My friend Olivier works for an organisation that finds and returns trafficked and exploited children to their families. Olivier is used to talking about it, but even though he is used to it, his flawless English isn’t that fluent when he tries to describe this work.
Olivier is Swiss. He likes mountains and running and therefore running in mountains. Sometimes he runs a long way. Days in fact. At the end of August he will run 166 kilometres, through three countries, France, Italy and Switzerland, climbing then descending 9,500 metres and he will (in fact, he has to) do this in less than 46 hours. He is doing this to raise money.
When he is not running or in his office in Geneva, Olivier goes to West Africa where the land is flat and, in just about every way we could imagine, is the opposite of Switzerland. Mostly, he is at his desk in Geneva, but West Africa is where the work happens.
Olivier runs the international programme for the Swiss Foundation of the International Social Service (SSI).
When I ask him about his work he is not sure where to begin. He cannot find words to describe the environment, the conditions in which these people live, he can only call it “crazy”. In the very poorest countries, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Niger, the poverty beggars belief. This year too, there have been terrible droughts which means the rain now coming is washing everything away. Not just farmland and livestock – houses, entire villages. He calls it “crazy”.
“Half the population of Niger are malnourished,” he says, “Half! It is really, really crazy. No one talks about it.”
Many families in West Africa entrust their children to people who say they can provide an education, employment and a secure future. It sounds like the best future they could imagine for their children. The children will leave home to grow up in an environment that is safer and healthier than their families can provide.
But these children are not schooled or looked after, they are taken away from their countries and trafficked. They are put on the streets in big cities as organised beggars or they are sold into domestic service and much worse. Many do not ever return. Some leave as young as 2 or 3 years old.
The SSI supports street workers and local social services who find these children and return them to their countries and their homes. The SSI takes responsibility not only for repatriating them but working with them for two years after they are returned home in order to ensure that they are safe and that they stay. As Olivier says, working in Africa, you can’t tackle just one task – you have to work on many issues to combat one. The communities need food, they need tools and education, solar phones, regular contact from local workers. Community leaders need support and resources. They need hope for the future.
Olivier explains this and then he stops. This is the litany we always hear about Africa, I think he is thinking, and he has made this speech many times in his job – and haven’t we all heard it so much we can’t hear it anymore? Then he says: “It’s also – you know – a region full of potential. Human and natural resources. You know – the children of Africa are the future (this is so obvious and frustrating to him he laughs) so we need to focus on them. They are half the population of the continent! We can’t let them down. We don’t want Africa to stay where it is now. Left over. Isolated.”
So that is why Olivier is running. He says that the scenery and the sensation of running is so wonderful he will truly enjoy the first few kilometres. He means the first sixty or so. He talks about trees and Alpine peaks and mountain goats and other animals whose English names escape him. I know he will see two sunsets. He will probably arrive at the finish just after the second sunrise. The race starts in Chamonix on the afternoon of Friday 27th August and finishes there on Sunday morning.
“Will you finish?” I ask.
“Yes!” he says and then he laughs a lot, as though it is a very naive question. “Impossible is not French!”
Then he says, “It helps to think of the number of people who trusted you.”
“Yes,” he says, “the people who, you know, trusted you. It helps to think of all of them.”
Please visit Olivier’s site: www.run4children.ch