A Chair For All - Part 1

When you want to make a small change in the world, you often need to look back at what shaped your vision for change. The African Fair Trade Society (AFTS) is a small little organization that wants to make the world a little better.

It had been five years since Ba Cisse, the founder of the AFTS, had returned to his home village in Senegal. Five years ago the AFTS was a tiny little organization trying to survive. Ba was determined to help his village when they were desperate. After many years of hard work he now wanted to see Dakateli, his home village with his own eyes again.

“I wanted to see with my own eyes if the work is helping and being executed how we envisioned.” Ba told me in a recent interview.

In early 2008, Ba traveled back to Dakateli to see where he grew up and decide how to proceed in the future. “When I walked out of the airport in Dakar I remembered just how different Canada is.” Dakar is the capital of Senegal and is a two day bus journey away from Dakateli.

Ba still clearly remembers how the entire village stopped and came to see him when he finally arrived. “All the women thanked me for the help with their children. Even though I can only do a little, they are very thankful that I have not forgotten them.” It was a time of celebration in the village and a time of personal reflection for Ba. “They give me courage to continue and I always remember how small my problems are compared to theirs.”

Ba’s first order of business was to meet with the women’s group and try to see what the village needs the most. He wanted to know what the AFTS can do to help children living in the rural villages. The woman said that a lot of the kids walk more than an hour to get to school. Most can not afford to bring a lunch, so when the class breaks at noon, many kids leave and don’t return. The boys are sent to the fields to farm rice and corn, while the girls gather water, firewood and prepare to cook dinner.

Ba remembered his days of schooling in Dakateli, “teachers would come from the city once a month and stay for a week. We all sat on the ground and we never had any supplies”. Ba’s schooling consisted of less than five days of class a month. The women’s group has worked very hard to get their kids a good education. Now school is five days a week from 8:00am to 4:00pm. When Ba was listening to the problems of the kids having to leave, he started to think “this is something that we can prevent. The AFTS can help”. Ba asked the women’s group to setup a meeting with the teachers of the school. Together, they would find a way.

At the start of the 2008 school year, l’ecole Dakateli had 160 students attending the first five grades. Of these students, 83 were boys and 77 were girls. It is often the elementary schools in rural villages that are the poorest and most in need. The middle schools and high schools are in the large centers and provide a good education. But kids in the rural villages get left behind and can never catch up.

Ba’s meeting with the teachers and women’s group was a success. They came up with a plan to provide a lunch for every kid attending school. Ba said, “if the village can pay for half of the lunches then the African Fair Trade Society would pay for the other half”. But this would only work if the women’s group would agree to cook and prepare the meals for the kids. They would have to volunteer their time in order for this lunch program to be a success. Ba remembered when the head of the women’s group rose and said “we will all volunteer our time to help give the kids an education. We need people to give us a voice, and this can only be done through the education of our kids”. When Ba heard this he knew this program would be a success.

The lunch program had been going for a year when I met with Ba in March. He said that all the kids were now attending and the whole village was very proud of their accomplishment. Ba was also very excited for another reason. He had just told the women’s group that the AFTS would be able to cover the entire cost of the Dakateli lunch program. April 2009 was the first month where the AFTS provided the entire cost of the kids lunches.

Thank you for reading part one of Ba’s journey home.