The mission here is so big that it has taken me a whole month to become acquainted with it.I would describe it in two areas: a) The social programs and b) The preventive education
a) The Social Programs
When Sister Maria Antonietta (director) arrived in 2000 she found a lot of vulnerable girls and women subject to all kinds of violence and abuses. The city, being an international port, and the Danktopa market with its 20 hectares, only adds to the problem. So she realized the need for focused efforts. 14 years later some of the highlights include
The Barrack at Danktopa Market
A barrack in the parking lot of the market. The barrack is an old metal container adapted as a children and youth friendly centre. It has three main purposes:
1) in the mornings the little kids take kindergarten classes there. When the moms (who are selling at the market all day long) hear their kids counting or singing in French, they get all excited and become more motivated to send them to school afterwards.
2) They are strategically located in the market’s parking lot, where the vans depart to other countries/communities. If a kid is being trafficked, it is most likely that at some point he or she will pass through this same parking lot. The barrack there gives them a chance to escape and seek help.
3) Since there are a lot of children that work at the market, the barrack offers them a safe space free of violence and pressure to enjoy themselves for a few minutes every time they have the chance: do crafts, play games, talk with the animators and sometimes just eat their meal with no hassle from others.
Once a week the animators take a walk at night at the market and identify women and girls that sleep there and therefore are vulnerable to all kinds of violence. They invite them to this house where they can sleep, shower themselves and learn different trades: soap making, cooking, bakery, tailoring and French.
There is also a restaurant where the students from the cooking and baking workshops practice their skills. It is located in the fancy neighbourhood and caters mainly to expats and rich Beninois. It is not only delicious, but many girls have been hired by clients who love the food and the service there to the different hotels/restaurants/embassy residences in the region.
La Maison du Soleil
This is a centre for young vulnerable mamas, most of the time victims of rape or incest that have no support from their families. Here they can sleep there with their babies if they want, shower, leave their babies while they go to work, take parenting classes, attend psychological support, consult a doctor, and find friendly and supportive staff to walk with them in the difficulties of maternity and the sad stories that they come with behind.
Foyer Laura Vicuña
This is a boarding home for girls. Many of them have been trafficked and brought here by the police. Others by different means. Some girls are accused of being witches and therefore rejected by the entire community, or sold by their relatives. They first arrive to the welcome centre where they receive psychological follow up and French classes. From there depending on the situation, they are helped to go back to their families or a caring relative. If the situation is unsafe for them, they stay at the boarding home and are enrolled in the appropriate school.
(Foyer Don Bosco and Magon Centre)
The Salesian fathers have the same kind of program for boys in the city of Porto Novo, political capital of Benin. The boys in the reception centre arrive with all their bodies scarred, with fingers missing, one of them was afraid of the smallest sound around. Those that stay in the foyer continue to learn trades. Padre Carlos, a Spanish misionary there, has received the nicest thank you letters from all the kids who come to show him their diplomas and continue on to lead happy independent and free lives.
(They have a very complete website in French and Spanish: www.portonovo.foyerdonbosco.org)
St Joseph Alternative School
Since many of the children arrive to the foyers with zero formal education at all, an Alternative school was created, for them to catch up on their primary studies. At this school, the kids can finish the 6 years of elementary school in 3 years only. It is now open to the public. The children and the teachers in this school are sooooo hardworking!
Dominic Savio Support for minors who have troubles with the law
This project offers support to minors in the jail. The staff advocates for their human rights (separate them from the adult spaces, feed them more than once a day…), provide psychological and legal counseling and also follow up on them when they are set free. This is because most of the time the fact that a 13 year old ended up in jail is because the family-social system around him is not exactly the best.
b) The Preventive Education
L’Institut Superieur de Formation des Educateurs Specialises (ISFES)
When working with abused children, youth in jails and traumatized girls, the need for special educators became evident. Instead of sending the sisters and staff all around to study, the Salesian community decided to create their own training centre in the subject. It was then when the Centre for Studies in Special Education was born. It is legally recognized by the Benin Ministry of Post-Secondary Education and their three year program is praised for their heavy research program and practical internships.
Secondary School and Professional Training Centre Laura Vicuña et Don Bosco
The Salesian sisters and priests run secondary schools and professional training centres. The workshops include hairdressing, tailoring, hospitality (restaurants and hotels admin), carpentry, bakery, auto and moto mechanic, I think electricity too. And of course all the joys of working with 1,400 teenagers from 7am to 5pm Monday to Saturday.
The Laura Vicuña Secondary and Professional Training Centre has a facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ecole.laura.vicuna?fref=ts
St Anthony de Padua Parish
Well, a parish is a parish, but there are many activities outside the religious celebration that are non-formal education as well: the youth group, cultural and sports Sunday afternoons, missionary children group, women’s group, catechism, etc. The parish is run by the Salesian priests. The parish in Porto Novo is St Francis Xavier parish, same idea.
The Valponasca Farm
It is a farm north of Porto Novo where formation on agricultural techniques and admin is provided. Also, 100 women from the surrounding area are supported in small groups with techniques and competencies to improve their production. As a plus byproduct, everybody that goes through here learns to read and write French.
For those who want to write us, our address is:
Mission Salesienne / Ecole Laura Vicuña04 BP 1434 Cadjehoun Cotonou Benin (Afrique de l’Ouest)
(I got my first letter today, thank you!)
To know more
Here are a couple of 17 mins. videos that describe very well the realities of trafficked children in Benin and witch children in Togo. (Although both of them are regional issues, in the Ivory Coast there was also a lot of witchcraft going on). They are prepared by the Salesian Missions in Spain. They are in French and Spanish with subtitles.
NO ESTOY EN VENTA (I AM NOT FOR SALE / JE NE SUIS PAS A VENDRE)
YO NO SOY BRUJA (I AM NOT A WITCH)
The sisters have a page with more detailed information in each of the activities that I described above: http://www.salesianedonboscobenin.org
I leave you with my favorite place to buy shirts in this country: The tree (The first time I said I bought a nice shirt at the tree, I was asked if such was the name of the shop. No… the tree – the tree I replied…)