By Richard Moody:
About 30 years ago, I became involved with Plan International USA when I sponsored a boy, Yamadou, in Mali. Mali had been known as the French Sudan until gaining independence from France in 1960—the same year many other French colonies in West Africa also gained their independence. When considering sponsoring children through Plan, I initially decided to choose those in countries on the African continent that I was not familiar with. As I had cousins in Kenya and Zambia in East Africa and had lived in South Africa, the former French colonies on the west side of Africa seemed a good choice for me.
At the same time that I began sponsoring Yamadou in Mali, I also sponsored a girl in Senegal named Ndaye, who lived not far from the capital, Dakar, and close to the old railroad line that ran from Bamako, the capital of Mali. Senegal is another former French colony—and I had always intended to visit both families on a trip to that part of West Africa.
My original intention had been to fly with our young son to Bamako from the U.S. and travel up the Niger River to Yamadou’s village. But Yamadou’s father was rarely at home, as he was often away hunting for gold in dry riverbeds, and I didn’t want to visit Yamadou unless all his family were there. I felt it important to meet them all, and I had learned that I would be able to communicate with his family through an interpreter. Our son was the same age as Yamadou, and they had become pictorial pen pals through the sponsorship relationship.
However, I subsequently learned that Ndaye’s family in Senegal, who were nomadic, had departed the Plan area and so my intention to see both kids on the same trip had to be shelved. My intended itinerary had been to take the steam train from Bamako to Dakar, after first seeing Yamado, and then disembarking at a small station near where Ndaye lived. But this was not to be after Ndaye’s family upped and left and Yamadou outgrew the program at age 18.
Then I decided to sponsor a child in Nepal, but lost contact when his family left the area where Plan works.
It was now time to come closer to home, so I sponsored a girl, Isela, in Nicaragua and another girl, Maybelline, in El Salvador—both countries I had never visited. Isela and her extended family of parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all lived in a jungle compound outside the beautiful old ex-Spanish city of Leon and I was able to visit them before Isela graduated from the program at age 18 and achieved a place at university. This was an amazing success story for a young girl living in very basic conditions, and I stayed in Leon and spent two very happy days with her delightful family, who treated me with the utmost warmth and fed me delicious meals in their dirt-floored outside dining room. I also spent a day in Isela’s school and was most impressed with the dedication of her teachers and the reception given me by all the staff.
After visiting Isela in Nicaragua, I took the long-distance bus from Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, through Honduras on a 10-hour ride to El Salvador, in order to spend time with Maybelline and her family. More recently, I visited El Salvador again to see Maybelline for a second time, and so I have gotten to know Maybelline and her family and school well. Sadly, Maybelline will be graduating from the program in about 18 months when she reaches the age of 18, but my two visits to see her have given me a good understanding of this beautiful, but unstable, country. Maybelline—now aged 16—is a very bright young girl who is computer savvy and doing brilliantly in school. I have also spent time in her school, to which I’ve donated baskets for the basketball court.
Maybelline and her family live in a small community outside San Salvador. Their simple house is at the bottom of a small ravine and was built by Maybelline’s father—the first house in the area to be built of concrete. It’s also the only house to have an indoor toilet and a shower.
Maybelline’s father is a boiler mechanic and extremely practical. He has designed a hydraulic system to move water up the ravine without using electricity so that all the families in the community have water for irrigation, cooking, and washing. And, in addition to building their house, he has also constructed an excellent outdoor open kitchen/dining area where all cooking is done on wood stoves and where I’ve enjoyed excellent meals with the family.
In addition to Maybelline in El Salvador, I now have a sponsored boy, Deimar, in Bolivia.
Deimar is now 17 and lives at 12,000 feet in a one-room house with his parents, his grandparents, and his sister and small child. The family survives on subsistence arable farming but they do own a few pigs, cows, and also guinea pigs—which are considered delicacies. Deimar is a delightful young man with an avid appetite for reading and history. He walks to and from school each day and plays and follows football (soccer) with a passion.
Local Plan staff have always coordinated my visits with my sponsored children and their families in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Bolivia, which has made communication much easier for me with my feeble Spanish. But my other personal explorations in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Bolivia have always been made on my own and at no time have I ever felt uncomfortable about what I’ve been up to.
After my time with Deimar, my Bolivian hosts showed me much of La Paz and one day we drove from the city into the snow-covered Andes and down into the Amazon jungle, which gave me a great insight into the ecological diversity of this part of South America.
I still sponsor Maybelline and Deimar, although they will both be leaving Plan’s program at age 18, which is when I intend to sponsor one more child—in Colombia.