I’m a retired teacher and I wanted to see how it was for Senegalese kids in the classroom. Yesterday Lydia took us to see the local school for young children, up to age 6 or so. I had some interest in what the staff would be teaching but really all I wanted to do was hang out with the young ones.
The teacher was an absolutely glowing woman wearing a vibrant yellow dress. She didn’t need the dress to be a force of life.
The first group of kids was sitting under a tree. They looked long and long at my white skin and soon were replying in kind to my strange facial expressions. As I sat in a chair, I tried to hide behind the boy who was right in my face in the front row. I kept looking past his head – left, right and above – to make a little girl behind him laugh. Soon she was bobbing and weaving … hiding from me! I loved it.
Then I was ushered inside a large schoolhouse – one big classroom and two little ones. Heads jerked my way immediately. Inside one of the small rooms were the four-year-olds. First of all, they kept their distance but many eyes were locked onto mine. Soon kids inched forward as I made strange sounds which they tried to repeat. And then it was a free-for-all. Kids came at me from all directions, rubbing my face and arms, squeezing my cheeks and grabbing all ten digits. I thought one or more of them were going to break a finger. But then I breathed and let go into the scrum. Fear blew away and all there was was pressure. Oh my. A first-ever experience.
In the big room, some kids were at tables with what appeared to be colouring books in front of them. Actually the drawings were depicting health problems in Senegal, and seemed to be teaching empathy. Which student on this page is vomiting? Who on this page is sad?
In my hour or more at the school, I never saw a child printing letters with a pencil. Instead they would circle things.
Soon it was snack time, and I had a lineup of kids scrambling to have me open a plastic package or lid. I felt so important. Child after child wanted to touch me, and I believe to be touched by me. What a privilege to be in the middle of such energy. Delight flowed from kids to adult and right back again.
Later in the day, Eva wanted to deliver some clothes to the family compound which some of us visited a few days ago. This was where I saw children who didn’t go to school and who may never live beyond the homes where they were born. Eva, Mamadou, Yusefa and I were welcomed just as heartily as the group was before.
I saw the same teenaged girl, dressed in very dirty clothes and looking so sad. We were invited past the tablecloth which hung at the entrance to a house, and I held the cloth open, gesturing for her to enter before me. She gave me such a sweet smile, hesitated, and then went in. My heart was breaking for her. I pray that she’s not the victim of sexual abuse and that she has a friend somewhere near her age. Later Eva told me that she had brought some clothes for the girl. That made me happy.
A few hundred metres from where this family lives is the highway. Days ago, when our convoy of motos stopped there, I saw a group of kids behind a barbed wire fence and made sweeping arm gestures with them, pirouettes, funny faces … all of which they repeated. It was a lovely time of contact but I left without taking their picture. This time, I hoped to correct that problem.
And there they were! One young girl especially remembered me and soon she and her friends and I were kicking empty cans and jars around in a wild soccer game. I tried to be goalie with my legs spread wide. The young athletes scored on me every time, much to their delight (and mine). The parents were laughing at our antics and dad gave me a large bag of locally grown peanuts in thanks. Wow.
It was such a full day, especially in the realm of the heart. As I sat with Lydia and Jo somewhere in Toubacouta, I asked how I could help. Lydia replied that they have gathered about twenty children from different families. They challenge these kids to do well at school. If they do their best, Lydia and Jo arrange sponsors for them – monthly financial support for a long, long time.
She thought there were two kids who still needed help – a teenaged boy and a young girl. I said that I’d sponsor them both. Lydia said she’d check her paperwork back at the house to see if what she said was correct.
The actual situation turned out to be that it was two teenagers who needed assistance – a nineteen-year-old girl and a sixteen(?)-year-old boy. And I know them both: Mareama, who helped me get a pair of pantaloons made, and Yusefa, who drives me on the moto. Later, Lydia and Jo invited Mareama, Yusefa and me into their bedroom. Lydia explained to them in French that I wanted to help them out. Mareama started crying and Yusefa looked like he was close.
With Lydia translating, I said “I want to help you with money so you can do what you want to do in life. I will help you until I die, and I will put you in my will, so you’ll receive money for a long time after I’m gone.”
Lydia told me that it was very hard for Mareama to express her emotions. She wanted to hug me but … I said that Mareama didn’t have to do or say anything. She held onto Lydia and I touched her arm for awhile. It was love. Yusefa was quite happy to hug me.
In the evening, I was saying goodbye to many of the Senegalese folks because we were leaving early Friday morning. Mareama walked towards me on the path with her arms open wide. We held each other for a few seconds. My words to her were “Je t’aime.” And I do. For the first time in my life, I can say I’m a dad … of a boy and a girl.
Mareama’s birthday is January 9. So is mine. In five days, she’ll be 20. I’ll be 70. Fifty years. Seems perfect.