Strengthening families is my job Kumba Ndure joined SOS Children's Villages The Gambia in March 2005 and started the first family strengthening program in the country four months later. Always on the run to visit one family here, train one community child welfare committee there, help one care-giver set up his or her little business or make sure the children's school fees are paid in time to allow the children attend their classes, Kumba has managed to make sure that 340 children get a better life today and hopefully tomorrow, too. Can you briefly describe the family strengthening program you are co-ordinating? As of today we have about 129 families participating in the program, in three major locations. Some families are from Bajagarr and its surrounding community, about 60 kilometers from Bakoteh where the first SOS Children's Village was established in The Gambia and where my office is based; some others live in Brikama, about 30 kilometers from here, and the rest lives around Bakoteh. It makes it a bit complicated to manage, but now I'm quite well-organized. Participating in the family strengthening program (Photo: Claire Mathisse) An overwhelming majority of the children on the program were identified by the various communities. They are either orphaned or live in a child-headed household, but all live in extremely under pressured conditions. Depending on each child's and family's needs, we support children by covering their school fees and buying school materials and uniforms, we help with food parcels for a period of one year on average, to give the care-giver some time to concentrate on his or her new business or improve the one they were initially involved in. We also provide some families with mattresses when the children are sleeping on the floor. As malaria is very present in the country, we also make sure that all children and care-givers sleep under a mosquito net. Making sure children have enough to eat and sleep properly is essential for their concentration in school! At the same time, we, together with the care-giver, analyze ways of improving the care given to the children, which is mainly linked to getting sufficient income. Care-givers identify their areas of interest or tell me how we could improve their existing businesses, and the program does its best to support their initiatives. Regular counselling and monitoring is essential to make sure they do not misuse their profits! You have seen many 'child cases' - What are the main reasons of child vulnerability in the country? Abject poverty is one of the major reason of child vulnerability in The Gambia. It's creating a lot of 'social orphans' in our society, simply because parents cannot meet the needs of their children. This struggle to cater for the family expenditures also has a negative effect on the extended family network system, which used to be a safety net for these 'social orphans' in the sub-Saharan Africa context. As a result of all of this, children end up roaming the streets and gradually lose any incentive to come back home. According to what I have seen, another major reason of child vulnerability is the refusal of acknowledging paternity. In case of teenage pregnancies, most men reject the pregnancy as they fear the reaction of their parents, bringing shame to the family, and of society, as they are not married. New-born babies are often abandoned or killed when they were born in wedlock. Another problem is that even married women who give birth to a child with special needs frequently consider the child as a 'Devil Child'. In previous times such children used to be killed; now they are being abandoned. What are the personal skills required to work as a family strengthening program coordinator? You need to be accommodating, patient and able to deal with all the cases you come across. It's a delicate issue we are dealing with. You have to listen to all the stories as all the children have been facing different things and react differently. Why do you like your job? What motivates you? Seeing very young children play the roles and take the responsibilities of adults in the house, trying to collect money instead of attending school is painful. Very often, when you start working with a family, that's the case. I like my job very much simply because it's a rewarding profession: you 'enter' a family where children are vulnerable and have experienced the loss of one or both parents, you assist the family to get rid of some of their plight and give them back hope for a better future, and when you see that the family is working out its way with the support the program provided them with and that children are happy, attending in school and not starving, you are also happy! My motivation originates from the work of Mother Theresa who was out to help the under pressured and the sick, the neediest in society. When I was doing my training in rural development, I was watching a documentary about her on CNN. That's how I saw how she helped the most under pressured. Like Hermann Gmeiner, Mother Theresa was not the wealthiest person on earth, but she had the heart and the mind to help the neediest. I also wanted to help the powerless, the under pressured people and the voiceless in my country, seen everywhere but rarely considered in any village or community development plans. What are the main challenges faced by the family strengthening program in The Gambia? Illiteracy is one of the major problems faced by our program. Some people would say yes to what you explain to them, but at the end of the day they would take it differently. The approach of the family strengthening program is a developmental one. The support we give the families is designed together with the family members after thorough explanation of the program's aims and results in what we call a 'family development plan', setting family objectives, contributions from both sides and timeframes. Very often, illiterate people have a very narrow concept of time. Being able to read a calendar, and thus plan and forecast things such as saving money for the date school fees have to be paid is difficult when you have no notion of numbers and basic literacy. Working with these families demands more time and effort, and things need to be constantly explained and repeated... However, we do encourage all the illiterate care-givers to attend literacy classes when available in their community. Another problem I have been facing in implementing the program is that, as most of the people are under pressured, some would tend to give you false information to be enrolled in the program. And even though each family case is thoroughly studied, it's difficult to clearly see who is providing false information. I once visited a potential beneficiary family living in a three room basic house, and while we were having our little meeting in the sitting room, a room almost empty, to assess the children and family situation, the wind blew the curtain separating the room from another room and I discovered that all the belongings of the family had been moved and packed in the other room! How can we work in this case, when from the very beginning people are not being fair and trying to fool you? However, now I can say I know most of the 'tricks', and with time, trust has been established with all the families the program is working with. Having the families reach self-reliance is now just a matter of time!