A Glance at the World In the Marketplace of Cotonou (Salesian Sisters in the world)

To understand the heart of the city of Cotonou in Benin, one need only to go to the marketplace. It is a crossroads of voices, noises, gestures, glances. It is a confusion of colors, aromas and flavors.
Here, as in many African cities, the market is a meeting place where there is selling, buying, and also the weaving of relationships. It is made up of merchandise, but mostly of people. Like most markets, that of Dantokpa is an environment that is essentially feminine: it is women who deliver  products, set up the stalls, handle the negotiations. The marketplace is the point of contact between tradition and the modern. You can
find goods from all corners of the world, but it is believed to have been the ancestors to indicate the place where the market is located: it is a place of peace, where it is forbidden to enter armed. Today, however,
the market is also the scene of a tragic reality, the exploitation and trafficking of children. 14,000 children work in the Dantokpa market, as peddlers, or more often carrying goods, or picking up trash.
Ruphine’s Story It is precisely in the market that many girls are sold as domestic labor right .This is what Ruphine tells us in relating her story: "I was 6 years old when my father came looking for me in the village. I was very happy there, working in the fields with my grandmother. I never wanted to live in the city in Cotonou, I liked being in the country and working the fields like the other young people and children of the village. But one day, early in the morning, my father came to my grandmother, saying that he had come
to look for his daughter to take her to her aunt in Cotonou, where she could study. I have no aunts, only uncles. I said that I wanted to see my mom again before leaving. My heart was pounding, I had a premonition that I would never again see my family My father told me that I did not have a mother, and I told him that I remembered that she nursed me every morning.” In fact, there was a woman in the city who was only looking for a maid. Ruphine said: "When we arrived she gave us a nice welcome, however a few minutes later I saw that she gave some money to my father. He told me he was going to pay some debts and that he would return to pick me up. Ten minutes later, the woman told me to go change and to start the housework and I told her: "I did not come for this; I came to go to school."
She then said that she had bought me with the money she gave my father, and that I was now in her home and had to do everything she wanted. " Ruphine unfortunately is not the only one who has experienced this type of situation. The children are called Vidomegon which, in the local language means “a child taken
forsomeone”. In fact, according to traditional practice many families chose to entrust their children to a guardian to ensure that they will have better living conditions and access to education. Since the '80s, however, with the gradual impoverishment of families, this tradition has lost its essence of solidarity
and degenerated into the trafficking of girls, sold as free forced labor.
The Daughters of Mary Help of Christians in Cotonou thought that their presence in the marketplace could be the key to start to offer these children a new opportunity. Sr. Marie Antoinette Marchese tells us, "We
started in 2001, in a parking lot of the market, where many girls who are street venders spend time during the day. We have built a shack where we wrote the word "Vidomegon." The girls pass by, and then
we invite them to stop for a moment. We listen and find out what their situation is.
Sometimes they stop, they rest, there is a group that has a literacy session and in the afternoon they also have various activities, do it yourself projects, sewing, hygiene. "
Ruphine tells of her meeting with Sr.Marie Antoinette, of the chocolate and clothes received as a gift but had thrown away by the woman who left her with the very few clothes on her back. Gradually Sr. Marie
Antoinette was able to befriend this little girl who expressed a desire to attend school.
They offered her the possibility of staying at the foyer, a home for girls who are given the opportunity to study, but the woman did not want to let her go. There was a real negotiation. At the end Ruphine was
The first stop was the Foyer Laura Vicuña. In this large group home that the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians have created at Zogbo, a neighborhood of Cotonou. About 400 children between the ages of 6 - 17 years old, are hosted reclaimed from trafficking by the police , or approached in the market by the Sisters themselves, or by educators who work with them.
A home and a family Arrival at the group home marks the beginning of a journey for the girls. There they find the warmth that they had never expected. After the initial welcome, while waiting to be reintegrated in their families of origin, they may remain in the foyer for a time and take courses in literacy, go to school or learn a trade, such as seamstress or hairdresser, or even participate in gardening activities , cooking and preparation of soap, so that they may have an extra ability when they return to the village. The more motivated girls participate in the Foyer de l'Excellence project, which aims to accompany them in further studies.
Among these there is also Ruphine, who dreams of becoming a midwife. Even Elizabeth, another girl, who was sold as a servant to different families, then ran away and came to the Foyer . After training in tailoring, she worked in a professional workroom. "Today I am proud of myself - says Elizabeth - because I learned
something, I can work, and I love this job."
The project "Maison de l'Esperance" was begun to help the children who are in difficult situations . Here the girls who usually sleep in the streets may first of all rely on a shelter and decent sanitation before starting a day's work at the market. Those who so desire, can also participate in the activities of the pastry, bakery, and cosmetic workshops. Projects have been initiated for training in children's rights, health, hygiene and a micro-credit fund for adult women who work at the market . This enables them to send their children to
school and save them from the spiral of trafficking. The youngest, instead, spend the day with the leaders of the nursery schools set up in the market. The dream and the commitment of the FMA go in this direction : to return to the market its traditional value, so that it once again may be a place of encounter and not of unequal relationships, of worthy work and not of exploitation. It needs to be environment that allows children,and girls and to grow into women and become fully aware of their value. In the video, No More Vidomegon,
produced and directed by Don Bosco Missions in collaboration with the Social Communication Sector, in addition to the history of Ruphine, other stories are told of children who, thanks to their encounter with
the FMA. have been able to complete their education, learn a trade, get a job. A Cotonou, there are two important monuments, the door of no return that is reminiscent of the large number of Africans who were transported overseas and sold as slaves, and the door of the return symbolizing how the land of Africa is
welcomes returnees, and those who hope to be able to expect one day to be reunited with their roots. The video tells what these two symbols represent today and how they are important as a reminder everyone of the brutality and senselessness of slavery. 

Anna Rita Cristaino (From DMA March-April 2014)
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