The arid sandy sub-Saharan plains of Senegal are stark contrast to much of the United States. Plants and water are scarce, and in the dry season the sandy dust turns the air bronze. Life here is tough. In the small villages that skirt the highway from Dakar to Mauritania, hardscrabble subsistence farming and tiny one-man (or more likely one-woman) businesses sell the small amounts of produce or basic goods that people here can afford. For those families at the bottom of the Senegalese economic ladder, it’s really tough. In a bad year, like the locust plague of 2003-04, these folks would have died of starvation without the help of industrial nations.
Guéoul is one of those villages. Its cluster of cement block houses and traditional millet stalk huts straddle the highway a half-hour south of Louga, three hours north of Dakar. Just off of the highway is the main drag, a sandy street that is the business district. Here, a stall that sells cloth, next to it a tailor to sew it on an ancient sewing machine, across the street a woman selling balls of sweet dough deep-fried in a little kettle, and a minuscule grocery stall selling tomatoes or cigarettes one at a time; and lots of women sitting on small stools or the ground, vegetables spread out in front of them in baskets or on blankets. By local standards, some of these businesses are doing well. A few families are prosperous, particularly those with a son working in Europe and sending money home. But Guéoul, like every other Senegalese village, is predominantly poor.
The people of Guéoul are certainly a community-oriented bunch — you can’t walk down to the market square without exchanging greetings and pleasantries with virtually every person you pass. Extended families live in communal compounds, with grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and others sharing a house, food and other resources. And they’re generous to a fault with guests. Heaven forbid that a guest should not have enough to eat, regardless of the economic straits of his host.
Life on the edge makes for a lot of hard choices. One of the choices facing the poor families of Guéoul is what to do with their young daughters. They can keep them in school, paying the fees, paying for books, paying to feed them. Sénégal has a law keeping children in school until age sixteen. Sometimes the families marry their girls off at age twelve to fourteen. One less mouth to feed, and every franc not spent on school is one more franc for food. Those girls married too young are bearing children while their own body is still immature, sometimes with drastic consequences to their health (fistulas and incontinence) or even their death or the death of their baby.
That has consequences, of course. The literacy rate in the past in Senegal was only thirty to forty percent. Among the rural poor, particularly women, it was 25% or less. Literate may mean having only a sixth grade education. Being denied schooling and married off that young condemns a woman to unempowered poverty. Collectively, the situation perpetuates itself. More life on the edge, more young girls married off, more illiteracy, more poverty.
How much money are we talking about here? Not much. In a country this poor, you can fix a lot of problems with a hundred dollars. That hundred dollars scholarship will pay for a girl’s school fees, books and supplies for a year, along with a set of decent clothes to wear to school. After all of that is said and done, there’ll be enough left to buy some food for her family — enough food to justify the family’s keeping that girl in school. That’s a lot of bang for a hundred bucks.
Where is the hundred bucks going to come from if nobody in Guéoul has it? Enter Friends of Guéoul, Inc. Friends of Guéoul is a non-profit corporation based in Denver, Colorado. Since 2005, Friends of Guéoul has tackled the issues facing the poorest girls in Guéoul, with a simple goal: keep them in school, help them succeed academically, give them a chance to do something with their lives. The plan is equally simple: give them a scholarship of a hundred bucks a year. Friends of Guéoul added a tutoring program for all its girls in elementary school several years ago – initial studies show significant improvements in their academic performance.
But there’s more! Friends of Guéoul doesn’t just send a check to Senegal and forget about it. Director Judy Beggs has ties to Guéoul that go back to a Peace Corps stint in 1990-92.
Three of our Board have been to Guéoul. They know Baye Thierno, and they know Guéoul. They know the three-member Board of Supervision, Baye Thierno Ndiaye, Khoudosse Cisse (retired high school principal) and Hamet Sarr, all some of the most productive, efficient and devoted citizens of Guéoul
The members of Friends of Guéoul visit Guéoul regularly. The books are monitored. Judy goes there each winter and visits with teachers and school administrators. Each winter, she visits the newest boursieres in their homes and classrooms and gets updates from Baye Thierno. Between visits, Friends of Guéoul receives regular reports on the girls, their progress, and the expenditure of funds. There’s a lot of goodwill and a lot of friendship, but there’s also a lot of accountability. It’s a potent and highly effective combination.
A new Directeur General of the Sénégal operation was hired in 2016, to help lead us through the growingly more complicated programs. Khoudosse Cisse is a newly retired high school principal, with extensive experience and knowledge of the educational system.
In 2011, Friends of Guéoul began the pursuit of a really big dream – the establishment of a branch university at Guéoul, under the administration of University Gaston Berger (UGB), the best university in Sénégal, located in Saint Louis. Guéoul and surrounding villages donated 246 acres for the facility. Sénégal designated $2,000,000 to the construction of Phase I. Construction on the first five buildings began in 2015.
Friends of Guéoul has now commenced dialog with UGB to develop collaborations. Professors from UGB will help create the English conversation, total immersion summer school. The program, the first of its kind in Sénégal, will help train students to meet the requirements of Sénégal universities that students have competency in English for admission to a university.
The story doesn’t stop with the girls, either. A computer classroom provides a setting for eLearning. There are no technically better computer classroom facilities in northern Sénégal. Friends of Guéoul is also on a long road, but it’s come a long way from the day a few friends scrounged together a thousand dollars for the first class of girls.
It’s an amazing story to watch unfold. But it’s even more amazing because it doesn’t need a big bureaucracy, or a government agency, or millions of dollars and years of studies. There is no global aim, just a village. Projects like ours — narrow in focus and reasonably assigned — are the best way to accomplish immediate, profound, and lasting results. Your donation provides powerful leverage.