A couple of days ago, a turn of events had us heading in a different direction from where we had originally planned. Having done some research on different organizations and NGO’s working in Senegal, I knew of an orphanage in a nearby city that I had hoped to visit one day. Turns out that this was the day that would happen.
This particular orphanage houses up to 200 children, ranging from newborn to early teens. It is a large inviting building and we were welcomed into the facility. We were toured through and shown the laundry facilities, storage rooms for food and clothing, cooking area, sleeping quarters, play area and the rooms where the many children were kept. The children there are in different rooms depending on their age. Newborn to 6 months, 6 months to 1 year, 1-4 year and so on up to the older children that have a separate area around the back of the main center. The day of our visit, there were 133 children in care.
It seemed like such a case study place for young graduates of sociology and psychology. In each room, the reaction from the children was maybe typical, or not, of what is learned from books and teachings. The babies hushed quickly when they were picked up and cuddled, the 1 year olds smiled and played in their beds encouraging some attention, the young toddlers came running with arms stretched upward waiting for a pick-up, the slightly older ones played amongst themselves glancing over occasionally to see if they had caught your eye, while the older children, all except one who came to say hello and shake hands, made no eye contact whatsoever. It was an interesting observation that still has me thinking about it days later. My daughter, a graduate in sociology and International Development, had given me some great information to read on NGO’s and aid in third world countries, and I keep thinking back to that, and wishing I had had the chance to read everything she gave me in depth. I know the books are waiting for me when I return home.
I spent some time in the toddlers’ room which was decorated in soothing colors and scattered with toys and mats on the floor, all of which became irrelevant when I walked into the room. In no time at all, my arms were filled with 2 beautiful toddlers. We walked around the room pointing to colorful butterfly pictures on the wall, toys on the shelves and anything else of interest. The children seemed happy, clean and well cared for. They loved the attention, the tickles and the smiles and the playtime. Snack time made it easier, despite arched backs and legs that refused to support their bodies, to set them down when it was time to go and slip out the door and into the hallway.
Most of my time was spent in the newborn room. The room consisted of many little cribs all surrounding an area on the floor covered with padded mats, and many babies.
Many thoughts went through my head as I held her and watched as she fell asleep in my arms. I wondered about her future, her very short past and the circumstances that brought her to this facility and the circumstances that would possibly see her leave again. I thought again about the information on foreign aid and whether my time at the orphanage was more about me than it was about the children there. But for that short time, while I held little Ana, it seemed right for both of us. The time went by too quickly. Always someone new waking and needing a cuddle or to be fed.
I spoke with one woman from France who had come for a 15 day vacation and was spending the entirety of it here at the orphanage. Other students had come, and local volunteers. I asked about adoption. Senegal has a closed door policy on international adoption. The list is long on restrictions as to who is able to adopt, the top of the list being that you have to be Senegalese, and you have to be Muslim. Many of the babies here have come from young unmarried girls. When something like this happens, often the girls are shunned from the family, so bringing the babies and leaving them here might possibly allow the girls a chance to go back to their family. The orphanage works with the families and try to integrate the children back into the family or relatives of the family within the first 2 years. The same goes for true orphans.
I left the orphanage with a good feeling, knowing that what was happening there seemed so right. Im so grateful that there are places such as these where the families and mothers are given a hand up during difficult times and reconnection with family is a priority. Once again Africa…..thank you for the experience.