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Finding My African Daughter

If I had to think about any specific event or text that made me fall in love with Africa I think I would really struggle with singling out a source.  I guess it was a culmination of being inspired by a general historical fascination with colonial Kenya, Karen Blixen, my yearning to visit one of the hottest places on earth (after a stint of living in one of the coldest), movies and the idea of vast landscapes filled with stunning wildlife.  After I visited the Sahara on a few trips in my early twenties, I realised the most profound part of Africa would hit me the hardest of all. I developed a love affair with Africa’s people.
From my encounters with the Touareg and Nubian people in particular, my curiosity was sparked and I returned from the Sahara each time with a yearning to learn more about the rich cultures of the people living there, their stories and how they survived in some of the harshest conditions on earth.
That was 27 years ago and while all of the world’s tribes interest me, it seems the more I learn about African tribes, the more I want to learn.  I have been blessed to work with the Himba, Afar, Amhara, Fulani, Mandinka, Herero and San people in Africa since my first visit. I was also lucky enough to spend some time with ethnic Somalis living in Ethiopia in late 2016.
My decision to sponsor a child in Africa came at a time when I was experiencing great change in my life. I was going through a divorce and the resulting turmoil threw me into a phase of wanting to work for volunteer groups, work extra hours in my job, just do anything to help me mentally escape the challenges I was facing in my personal life.  For some reason, at the very deep emotional pit of my own situation, I still felt I had the reserve strength left to support someone else.  Although I was in a terrible situation I still felt there were so many people out in the world who were facing much larger issues than me, whose struggles just to get through everyday life were so much harder.  It was then that I decided to sponsor a child.

World  Vision

The incredible program run by World Vision in Australia works on a model where you sponsor a child but rather than that child receiving any direct benefit, the community where that child lives receives help with infrastructure like water, electricity, sanitation and schooling.
Meanwhile the child sponsors can maintain a pen-pal style relationship with their sponsored children and follow them through their schooling as they grow up.
The child sponsorship program with World Vision actually runs in many African countries but I chose Senegal due to the fact there is so little tourism there.  Generally tourism brings more income to a country so I felt that a child in Senegal would somehow be missing out on the opportunities that the industry might bring to them. That life for them would be just that little bit harder.
I decided to get in touch with World Vision and they promptly sent me a selection of little faces of African children I could sponsor.  I looked at all of them.  I wanted to sponsor a girl.  From my time in North African countries, I realised fully how difficult life can be for the people there, particularly for women and girls.  Women in Africa often face challenges that many women like me can’t begin to understand.  They can face a life of no education, forced marriage, early childbirth, a lack of sanitation, minimal health care and household chores as they live under societal expectations that are so very different from our own.  Whereas women like me have options for education, independence, child birth and whether or not we will marry, so many African women don’t have the luxury of choice that I have had in my own life.
I chose a rather shy looking little girl with a beautiful face called Bineta.  I really knew nothing of her background aside from the fact she lived in a remote village in central Senegal.
Throughout my sponsorship of Bineta I thought of her very often and I was doing this at a time when electronic media wasn’t possible so I always used to look forward to proper mail with stamps that arrived on my doorstep in Kaolack, central Senegal.  Inside was always little notes, progress updates and the occasional photograph of Bineta as she was growing up.
I kept all of her letters and photos.  Through them I learned of her life at school.  That she liked dolls.  That she was learning Arabic and that when she was not in school she was often tasked with household chores.  I sent her replies with more information about me and my life in Australia.  We exchanged birthday greetings and cards/notes in between.

My Journey to find Bineta

While I was living in Australia I had long wished to actually travel and visit Bineta in Senegal.  My original plan was to fly to Morocco and take the bus down to Senegal via Mauritania, as they were countries that had held a fascination for me, yet I hadn’t travelled in them.
My circumstances never really allowed me to go.  I could neither take the time off work, or I couldn’t afford it, or something else would crop up and I had to curb my plans.
Time flew by, Bineta turned 18, the project in her village ended and I also moved to live with Mark in England in 2013.  The worst outcome of this change in circumstances was my loss of contact with Bineta.  Even though that was four years ago, I never really forgot about her.  I always wondered what became of her.  Was she already married?  Did she further her schooling?  Might she already have children?

2016

Three years later, my wonderful partner Mark said that he needed to travel to Senegal to revive the tour that our company runs there.  I had told him about Bineta before we started living together and he suggested that I get in touch with World Vision about trying to find her.
That was in February 2016 and before we flew to Dakar, I sent World Vision a generic email enquiring about Bineta’s whereabouts.  I got caught up in work and never received a reply.  This was not really the fault of anyone.  I was too busy and my email probably fell in a trash folder at World Vision so my enquiry went unanswered.
Our 2016 trip to Senegal included visits to Podor, St Louis, Kaolack, Kedougou, Ouassadou and also to Dakar.  My letters with Bineta were always sent to me by the World Vision office in Kaolack but we were so busy on the trip I didn’t have a chance to stop and ask for her in Kaolack.  At any rate, the region surrounding Kaolack is dotted with so many tiny hamlets and villages that finding a lost sponsored child in one of them would be like searching for a needle in a haystack.
After our trip to Senegal I went to Australia to visit my family and I started to go through some of the papers I had been keeping in storage at my parents’ place.  In those papers was all of my paperwork relating to Bineta and all the letters I had kept from her, so I took it all home with me to the UK and started to read through it all, trying to piece together our friendship.  Since our work in Senegal was going to continue I wanted to get back in touch with World Vision with more detailed information and the hope that we could somehow find her.
Ironically it turned out that she lives near a tiny village around 50 kilometres from Kaolack.  We had actually driven right through her village on our trip and I had no idea!!!
Being so close, yet still so far, I decided to try different avenues of contact at World Vision to find her.  I finally reached a fantastic team of people in World Vision who could give me more information. The told me that the project had ended in Bineta’s village and that they were not sure if she could be found.  They were careful to set a very low expectation with me as communications in Senegal can be tough and that delays or a complete lack of replies is common.
I had zero expectations of what might happen. I simply left the situation open to fate.  If it was meant to be that I find Bineta, then great, if not, then it was simply never meant to be.
A few months passed, I got tied up with my own work elsewhere in Africa, I had simply left correspondence in the hands of World Vision in Dakar and the ball was in their court to come back to me.
Well I finally got a reply.  They had managed to find Bineta and yes, if I wanted to visit her that this would be possible.  I was so excited I ran into Mark’s office exclaiming “World Vision have found Bineta!!!”.

2017

Since our work would inevitably see us returning to Senegal, I mentioned to World Vision that I could possibly make a side trip to visit Bineta in early 2017 and we started the process of planning a visit.
World Vision are very careful with their child visits and this is for good reason.  They aim to protect children who may be vulnerable to exploitation, even if they have reached adulthood.  My first step in organising my visit with Bineta involved me getting a police clearance.  Since I have no criminal record this was never going to be an issue for me so I managed to obtain a formal clearance with the police in Britain, who cooperated with the police in Australia to ensure that I had a clear record.  When it arrived by post, I scanned it and sent it to the World Vision office in Australia, who in turn sent it to Dakar.
At that point we hadn’t decided what dates we would actually travel so when they were determined I got in touch with World Vision and let them know that we were going to be in Kaolack on 6 February 2017 and we could visit Bineta the following day.
Senegal is so far off the radar of African tourism that our plans to visit Bineta threw everyone a curve ball.  Firstly we weren’t adding her visit to a dream Africa holiday on safari.  We also didn’t require any local transport.  After all, we were working in Senegal and we were in a hire car driving around the country.  I think we were a very unusual couple for World Vision to deal with as we were not frightened of travelling in West Africa and we didn’t require any assistance before we actually arrived.
We fixed the date and heard nothing.  Email communications must have been down and it wasn’t until we were actually in the country that the details of our visit could be finalised.  When I didn’t hear back from Senegal confirming the date and time before our flight to Dakar, I simply gave World Vision my cell phone number to text me on and said that I would try to pick up email if I got to places that had wifi.
A few days before we arrived in Kaolack the flurry of communications started.  I got calls saying yes, the visit was going to happen.  When I got wifi, I received an email confirmation too.  I got excited.  Finally, finally, we were going to meet Bineta.
Bineta’s Village
Initially we were asked to meet Bineta at her boarding school near Kaolack but en-route we got a call requesting that we start by meeting at the local office of World Vision nearby so we could sign some paperwork to finalise the arrangements.  We dashed back, met a great team in the office and before we met Bineta we travelled to the tiny hamlet where her family lives.
At Bineta’s village we met her parents, grand parents, aunts, cousins and uncles. They were so so thankful for everything I had done to support them while Bineta was growing up.
Here is what we saw on the dirt track to her village.  This is so very typical of countryside Senegal – open grasslands dotted with acacias and children running errands, carrying everything on their heads!
This is the tiny hamlet where Bineta’s family lives.  Her parents live in the brick house on the left and her extended family live in neighbouring huts.
This is Bineta’s family, her mum is on the left in a black turban, two of her aunts and their children (Bineta’s cousins) are in this photo.
This is me with Bineta’s grandmother (I think from her father’s side)
After we met everyone, we piled off in our cars along with Bineta’s father and drove to her school around 20km away where Bineta was boarding.

Bineta’s School

Arriving at the school we were greeted by the head master who took us to where Bineta was living.  She was on recess from her classes when we visited so we managed to spend a short amount of time with her, her teachers, some of her family and her headmaster.
Before she was introduced to me I recognised her instantly from her photos.
I was pleasantly surprised to hear that she was still in school, learning to be a teacher and that her favourite subjects are grammar and language!
Her school is still very basic.  Bineta’s classroom has a dirt floor, bench seats and a black board.  There are no desks for kids to sit at and yet Bineta has flourished.  I believe she is an excellent student in an environment where it would be so easily for her to become otherwise.  Her achievements in life so far are a credit to her.
Visiting her school gave us both a fantastic insight into the lives of people in rural Senegal and what it is like to grow up as a kid there.  It is something so few people really experience.  We left feeling humbled, grateful and happy that Bineta has become the beautiful young woman I always thought she would be.

My “Fulani Family”

It was when we first arrived at Bineta’s family village that I found out Bineta is a Fulani.  I recognised it as soon as I saw her mother, who has the characteristic black tattooed lips of Fulani women.  My heart melted.  I love the Fulani people in the Sahel.  As settled nomads in Senegal, the younger generation of Bineta’s family, including Bineta, don’t have this tattooing that is so typical of the Fulani culture but that’s OK.  I’m sure the Fulani culture permeates their existence in so many ways.
During our field work in Senegal in 2016 I met my first ever Fulani people.  We met them all over Senegal but our most surprising encounters were in really remote places like Ndiael, where we would find a Fulani adolescent herding his mass of Zebu cattle towards water, or when we were surveying the grasslands for bustards and we’d see a whole family of Fulani people heading to the nearest village on foot to do their shopping.
Each time I was stunned at how friendly they were and to this day, I am always happy when we encounter Fulani people in the field.  The women are instantly recognisable by their facial tattoos.  Some older Fulani women also have elaborate tattoos on their hands and feet.
Fulani men can often be seen wearing a peaked hat that looks like it would be more at home in Asia than in the Sahel region of Africa.
The Fulani people are the largest nomadic group in the world.  Currently numbering between 20 and 25 million they are the largest muslim ethnic group in Africa and they comprise many different ethnicities across the countries they wander including Chad, Sudan, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali, Cameroon and Senegal.
The Fulani treasure beauty in their women and braveness in their men.  Travelling in Fulani lands you can often see men and children in particular, shaking the Acacia trees to release the seeds, which are given to animals as fodder.

Where to from here?

Our visit with Bineta was brief and it left both Mark and I with so many questions about what she might do with her future.  Right now we are trying to work with World Vision to see if we can help Bineta to continue her education in some way either through them or independently.
We face a few very substantial and justified hurdles in helping Bineta but I’m happy to stay within the protocols that are defined by World Vision.  After all, they have been so incredibly helpful to us in our journey to find Bineta.
Our very first step will be to have the photos we took printed and sent to her family.
From there we are keeping an open mind about what might happen.  In my own ideal world, nothing would make me happier than to see Bineta complete her education and become the teacher she dreams of becoming.
At the very least, I don’t want to lose touch with her or her family.
I’ve never travelled through the world with a vision that I wish to save our planet.  I learned a long time ago that I can only do so much, that my financial and emotional resources are finite.
However, I have always harboured a very strong belief that the best way to break the back of poverty is through education.  I can’t afford to support Bineta’s entire family financially forever. That is way beyond my means.  I can, however, support her education, which I hope will give her better skills to find a better paying job so she can support her future family.  I am trying to find a way to give her that start.  Let’s see where this journey might take us but this is my hope.
And without hope we have nothing.

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