Wednesday, September 22, 2010


For a while now I've had a feeling that Africa should be something more than private schools, safari trips and going to the beach. Up till now, my challenges were personal, private: I had to learn French, I had to work with kids, I had to get used to the new way of living and to being white. Above all, I had to find a way to feel happy and fullfilled in my new situation. Before our summer holiday, it had struck me that, all modesty apart, I actually managed to achieve all these goals: my French is not perfect but fluent (whose French is perfect, anyway?), my classes are going well and both parents and children are happy, I am less vulnerable to being called la white in the street, I take regular exercise, I know my way around the city and I'm actually pretty glad to be here. Ok then, I thought, it's really time I gave something back. Enough of being selfish. About time I did something useful.

Instantly, I set my mind on L'Arc-En-Ciel (in English, rainbow), a street children's centre, run by Spanish nuns. I've heard a lot about it, I even know people who volunteer, and so I decided to see for myself what it was all about. I paid my first visit to the centre with a friend who is a regular volunteer. I had a chat with Sister Cova (and don't you imagine a nun in a habit! African trousers and African accent she had!) and we decided that I would come by, initially once a week, to spend an hour or so with the kids on Tuesday afternoons.

The place itself is very basic. I have visited the boys' building (the girls dormitory is two minutes away), where they sleep, eat, have classes and play football. The classroom/dining room/common room is furnished with wooden tables and benches, with two small blackboards on one of the walls, right next to the kitchen door. There is a tiny room with two computers, a large, dark dormitory, and a small office. The building is surrounded with a fence and the entrance is locked with a padlock. The person in charge decides who gets in or out.

In these simple surroundings about seven boys and seven girls live (during the school year, more). These kids, aged from 11 to 16, have no other place to go and difficult past to confront every day. There are stories of abuse, violence and slave work. Some of them escaped their families in search of better lives. However, I don't know the details and I don't feel I need to. If anybody wants to share such private things, they should be able to do it at their pace.

Inevitably, there came the day of my first visit (yesterday afternoon, that is). I was nervous. I had never worked with difficult kids before, and suddenly I had to gain their confidence in French. I figured I would offer them an exchange: I would teach them some English but only if they they taught me some French. The idea came off as a success: they must have thought I was a bit ridiculous but were rather happy to be my teachers for while.

Here's how it went. First, I just chatted with them, got to know their names, told them a bit about myself. Then we learned some English words and played charades with feelings (happy, sad, etc.), which accidentally turned out to be a blast for them (as was my magnificent game of sit down/stand up/sit down/stand up/stand up, where everybody, everybody eventually gets confused). Finally, I told them to teach me some French words, which they had to write on the board for me, at the same time explaining their meaning, which I think is a good language exercise for both parties. Then we played a round of Connect4, which I badly lost, and that was it, an hour had passed.

And you know what the funny thing is? They were no difficult kids at all. They were just kids, some of them more interested than others, some of them exteremly attentive, kids who were happy to be spared somebody's attention, just as all the other students of mine.

I'm coming back next week. And I'm bringing flashcards.

The rainbow picture I found here.

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