I had a rare, rewarding experience this year – a moment when all the various strands of my life seemed to align, offering a glimmer of validation for my role as a parent and for my work at Barefoot. In that moment, I was able to put all of the complexities of my life in refreshingly simple perspective. In August, I embarked on an unforgettable adventure with my eldest daughter Meaghan to create a children’s library in Sebikotane, a small village in Senegal in West Africa.

This story started a couple of years’ earlier when Meaghan participated in a program run by Global Citizen Year, an organization whose mission to encourage young people to become agents of social change and inspire global leadership, definitely resonated with my own values running and living Barefoot. While working in Sebi-Fass, the local elementary school which serves several hundred families in the community, Meaghan became acutely aware of the lack of visual learning materials available for students. She also saw how the children really struggled to grasp fully the material they were reading and became convinced that the village would benefit if they had a dedicated library.

So on her return from Senegal, Meaghan set out to raise funds to create the Sebi-Fass Library.  She built a website, held a yard sale, created paintings for friends in exchange for sponsorship, and reached out as widely as she could in the community. She researched best practices on building children’s libraries and wrote a comprehensive project plan. And she gradually accumulated nearly 1000 books in French and Wolof, the native language of Senegalese children – desperately needed text books and dictionaries, colourful board and picture books, the essential Tintin and Asterix stories, books on art and architecture, fiction for older readers, and of course any Barefoot Books that she could weave in that had been translated into French. She also tracked down maps, art materials, educational toys, games, puzzles and puppets so that the library could be a place that not only encouraged children’s love of reading, but also nurtured their creativity and imagination.

When Meaghan asked me to go with her to Senegal this summer to help her build the library, I admit that I was a little apprehensive. I had absolutely no experience creating a library, let alone one in a remote African village. I was terrified at the possibility that the project might fail; that everything Meaghan had worked so hard for might not ever come to fruition. But I also knew that this journey could be an experience of a lifetime. So we packed up the books ready to ship to Africa and prayed they would arrive in one piece. And, in early August, we set off for seven days in Senegal.

These seven days were a memorable roller coaster of emotions – fear, frustration, exhilaration, hilarity, stress, exhaustion and incredible satisfaction. We managed to pick seven days in the middle of Ramadan so we had regular late afternoon bouts of grumpiness. We were also faced with the unexpected challenge of trying to rally a whole village to gain consensus around our new library – the school principal, Directeur Mbaye, the parents committees, the mayor and the town council. Everyone had a slightly different view on the relative importance of books vs. computers vs. photocopiers vs. fixing the large gaping hole in the ceiling of Mbaye’s office! It was a lesson in life about the key role of collaboration and compromise to make something happen.

Throughout our library journey in Senegal, I remember being constantly amazed at the odd juxtaposition between moments when time seemed to completely stand still – people never in a hurry and just soaking up life – and moments when we stood in awe at the enormous progress we made, often when we didn’t expected anything to happen. By the end of our seven days we had emptied the room and hired a mason, electrician, painter and carpenter. We designed shelves and bought furniture, experiencing the art of Senegalese negotiation in a crazy furniture market in Dakar. We picked paint colours, found beautiful green floor tiles and managed to convince Meaghan’s wonderfully warm and wise host father, Sadibou Ka that we could make beautiful curtains out of fabric meant for traditional attire. We interviewed and hired a passionate librarian, Mame Binta Diallo, and agreed a broad plan on how to make the library a sustainable venture. And, despite the lack of food and drink and the hot humid summer days, the work began in earnest to transform a dark, dilapidated, cobwebbed room into a happy, colourful oasis of imagination and learning for the village children.

Meaghan and I returned to Senegal in early October to open the boxes of books (which miraculously did arrive safely thanks to Matt, Barefoot’s Head of Production!) and to get everything ready before the school doors opened. It was a chaotic, confusing and stressful four days with nothing going according to plan. However, despite the lack of electricity and the crashed computer, the room was cleaned, the books and other materials got catalogued, labelled and put on the shelves, the rugs got laid, the curtains, maps and posters got hung and our colourful little library came to life.

We smiled when we officially opened the doors and watched little children, big children and grownups, who all came into the new library with a little apprehension as they had witnessed the transformation of this little room in their local school but weren’t sure what it all meant. And, very quietly and respectfully, they gingerly took the books off the shelves and flipped through the pages as if they were holding something very magical and precious that they couldn’t quite believe was real.

And we listened as Mame Binta, the librarian, described how excited she was to open that very first box of books because she knew that it contained stories that would change the lives of the children in the village forever.

It is hard to describe how extraordinarily proud I was as I watched Meaghan rally a whole village behind her project. When she stopped everything, no matter how busy we were, just to chat and play with children, or give them a hug. When she greeted everyone she met with a huge and welcoming smile. And when she cheerily bantered with curious onlookers, as she stood on a ladder and painted the finishing creative touches on the simple Bibliotheque de Sebi-Fass sign outside our beautiful little library.

I am so proud that we have made a difference in a small village in Senegal…and so happy that my four very special children have all grown up Barefoot.

 

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