Suleyman is 18 years old. He lives in Lamin. A poor suburb to the Gambian capital Banjul. Suleyman is a muslim. His mother toungue is English. That – and fate – has made him our sponsor child. Suleyman has 9 siblings. His fathers name is Karafa. Karafa is unemployed. Karafa knows much about football (soccer). They call him ’coach’. When calling him that it does not sound like he is unemployed. Karafa does not have the means to support his family.
In Lamin lies Lamin Lodge; A ramshackle three storey lodge where tourists come to eat and drink soda and look out over the slums. Or to take a trip with a small boat on the lake. Suleyman has never been to Lamin Lodge in despite of it being close to his home. Only once in his life has he sailed on the lake.
Suleyman is our sponsor child. For almost 10 years we have transferred around 120 USD to his family every quarter. At least that’s the amount I think we have transferred. I write this from Africa and even though we have supported Suleyman for many years I do not even remember the exact amount. It is deductible so I believe the net amount for each of me and Charlotte is about 10 USD pr month. Not something that we think about often. But we think about it now.
11.000 children are sponsored through various sponsor families in Gambia through Child Fund International. Typically, 2-3 of these sponsor children receive a visit from their sponsor family each year.
We (Charlotte) have chosen Suleyman since he speaks English. One day we wanted to visit him and Charlotte wanted to be able to communicate with him herself. Now that day has come.
Planning however started months in advance. Papers had to be filled out. We were not allowed to visit independently and all visits must be approved by the Child Fund. A hotel must be booked. If a hotel is not booked the form cannot be filled out correctly and then your visit can not be approved. And the form has to be received at least two months in advance.
I spent forever planning our (8-country) West Africa journey, bought lots of flight tickets and booked a Gambian hotel. “We would like to visit our sponsor child on Saturday July 15th “, I then wrote to the Child Fund. “Sorry” the Child Fund replied. “You need to take a local representative (and a driver) and they don’t work on weekends”. One could argue that this information would have been nice to have upfront. I checked my plan and saw we had 3 whole days in Gambia – Friday, Saturday and Sunday. “They are Muslims maybe their weekend is Friday and Saturday” I told Charlotte. Wikipedia then told me “Gambia is the only country in the world that has a 3-day weekend – Friday, Saturday and Sunday”. Ouch!. Luckily it turned out that the Wiki info was old. Presently Gambian weekends are Saturday-Sunday and fortunately the Child Fund accepted our visit on the Friday instead.
Before visiting our sponsor child there were people we had to meet. First we had dinner with “prince Babucar” (not a real prince but the son of a local, and poor village chief) who had himself been a sponsor child and had now advanced to national sponsor coordinator in Gambia.
Babu informed us that the next day we would be picked up and taken half an hour (in the wrong direction) to meet the Country Manager of Child fund. I wanted to go directly to visit our sponsor child but that was not an option. So the next morning we were picked up and met the very kind country manager named Musu,
After that we drove to Lamin. Of course we first had to visit the local Child Fund office where we met a nice guy named Abdullai who showed us copies of every single letter exchanged between us and Suleyman for the past decade. Charlotte told me that it was much better if I did not ask if we could go and see our sponsor child instead of visiting all these offices.
“Today is the last day of Suleyman’s exams,” Abdullai told us as the most natural thing in the world when we were finally approaching his family home and added. “-So he may not be at home”. I am well aware that Africa might not be a top continent in regards to communication but this little piece of information had been nice to receive more than three and a half minute in advance of meeting our sponsor child through ten years for the first time.
But Suleyman was at home. As the only child in his class had he been allowed to postpone his exams for Monday. A sponsor visit is a rare occasion here and arrangements had luckily been made.
In a small yard in front of a simple stone house Suleyman welcomes us. It does not take us long to realize that Suleyman is a kind and likeable boy. He likes to play football he tells us. His dad tells us he is the best. He goes to school. Our sponsorship money pays for his schooling and sometimes a bag of rice. If Suleyman cannot be a professional footballer, he would like to be a tailor.
His father Karafa and older brother Modu are also present. As are more of his siblings, some neighbors, some family in-laws and a few other people that we do not quite know who are. Everybody is dressed up in their finest clothes. Our visit is a big event in the village. We (Charlotte) have of course brought presents. Clothes, two leather footballs, legal pads, pens and two old smartphones we found back home in the back of a drawer.
The family is poor, but (fortunately) less poor than I had feared. Their rented house has a tin roof but is made out of stone and has two bedrooms (with mattresses worn beyond belief) and a living room. Their toilet is a bucket out the back, but they have TV and mobile phones (This post is written from Dakar, Senegal where I today walked past a beggar woman sleeping under a piece of cloth in the street. Just when I was passing her her phone rang – just to explain that EVERYONE in Africa seems to have a phone).
Karafa and Modu and Suleyman all support Manchester United. Over the years Charlotte has sent them several football jerseys. They say that it is their favorite clothes. They know the latest premier league transfers. Suleyman kicks one of his new footballs around with me and our kids in the yard. He is super considerate to our children. “They are Suleymans brother and sister now” Karafa says with a smile.
“You are a very good sponsor family” Michelle the representative from the Child Fund Head Office informs us. “Other sponsor families normally spend the whole time crying their hearts out”
We are invited to see Suleymans school. After that we invite Suleyman for a small boat trip on the lake and for a soda at Lamin Lodge. When we return to the family home it is – after Modu, Suleyman and Karafa have made a quick visit to the local mosque for Friday prayer – time to eat.
The menu is “white benachin”. According to Michelle benachin is the most common dish in Senegal. Normally it is served without meat but on special occasions like today chicken is added. It consists of a huge plate of rice with vegetable oil, onions. cassava, sometimes cabbage, bell peppers and it tastes excellent. (also comes as “red benachin” with tomato/tomato paste)
It feels a little bit strange when Modu – the older brother – after we have eaten tells us how much the sponsorship means to the family. We hardly notice the money going out of our accounts every month – while here it means being able to attend school, getting food and leading a decent life.
For only about 10 USD per month.
(excuse my bad english – this is written from a Senegal apartment without internet and access to translation services – you are very welcome to share on facebook)