOD school at that. We see so many children every day who have no shoes, dressed in rags, and who run after cars with a little tin begging for the equivalent of 10 cents. M and Z named these kids “the hungry boys and girls”. They also know that their Daddy works with the Senegalese government to improve rural schools here in Senegal.
When I leave the school every week, I am often washed over with a wave of emotions. I am so sad, yet hopeful for those kids, and incredibly grateful for what my own children and my family have. One little half-bit of banana can make all the difference to these kids. Feeding their tummies and their minds at school.