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A beating heart

· A psychologist tells of her 20 years work with women religious in Africa ·

I have worked as a psychologist for various NGOs – non-governmental organizations that implement projects of cooperation – for 20 years, from 1993 to 2013, and I have mainly followed social initiatives in support of vulnerable groups such as women, minors and families in difficulty. In the past seven years I have worked directly with various women religious.

I had already noted in my first jobs, in Cameroon and in Central Africa, that in the remotest villages at the end of the worst possible dirt tracks a small mission was always to be found. It would often have only two or three sisters, a clean courtyard planted with flowers, a coffee machine on the hob and good biscuits. In those days I was working with secular NGOs but our partners in the area were frequently congregations or the diocese, which could guarantee the continuation of the services until the project’s completion. They know the families, they are up to date with the latest new things and they often have a remarkable memory of history, given that many missions are 50 years old or more.

I went to work in Benin for an NGO created directly by the Salesian community in Cotonou. It consists of a dozen women from various places. Two or three sisters work in the NGO while the others manage the school and the parish. However, the same person has been in charge for 15 years: Sr Maria Antonietta Marchese. She was born in Turin, graduated in 1942, was sent to Cotonou at the splendid age of 58 specifically to help the little girl workers. To this end activities and projects were created which at the time of my departure were assisting more than 5,000 little girls every year; and the project has continued, ever renewed by her inexhaustible energy.

In Cotonou, Benin’s commercial centre, almost 60 per cent of the children work or actively contribute to the family economy; 13- or 14-year-old boys and girls maintain their younger siblings or a sick parent. Competition and the market dictate atrocious rules that do not even spare the youngest ones and little girls are taken into the mission from the age of six to save them from domestic or itinerant work. The young girls often suffer maltreatment, abuse and humiliations and acts of violence are heaped on to the harshness of work. The Association has created oases in the market to take in and help these small and teenage girls and to restore to them a life of studies, education and serenity.

This oasis is called La Maison de l’Esperance and has not only become a reference point for little girls and older ones but also for all the parents who send the girls to the city and are relieved to know that at least for part of the day they are attending school and training activities. In addition to the social, health-care and psychological services training courses are held at the Maison and the courses in cooking and pastry-making have been particularly successful. A much sought-after catering service has developed from them: from parties at the German Embassy to the reception for United Nations delegations the service of traditional Italian cuisine has attained an excellent level, and the catering service was presented with an award at the Nunciature during Benedict XVI’s visit in November 2011.

Sr Maria Antonietta Marchese

Before the Pope’s departure the catering girls obtained a photograph with him. This experience was most important for their training and helped them to reinforce their professional and personal identity. In the future several of them are to work in various restaurants and they will take with them their photo with the Pope to demonstrate what they can do.

Excellent results were achieved with the training in soap and cosmetics manufacture. Here too the girls took a basic six-month course to be employed subsequently in local workshops. Some of them then decided to become business women and are beginning to produce and sell products on their own. Virginie, for example, has chosen to start her own business after a bad experience as a salesgirl with a businessman who insulted and maltreated her daily. Besides production techniques, she must learn how to manage purchases and sales, how to save and how to purchase raw materials. The social assistants at the Maison helped her to create her own small business and in six months she has succeeded in becoming autonomous and is beginning to make a profit from her activity.

After their training, other girls return to the market to sell, but in this case they have attainedmaturity and awareness. The girls know they have rights and should problems arise they can call on the social assistants to share in their difficulties and seek solutions. The Maison was not founded for three or five years but to endure in time and to support the girls – today with the cooking and cosmetics production, perhaps in the future with computer science and languages.

Sponsors are of course indispensable and sometimes arrive unexpectedly, such as, for example, for the cosmetics training. Already in 2010 Luigi Barbieri, founder of the company Naturaequa, had started to buy soap from the Maison, thanks to his friendship with Elena Melani, the Italian woman in charge of the training. The quality of the product immediately convinced him but the manufacturing process was a bit rough and with time he began to offer suggestions to improve the processes and the use of the raw materials. Luigi and Elena thus conceived of various improvements, both in the product and in its packing, and this enabled the girls in training to upgrade to higher production standards and consequently to create new products of better and better quality. Projects such as this create and encourage the networks of support between north and south and make both business and solidarity possible, acquainting a wide public with these realities.

The same virtuous collaboration exists in the dress-making training that began in 2003, thanks to the generosity of a textiles manufacturer. This atelier offers training and work to numerous girls who can then continue to work at home or in other workshops. The support groups from Italy have contributed by sending patterns and suggestions and then by purchasing the production to resell it at the Christmas markets. In seven years I have seen the girls of the atelier develop and some of them become mothers. Moreover in the space of a few years the children were so numerous that a small business crêche was established. This crêche also helps train nursery school teachers through the programmes developed by several visiting teachers. Their professional itinerary has always been guided by a consultation process provided by the community, which with the passing years remains an important reference point for the girls, their families and all who come to knock at the door.

In far away Benin Sr Maria Antonietta, a courageous and inspired woman, continues to be the beating heart of an immense network of people who see in her every day the fulfilment of a Christian ideal of welcome and humanity.

Alessandra Ferri

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