It wasn’t long before Soureya found me on my first day in her village and although I have long since left that village, Soureya has never left me or I her.
I say Soureya found me because that is exactly what happened. She appeared at the back door to my lodgings as if she lived there, in fact I assumed she was one of the many children I had been quickly introduced to as belonging to my landlord and his 2 wives. In these situations, a camera is a great tool for bridging the need for language as I realised quickly that she didn’t speak French and my Fulfulde at that point was very limited. So , I took photos of her and showed them to her and we carried on ‘chatting’ until she ran off to play.
After that fleeting visit, she kept returning to my door, chasing after me in the village or appearing where I happened to be. I would always stop and talk to her in my improving but still basic Fulfulde and it was on one of these occasions when I was with my National Volunteer that I learnt her story.
Soureya was 4 years old, born at the time of a big flood in the village but survived. She was not the daughter of my landlord as I had first assumed but belonged to a woman who was a prostitute, who travelled from village to village leaving Soureya with her grandmother and sister. It seemed that everyone in the village knew who her father was and she also seemed to as she was often seen going to him. However, he did not give her his surname so she was known as a ‘bastard’ child, a term we fortunately stopped using years ago for children in the same situation.
There were many times when Soureya was seen running into other people’s houses and would come out with food they had shared with her as she often wasn’t looked after at home. She would often come and find me either in the market or in the school when I was doing visits and her mother started getting her ready for nursery school knowing that I would collect her on my way to school to make sure she went. She would take my hand and we would walk along with her happily shouting to others, drawing attention to the fact that she was with me.
Bit by bit we started to communicate more in a mixture of Fulfulde and French which kind of made sense but I soon learnt that words weren’t actually important. Soureya needed to see my smiles and share our laughter, hear the love and compassion in my voice and acknowledge the kindness that would always be present. There were turning points within our friendship as she grew in confidence and start to trust me more knowing that I would respond to her, would never criticise and would only call her ‘Soureya’ not the b word she was called by villagers.
One day whilst walking through the market, I heard my name above the sounds of the villagers’ chatter and as I turned round I saw Soureya standing in the middle of the market smiling at me. I smiled back and waited to see what she wanted but she didn’t move towards me so I carried on walking and again heard her shout my name. When I turned around the second time, she ran to me, stopped a metre in front of me and hugged herself. Her nursery teacher was nearby and commented how amazing it was that she had shouted and trusted me to turn around as generally her presence wasn’t welcomed at all by others who knew her or her mother.
We had other moments, a visit to the doctors when Soureya was clearly ill and acting completely different to the bright, cheeky and chatty child she normally was but I will write about that separately as there are many more questions it raises.
Through my interaction with Soureya, there was a message sent to the villagers without it having to be verbalised. I know for sure that it was discussed amongst other people who believed I should have been concentrating more on them or their children due to their status. A person’s status has never been important to me and someone who believes they should be treated in a particular way just because they are rich or have a title has never and will never appeal to me. I interacted with many children during my year as well as adults, however it was clear to all that Soureya had found me.
When I was due to leave, my local family came to see me in the town once I had completed my handover at the office and they commented on how they had tried to bring Soureya with them so that we could say a proper goodbye. Unfortunately, the mother had not taken her to the bus station on time so they had had to leave without her. I never knew whether to believe this or not but the fact that they had acknowledged how important she was to me and used her actual name, I accepted their kindness.
There is much more to Soureya’s story as she is now 10 years old, however that will be for her to share in the future. For now, I’m simply happy Soureya found me.