This post is part of my Social Good Sunday series. It is a guest post from Chloe, the Founder & President of C.R.E.E.R in France & Cote d’Ivoire. C.R.E.E.R – Centre de Reinsertion et Education pour les Enfants de la Rue, or in English, a centre of reinsertion and education for street children
I’ve always had a passion for Africa. I first visited east and southern Africa as a young child with my parents and my passion grew through many subsequent visits after as an adult. I started seeing more of Africa when I headed to the western side of the continent in 2004 which led me to creating something I really didn’t expect.
Seeing the varying states of children throughout the sub-region, from those that ‘work’ for the marabout in Senegal to those you see on the streets in a flash who run from you. Slowly but surely I realized there’s an underworld of children, who don’t want to be found, running scared.
The story of “M” led me to create C.R.E.E.R as a charity in France and shortly to be a NGO in the Ivory Coast (Cote d’Ivoire). I didn’t know where to start with her, meeting her in early 2009 in Cote d’Ivoire she claimed to be from Benin or Togo, she didn’t speak French very well, which is the official language of both countries. But when I started speaking in English to her, she understood me perfectly but replied in ‘her’ French.
She had been brought into a children’s orphanage ‘centre’ one day having been found roaming the streets. I met her there within 24 hours of her arrival. Initially she was like an animal, brought to me by her wrist, completely wild, she threw herself down on the ground and rolled over laughing. She claimed she had been living on the beach for three years, her parents died several years before and she had been alone ever since. Her sole possession was a plastic bottle full of some strong detergent type liquid which she refused to let anyone take from her; it was her soap and it was her only way of keeping clean. She guarded it with a passion that brought tears to my eyes; I eventually managed to exchange it for a prettier bottle with better smelling soap.
Her story was that her father had died in Cote d’Ivoire; her mother had previously died in Benin. I have a good friend in Nigeria from schooldays and called her to verify that the surname she’d given was in fact Nigerian as I suspected. The story of her arrival into the country, with her father, really didn’t make sense, so the centre manager and I suspected she had been trafficked to Cote d’Ivoire. There’s a major trafficking route between the two main West African economic centres of Lagos, Nigeria and Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire.
I ‘interviewed’ her in English we went very slowly but after four hours I had the basics, although there was a lot of missing information and we all thought that she was hiding something; the story didn’t quite add up. She refused to have any acknowledgement of Nigeria but knew Lagos and talked lovingly of her father on a motorbike there. We were all convinced she was not 13 but 11 or 12. Her mental state was fine but physically she was not good, had been passing urine with blood for over a year she told us. This was possibly due to the saddest part of her story; she slept in the market, she only went there when it rained rather than sleeping on the beach. Each time she went to the market the night watchman let her in, he then let two other men in, she had been raped several times by the same two men.
We tried to find the school where we thought she was enrolled after giving us directions that led us on a wild goose chase. I found it strange that a ’13’ year old cannot remember clearly which school she went to three years ago in the same beachside town she had been living in. Sadly within a few days of meeting her and getting very closely attached; I left the country to return home but left her in the capable hands of the manager of the centre who took her for a full health check. My fears of her being HIV were unfounded; she was slightly anaemic and needed some vitamin supplements from living on basic scraps she had found whilst living on the beach.
She ended up being put in a home run by Catholic nuns in central Abidjan, here she got a basic education and started cooking; she loved making cakes. Each time I arrived in Cote d’Ivoire I went to visit her, the last time was during the Ivoirian crisis in January 2011, the same manager put his life on the line so that we could both see her, he escorted me in an area that had daily gun battles. We got out of the taxi to walk to the gates with tires and wood burning in the middle of the road, it wasn’t pleasant or particularly safe; I was glad to be inside the gates. Overjoyed to see us both, asking why I hadn’t visited her over Christmas our thoughts turned to the crisis and she told me how frightening it was on occasions. However, she’s turned into a cheeky rascal with lots of friends and done well with her education. As I was leaving one of the sisters mentioned that with the counseling she received they were in the process of finding her extended family who she has since returned home to in Benin. I’ve yet to see her again but I will!
M’s story isn’t that unusual or rare, if you look at the figures there are thousands of trafficked children in West Africa; just not that many are lucky like she was to have been ‘caught’ for a better future. Some are sold by their families for about US $60, believing that they will have a good life with an employer or promised that they will receive an education. The families often need the money to manage the rest of the family. The trafficker will (according to the same friend in Lagos) knock on doors offering one of ‘his children’ as a domestic servant for US$200-US$250. When asked the question, how he ended up with an array of children of almost the same age; a fabricated story is told. I would love to have heard the story from the trafficker caught on the Ivoirian border with 118 children, as shown on http://slaverymap.org/ . Unfortunately many of these end up mentally and physically scarred from working as domestic servants in homes, as prostitutes or working like bonded slaves in agriculture at a young age. We believe M worked as a domestic servant from snippets she told us and obviously escaped but had nowhere to go.
Due to M, our organisation was formed. C.R.E.E.R – Centre de Reinsertion et Education pour les Enfants de la Rue, or in English, a centre of reinsertion and education for street children. It’s unfortunate that in West Africa people don’t like to admit that children are being trafficked; we couldn’t have a name that points to trafficked children. It’s a non-profit, non-political and non-religious centre; we aim to work with the children, the region is split between Christians and Muslims, we expect a mix of both and local religions; those that want to follow their faith can do so locally.
As the first such designated centre in West Africa our aim is to cater for trafficked children from all over region that are being brought over the border. We’ve already talked to the immigration authorities. The Ivoirian Authorities are keen to see us set up as there’s nowhere that solely caters for trafficked children. They house those that they can intercept at the border, wherever they can find a bed. Our aim is to repatriate those that have families that can take care of them & educate the children that cannot be repatriated.
The idea is to create the centre as soon as possible, having unfortunately been let down already regarding land. We aim to be as self-sufficient as possible, enabling the children to learn about animal husbandry as well as renewable energy sources and their maintenance.
1. We are still looking for 5-hectares of suitable land just over the border from Ghana, to build the centre with single sex dormitories and workshops but to also create a smallholding that the children will manage with tutors.
a) The centre will provide accommodation for about 30 children initially.
b) All children will receive an education, maths, French and also potentially English as core components of other subjects.
2. On the land we want to build workshops, this will be the vocational part of the project so that all children will have a chance to leave with a skill. We hope some will further their education too in tertiary establishments. The workshops will consist of vocational skills such as sewing, mechanics, carpentry and cooking etc.
There’s so much to do, but we are determined to do it. We have many great friends locally who have offered and are able to help us; such as agricultural experts who want to explain agricultural techniques to the children.
The manager who was involved with M has left the previous centre; he is now ready to work with us. We totally trust him & believe he will drive things forward in the interests of trafficked children; he’s already carried out a lot of research and submitted our paperwork to the authorities to gain the NGO status.
We’re working overseas with a variety of private people and organisations who understand the need for such a centre to be set up, we also hope to get more support from the Ivoirian government. We always need more assistance, particularly financial to enable the construction of the centre to take place; we have builders ready to give their time and expertise for free.
In the longer term we’re hoping to have other C.R.E.E.R centres in Africa, the next one being at the other end of this trafficking corridor, just inside Nigeria’s border.
If you’d like to help, please email us at : firstname.lastname@example.org
Or join our group http://www.facebook.com/groups/c.r.e.e.r.rci/
Or page http://www.facebook.com/pages/CREER/160911540628718 on Facebook
We’re also on Twitter @CREER_RCI
About the author:
Chloe is an African Aviation aficianado involved in Training & Business Development, well-trodden traveller of the world over having spent time living in Japan, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Australia as well as many extreme reaches of Africa from Algeria to Guinea Conakry to Botswana. Chloe lives in France and has Irish nationality.