31 years ago, I stood with the children of a family I lived with in Senegal, West Africa, while on a Canada World Youth program in 1989.
These are the children helped to change my life in ways I have not fully been able to articulate. Not even sure I could now. They helped me to understand life and death, helped me to be me without me being able to speak their language properly or at all, helped me to find joy. I am so deeply grateful to have had that chance to become their friend even for a short time.
Their mother was a traditional doctor, and took care of everyone – her family, her extended family, the villagers of Diakene Diola and the surrounding villagers in the part of the Casamance where we lived. She took care of me when I was sick with malaria. Their father worked as a nurse in at a field hospital in another village/ town.
The kids and I played together whenever we were at the house – which lead to a lot of laughter and singing. I would spend the small allowance I would get from the program to buy them soccer balls and treats for them. We got water together, collected fruit, ate meals together and I walked with them to their school.
The children and their grandmother used to call me Akibio. When we played together, the kids would rub and pat my arms to make sure I wasn’t lying about the colour of my skin. They were sure my skin was dark underneath the white paint. It made them laugh because no matter how hard they tried, I just turned pink instead of the colour they hoped I would be underneath. This impacted me on so many levels. I have not written a lot about what that period of my life was like for me. One day maybe I will. In the end, when they did try to scratch away at the surface, I would point to my heart, cover it with my hand and then point to them. I would say “mon coeur, ton coeur, même coeur” (which also made them laugh because as an anglophone just learning the French language, I had not mastered pronunciation at all). Underneath it all, we have the same heart. Now they have all grown up, had families of their own. I think about that time in my life and about them almost every day. We took this photograph together so that I could have it printed and sent to the family to have. So we could remember. I am so glad that I still have it.
The lives of these children were not easy in any way. They all had dreams and hopes for the future. Their mother, father, grandmother had dreams for them. The situation they found themselves in living where they did was not so different from anywhere else in the world, except they had very little in the way of material things back then. To me, they were rich beyond measure in what they had in family. The children most often left the village to move to bigger cities to got to school if they were lucky, and in pursuit of jobs and better lives.
Most did not want riches and fame when they left the village. They wanted to earn enough to send home to their families to make sure there was enough food for everyone, but sometimes there wasn’t. They wanted to earn enough so their younger brother or sister could go to school and be trained for a job too. They wanted to earn enough to be able to get the medicine they needed to stay healthy. They wanted what we take for granted: food, running water, electricity, clothing, a roof over their heads and for those they love to have the same. They had the hope to dream. The youngest of my Senegalese family was named Opportun. Her name spoke so loudly about these hopes and dreams.
This experience was a turning point for me – a huge (and sometimes hard and harrowing) blessing to my life. I learned so much about life itself while there. We weren’t there to change anything. We did not go to convert or build or influence the lives of anyone we were living with. We were there to learn, to help where we could and ultimately broaden our understanding of the world around us.
Because of this family, these children, I went on to do many things to help children like them, to help families, to help others follow those dreams. I came home to Canada, ready to go to university and got my degree in Anthropology and French. , I started working with children and families with low incomes in London, ON in 1991. 29 years later I am still doing it – working and volunteering to help locally and internationally. I volunteered with Arts for Aids International (now 17 Colours) for fifteen years. Now I work for an organization who operations homeless shelters and runs addiction and mental health programs. I became a mother in the midst of all of that and have raised my two children to view the world with clear open eyes, to fight against what is wrong in the way they can, to call out injustice and to care for those who are in need.
I don’t share this to give the impression that I have any say or voice in what is happening today. I share this because I believe it is everyone’s responsibility to do what they can to bring hope, love and compassion to the forefront. I do not see this as weakness but as part of the force of change.
When there are people everywhere, here in London, around the world, who do not have the same opportunity to follow the path that is laid out in front of them, we must advocate for systematic change. That change is coming. It is like birthing a child. It is painful and at times excruciating. It is also filled with deep love.
This change requires us to lift up and amplify those voices that need to be heard right now. It’s not enough to be satisfied to hear there is a problem, any more than it is to see it. The work has to be done to change it. Every single day, not just today. When I am called upon to help I will be there. In the meantime, I am standing with everyone, in the background.