Discovering The Children Of Senegal
By John P. Mallare CICM
John P. Mallare, a seminarian, was born in BaguioCity and entered the CICMs in 1995. After his studies in philosophy and theology he was sent to Senegal in 2005 for his internship. You may learn more about the CICM missionaries at www.scheutmissions.org and atwww.missionhurst.org .
The author (extreme right, third row) poses with his students and fellow teachers in St Abraham School, Guédiawayé, Senegal
Never as a child did I dream of going to Africa. Like any other small boy, I wished to become a ‘normal’ journalist, doctor, engineer, or businessman. I never imagined living in a world outside the 49-square kilometers of my native city, Baguio. Moreover, the only things that I knew of Africa were that black people lived there and that the fiercest animals inhabited the place.
Truly, God’s ways were not my ways. God wanted to send me to the other side of the world, far from my family, far from what I imagined, far from what I wanted. God asked me to become a CICM missionary in Senegal. Many missionaries have written about the country, but there are always new things to be discovered, and experiences to be shared.
From Tourist to Resident
I arrived in August 2005. When my plane was about to land in Dakar, the capital, I noticed some ‘bizarre’ things down below: almost all the houses and buildings were white, and each cluster of houses was accentuated by mosques, big and small. Later, I realized that more than 90 percent of the people were Muslims, in sharp contrast to what I was used to in the Philippines.
At first glance, Dakar seemed to be like Manila, with slums, rickety vehicles, numerous roads and buildings being constructed, beggars and children all around. But within a few weeks I began to see the difference.Senegal is a country where poverty is very pronounced in cities and villages. The desert terrain and the dry climate add to the non-viability of agriculture and lessen the possibility of other sources of income; add to that a government laden with corruption. Fortunately, the political situation is one of the most stable in Africa. Muslims and Christians generally live together in peace.
At the time of this writing, it hasn’t rained for at least six months, to the relief of the population, because when it does, malaria-carrying mosquitoes begin their work. And, without exaggeration, they kill hundreds of people. In our parish alone during the rainy season, there were funerals two or three times a week, mostly of malaria victims. Sadly, many are so poor they can’t even afford mosquito nets or electric fans to chase the mosquitoes away.
It was in this context that I started here but have now stayed long enough to change my ‘eyeglasses’ from those of a tourist to those of a resident.
Creature from another planet
When I was brushing up my French, the official language here, I would often travel by public transport and visit new friends. A common greeting, especially of children, is, ‘Bonjour, Tubap, donne-moi de l’argent!’ ‘Hello, white man, give me money!’ Then they ask if I’m Chinese or Japanese. In the beginning I tried to explain that I had no money and that I was a Filipino. But I got tired of correcting them, sometimes irritated, and tried not to mind them. Anyway, I thought, being a Filipino was a rarity here. I’m the only Filipino male missionary, with two Filipina Sisters, and no more than ten other Filipinos here. I realized that to the Senegalese I was a creature from another planet.
The school children
Last December I was asked to teach catechism in a nearby Catholic school. I initially resisted the offer, for three reasons. Firstly, I didn’t have much training in teaching. Secondly, the students, in Grade 6, were known as rambunctious and uncontrollable. I would have preferred high school or college students. One time when I was out walking, a group of school children greeted and surrounded me. I didn’t know that some were already opening my backpack and stealing from it. Later, I discovered that some of them were to be my own students! Thirdly, I was still trying to improve my French. I was already confident in conversational French, but teaching in the language was another thing. Yet, I opened myself up to the challenge.
The first day was a real catastrophe. I don’t know if the students learned anything, for I lost my composure and my memory, and mixed up my grammar. The following weeks, the children became uncontrollable. They were so noisy and would often go out of class. I wanted to give up, but the assistant director finally came to my rescue, gave me some advice, and I managed to keep going for four months.
Getting to know their stories
But the latter months were revealing. During and after class, students began to share with me their secrets about their families, their struggles with poverty, malnutrition, and even abuse. They would present excuses for not being able to accomplish this or that, and often it was the result of a problem in the family. It wasn’t rare for a Catholic student to have two Muslim parents, who might also be separated, most commonly because the father had other wives. In other words, they didn’t receive proper formation at home. I finally realized that that was my role, not just to be a teacher of catechism. They wanted someone trustworthy to listen to their stories.
Throughout my short stint as teacher, I tried to form the children with all my ability and with the knowledge I’d learned during my CICM formation. I shared with them the beautiful experiences I had with my own family, who taught me the proper values of life.
I guess the children are true companions for us missionaries. For me, they are innocent and tell the truth. They don’t discriminate between Muslims and Christians. They express what they see. They are objective and honest. Sometimes, they are more dependable than adults. For example, when I get lost in the streets, the children lead me home, and ask no favors afterwards. Of all the Senegalese people I’ve met, it’s the children who best remember my name. Before, I was to them an abstract person, as if I had no clear face, but now, when we meet on the street, they can put a name to my face and color, and that is ‘John.’
They remembered my name
John P. Mallare CICM
Their stories are often hidden and unheard. But once they began to share, and I was prepared to listen to them, I started to learn. In the end they became my teachers.