In December 2010 I made my first trip to West Africa accompanied by my husband, photographer Ralph Gibson. We were joining our friends Annie Ohayon and Claude Grunitzky, who were working with the 2010 edition of The Festival of the Black Arts, taking place in Dakar that month. Our mutual friend West African singer, Batonga Founder and Unicef Ambassador, Angelique Kidjo would be performing at the festival wearing costumes I designed for her, so all signs pointed towards going to Dakar.
After more than three years working long distance with ASAO and Empire des Enfants, I was full of anticipation to see Empire’s facilities, meet the children and staff and get to know Senegal. It turned out to be one of the most exciting and rewarding trips of my lifetime.
After a very short flight from JFK, a little over five hours, Annie, Ralph and I arrived in Dakar before sunrise; it was all of our first times in Dakar. The city and the festival was amazing, we saw music and dance from all over Africa as well as global Black culture. While it was all new, I felt completely at home in Dakar and the connections I had made working there, even though up till now were long distance, allowed me to feel a part of the culture immediately.
I met Amy (Sow Awa) who coordinates operations for ASAO in Dakar. We had been communicating by phone and email for the past few years and it was great to meet this lovely young woman in person. Ralph, Annie and I joined Amy on our second day in Dakar and visited Empire des Enfants. Seeing for the first time the façade of the building in reality, an image I had been looking at and using graphically on our hang tags and website, was a wonderful surprise. When its large blue gates were opened and I was greeted warmly by the guard, I looked up to one of the buildings and saw my name painted on its white walls in blue paint, I knew then that what I had felt arriving in Dakar was true, that I did have some roots in this culture.
We sat and spoke with Empire’s director MadameAnta Mbow, a beautiful, elegant and motherly woman. Watching her nonstop interaction with the children, her constant attention and contact with them, I could see that this woman’s love and the dedication of the staff and volunteers, was literally “caring” these children back to normalcy after the traumas they suffered on the streets.
It was a feeling I was to have again later that day when we traveled with Amy about a half hour by car to a neighborhood called Medina Gounass, located in the poor outskirts of Dakar.
Recently I had started working with ASAO on purchasing bracelets made by Maison Rose, a home sheltering adolescents, young single mothers and women who have been subject to physical and psychological violence.
Amidst the dust and dirty streets of Medina Gounass, Amy, Ralph and I arrived at an oasis, the beautiful pink house that houses Maison Rose. Danielle Hueges and the staff, women and children who reside there greeted us. We toured the house and saw the lovely private rooms for the women residents and their children. The stories of the women and children we met were extremely tough but once again I was encouraged by the quality of care they were receiving and the commitment and love shown by Danielle and her staff.
Made With Love's Maison Rose Stretch Bracelets are made by the residents and the women of the surrounding community, providing them with a source of income. I had an idea to generate more work for them by developing a bracelet that could be sold to raise funds for Angelique Kidjo’s Batonga Foundation. I had brought with me a Swarovski crystal butterfly (the butterfly is Batonga’s symbol) and a diagram my friend Judith Medwin, beader extraordinaire, had made for attaching the butterfly to our recycled rubber bracelets. I sat down with the staff and the woman who leads the atelier, explained the idea and the Batonga Bracelets were born. Our first shipment arrived in New York only a few weeks after this meeting.
The rest of the trip was filled with sights and sounds of Dakar – some of the highlights were Angelique’s outdoor concert in Dakar’s Place de Obelisk and shopping for African print fabrics with Angelique in Dakar’s three big open air markets, I was in fabric heaven!
Coming back home I was determined to keep selling the products that support Empire des Enfants and Maison Rose and to launch the new Batonga Bracelet to support Angelique’s foundation. With this goal as our priority we have re-designed and re-launched our website to provide more product and more information on the NGOs they support. You can read more about Maison Rose and Empire des Enfants in our new blogs, written and translated from French by our intern Melissa Beight and coming soon we will add a blog from Batonga founder Angelique Kidjo.
Thank you for supporting Made With Love products and please spread to word to your friends.
Mary Jane Marcasiano