Feature

Watering the Neighbor’s Garden

Women's education is vital in Senegal

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Saharan sands converge with the surf of the vast Atlantic in northwest Senegal. At this geographical crossroads, where the haunting call to prayer echoes five times a day, several Alliance families live and serve among the poor in partnership with Yoonu Njub (Way of Righteousness) Fellowship, a church founded by the Brethren more than 20 years ago.

Recently, this small band of believers built a locally acclaimed vocational center to meet the critical needs of the community’s many street boys, disciples of the area’s revered religious teachers. Less publicized are the health care and educational opportunities the church provides to the area’s women and girls, “allowing us to build relationships and find those with open hearts to the gospel,” says Brian, the Alliance team lead.

Evidence suggests this is a Kingdom-inspired blueprint to release this gritty, windblown corner of West Africa from the weight of its physical and spiritual poverty.

Hidden Resource

“If you want to bring about change in Senegal, you empower its females,” claims April,* an Alliance marketplace ministries worker who serves there. “The undercurrents of this country are driven by its mothers, wives, sisters and daughters.

“Their leadership is not overt, but if you look at the decisions made about a family’s daily expenditures, the management of a community’s emergency funds or the coordinating of monthly contributions to financial savings, you“ll find a woman at the heart of those decisions. In order to maximize their influence in society, Senegalese females need access to education and job skills.”

Despite government reforms to improve their lot, “[o]nly 39 percent of Senegal’s women aged 15 years and over are literate . . . one of the main factors for intergenerational poverty,” stated a 2012 report from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).1 A lack of education also places Senegal’s daughters and mothers at great risk of being trafficked and exploited.2

A wide variety of causes, including sociocultural norms and traditions, as well as poverty, prevent the majority of women and girls in this westernmost African nation from receiving an education. For example, a popular West African proverb says: “Educating your daughter is like watering your neighbor’s garden.”3

In this region, girls become a part of their husband’s family when they marry. As a result, parents often do not reap the benefits of their daughters’ skills and income, whether they are educated or not.

Challenging Tradition

Yoonu Njub Fellowship is challenging this traditional mindset. Ministries include a girls’ vocational training center in the church’s urban location and, until recently, teaching practical life skills and chronological Bible stories to women in the nearby village of Xaar Yalla.

Françoise, who spearheaded the village outreach several years ago, is a grateful beneficiary of the fellowship’s care. As a result of the pastor’s wife speaking into her life, she turned to Christ in 2008.

After her conversion, Françoise says, “I decided I needed to learn things, so I enrolled in the church’s vocational center and got my degree. Before, I couldn’t speak to people; I was too timid. It is really something that the Lord has done in me. Now I head a national committee focused on reaching women for Christ.”

Model for Change

In the urban community where Yoonu Njub Fellowship is located, classes at the girls’ vocational training center focus on sewing, cooking and microenterprise skills. This year, the group obtained contracts from two local primary schools to make 1,000 student uniforms.

“This is very helpful training because we practice what we learn, and we now know how to earn money,” says Kinée, a teenager who graduated from the center in 2012. “I have a friend who is already married and can sell only small items in the market. She can’t make enough money.”

Kinée’s observation underscores an additional reason to invest in these young women: 15-year-old brides are still common in Senegal. A 2013 national study asserts: “Educated girls are less likely to marry early and more likely to get better jobs and have better health care for themselves and their families“all important factors contributing to a country’s development and the reduction of poverty.”4

Basic health care services and education also are a vital curriculum component. Michelle, an Alliance team member and nurse by vocation, has taught health classes at the girls’ vocational center. “I loved the opportunity to incorporate biblical values—premarital sexual abstinence, God’s amazing design of our bodies and the miracle of birth,” she recalls.

“It seemed to be the first time many of these girls were taught this information. The best part was empowering them to know more about their bodies and the stages of pregnancy and childbirth—knowledge and skills to care for their own children someday.”

Waiting on God

In Xaar Yalla—“waiting for God” in the local language—weekly classes took place in the courtyard of Kumba and Tama, friends of Françoise who also attend Yoonu Njub Fellowship. On the afternoon that the Alliance Video Magazine crew visited, Khadi, the youngest member of the group, sat near the open door of the couple’s stifling one-room mud hut, stitching a pale green piece of cloth. “Françoise and her group teach us different skills and crafts,” she said softly. “The work they do here is beautiful—useful.”

This is a poor village, Françoise explained. “Women live here who’ve never gone to school. They don’t have skills to be able to work and earn an income. We teach the women crafts—how to embroider, crochet, tie-dye. For example, Khadi will sell the piece she is embroidering to help her family.”

In this developing nation, where the average family earns less than USD$6 a day (much less in rural areas), acquiring these job skills is no small matter. It also prevents certain abuse.

“A Senegalese woman needs to be financially autonomous,” said Ndeye. A Christian lay worker and colleague of Alliance team members in Senegal, Ndeye advocates for incarcerated women in the country’s capital city, Dakar. “If she is totally dependent upon her husband, a woman is often mistreated, manipulated, neglected, even divorced.”

Valerie is an Alliance worker who regularly assisted with the Xaar Yalla outreach.

“Because its 700 or so residents have no electricity,” she says, “we taught the women to make an oven with sand and bury pots to bake bread. Our relationship building in the village also has opened doors to sponsor short-term teams leading medical clinics. We told the villagers we did this because of our love for Christ.”

Françoise is enthusiastic about the support she receives from Valerie, as well as Joanna, who serves with Pioneers and also attends the church. “It’s important that we work together,” she says. “We know that we aren’t alone. My passion is to see these women come to know the Lord; we are each able to take turns teaching them the Word of God.”

Return on Investment

As a result of their efforts, noticeable changes were taking place in the village before the program was put on hiatus. One woman accepted Christ. Although she was thrown out of her home, she remained strong in her faith and has returned to live with her family.

“We are seeing a growing receptivity to the good news,” Valerie reports. “Women attending the group now ask us to pray with them if they have concerns, rather than seeking out the local religious leader, who has great influence in the community. The most exciting thing is watching the women respond to God’s Word; that God cares for their everyday needs is a revelation to them!”

“We sense that the women who come really love us and care about us,” Khadi says with a smile.

As the ministry resumes in the coming months, Xaar Yalla may soon need to change its name.

*Name changed

1. UNESCO, “Global Partnership for Girls’ and Women’s Education—One Year On” (factsheet, 2012), http://www.unesco.org/eri/cp/factsheets_ed/SN_EDFactSheet.pdf.
2. “Girls’ and Women’s Education,” World Education, accessed August 10, 2014, http://www.worlded.org/WEIInternet/international/expertise/display.cfm?tid=1004&id=756.
3. Kay Marshall Strom and Michele Rickett, Forgotten Girls (Madison: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 44.
4. Alfreda Brewer, “Educating Senegalese Girls,” the Fletcher Forum, March 3, 2013, http://www.fletcherforum.org/2013/03/03/brewer/.

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