Filming, Street Children, Development and Religion (but no lunch) all in my first day back in Senegal after five years.

We’re outside a ‘daara’, or koranic school for street children (talibes). There’s a film crew from Lebanon, a drone pilot from Ghana (for aerial shots) and a TV news reporter from New York. They are documenting the experience of the talibes, and so they’ve asked Issa to take them to an ‘especially terrible’ daara – one where the exploitation of some marabouts (religious leaders) is most evident. I have had four hours’ sleep, no lunch, and I have £1 left in CFA Francs. This would easily buy me a decent meal here, though we’re in suburban Saint-Louis and all I can see is a petrol station.

I met Issa in 2006. His commitment is tireless and the huge success he has achieved supporting street children full-time is testament to his tenacity and commitment. He was working for Teaching and Projects Abroad (now simply called Projects Abroad), a UK-based ‘Voluntourism’ organisation. I owe them much: the volunteering helped me to learn most of my French, become acquainted with Africa, and meet several friends. The organisation is not a charity but a profit-making business.

In 2008 I helped Issa, and his friend Papis, to start their own non-profit grassroots organisation assisting street children in Senegal at the remains of the train station in Saint-Louis, La Maison de la Gare [MDG; The Station House]. Two brilliant fellow students who I have sadly lost contact with – Janek Seevaratnam and Elle Mortimer – set up a reggae fund-raiser at a bar in Oxford, which raised £1500 in a single night (collected in cash in tins which I then took to the bank). I also owe credit to the wonderful students who supported me whilst studying for my MA at Sussex by organising a similar event. Over the years, partly thanks to my father running marathons, we raised a total of around £15,000. Some of this money helped MDG to buy the land where their organisation now sits. Having not seen Issa, or Senegal, since 2012, it is not surprising that I’m deeply curious to come back and see how he is getting on.

Issa has brought me along with the film crew believing I will have ‘lots of ideas’. This is quite a claim, which fills me with some nervousness. However, my ability to speak very basic Wolof (the main language of Senegal) with the talibé, means I make them happy and excited on the street outside the daara. Our white presences are not helping to capture the ‘particularly terrible’ reality of talibé life.

In the car the news reporter had asked me many questions about how I know Issa and my involvement with the talibe children. She mentions an international NGO leader, Molly Melching. I ‘saw’ Molly in 2010 at an international development conference in Oxford. ‘Saw’ because I was event staff: hundreds of delegates entered the door I was manning in the space of a few seconds, and Molly was one of them. Before I could mention Senegal and the talibé, she was gone! I’ve heard wonderful things about her, and her aid organisation, Tostan International. So I should credit Fallckolm Cuenca of Sustainable Development Group International for introducing MDG to Tostan in Dakar in 2008. I met Fallckolm at a talk in Oxford in 2007, and he kindly agreed to visit MDG, set up the meetings, and offer his advice.

As no drone-filming is needed I venture to the petrol station with the Ghanaian. I find some Pringles and a can of Sprite there, before he returns to the team and I return to the car. By about 6pm I’ve been waiting in the car for around two hours, when the film crew, Issa, and the TV journalist emerge from the daara. I apologise for having got in the way and ask whether they got the footage they needed. Issa responds enthusiastically.

Evidently, difficulties arise when creative processes meet corporate deadlines, especially in the context of language barriers and cultural differences. The journalist has left a major TV network after twenty-five years because she is keen to bring important stories, like those of the talibe, to international screens. This may help her, as cliched as it sounds, to make the world a slightly better place. Issa and MDG are extremely grateful and benefit much from the potential exposure. The deadlines, costs and short duration of her visit (a few days between arriving from and returning to New York), must make achieving her aim a valuable and near-impossible challenge.

On the way back to the house, Issa and I chat about this. The anthropologist in me thinks it would be infinitely better to find a Senegalese crew to produce the content: that way they speak Wolof and and are not an obviously foreign presence in the daara. Yet perhaps they are less likely to have the links to international news organisations in order to garner support.

It does seem difficult to know what interventions from Western foreigners might be useful in the context of global balances of power: We often prefer not to observe, listen, or give what is wanted or required. We think this is what we are doing, when in fact we are also furthering our own careers and personal aims, or meeting large Western Non-Governmental Organisation objectives. This is why I now predominantly venture to Africa as a tourist. I write my thoughts in this blog for anyone who wishes to read them, but they are simply that: my thoughts. It doesn’t make my observations ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in any way.

My next blog post will focus on how MDG has evolved since 2012 as I spend more time at the new and developed centre. Much of this is thanks to a Canadian church leader called Rod Le Roy. He has raised huge amounts of money for MDG over the years, far greater than our £15,000 or so (some of which went to Papis’ own organisation, Daara Vision Senegal, which focused on the improvement and sanitation of daaras).

Rod provided ceaseless and sustained communication and placated all partners; at one point being a willing custodian of our funds raised and providing reports on their use when I was keen to support Issa but frustrated by the lack of reporting on how our funds were spent.

MDG now has international support, sustainable funding, and excellent accountability and reporting processes. Now, I’m not religious at all. But in some way faith convinced Rod and his congregation to support MDG unconditionally as they started out, trusting that the necessary professionalism of the organisation would follow. This support and advice no doubt helped to get MDG off the ground at a time when others, including myself, were concerned about the organisation’s ability to succeed. Finding early support, or faith in an idea, must be a tricky area for all start-ups, whether charitable or business.

So I come to the rather bizarre conclusion (given my politics and lack of religion) that it can often be religion that facilitates some of the most effective work in parts of the developing world. Of course, that’s a huge sweeping statement and we regularly hear about terrible problems caused by religious organisations, from wars to child abuse scandals. I need only think of some of the more corrupt Marabouts in Senegal to know that there are huge problems. Yet there is another side to the coin that media outlets, in the UK at least, do not express often enough, because it’s a ‘good news’ story rather than an atrocity: it is clear that missionaries do work in some of the most difficult and rural areas and congregations provide funding to organisations that lack the experiences, teams, networks and skills to attract key stakeholders. I have documented similar findings in my blog articles based on my trip to Turkana, Kenya in early 2017.

I’ll post shortly on the evolution of MDG from my visit in 2012 to today. In the mean time, I leave you with pictures from my visit in 2008. Please scroll to the bottom of this page and sign-up for email updates if you enjoy my writing. Please also feel free to add any comments, whether supportive or critical of my writing and views, below: I always value thoughts and I do endeavour to reply to them.

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