By Kate Andrews, ChildFund Staff Writer
It’s a rare and special treat to meet a former sponsored child in person. Many ChildFund alumni live in their home countries, often a long way from the United States.
Momodou Bah, a 30-year-old man who grew up in our programs in The Gambia, showed up one day this summer at our headquarters in Richmond, Virginia. Word quickly spread, and we were all excited to meet him — especially when we learned that he had won a Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, a prestigious honor the White House bestows on a few hundred African men and women each year.
Momodou is The Gambia’s youngest elected ward councilor, a position similar to a county supervisor, which he’s held since age 22, soon after he aged out of ChildFund’s sponsorship. On the council, Momodou represents eight villages, including the one where he grew up as one of seven children in a poor household.
As a Mandela Washington Fellow chosen from a field of 50,000 applicants, Momodou is among 25 women and men between the ages of 25 and 35 who are taking immersive courses in political and civic leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. The six weeks of classes (as well as meetings with Virginia’s governor and other government officials) culminate in a three-day summit in August in Washington, D.C., with the rest of the fellows, who are spread across the country at different universities. They’ll get to meet President Obama, too.
“We learn how things really operate in the government, in the courts, in the police departments — and how to build better institutions,” Momodou explains.
We plan to check back in with him after he meets the president, but we wanted to share his remarkable story — and the fact that he has reconnected with his sponsor.
“It was my life’s dream to get an education,” he says. “My parents are subsistence farmers of groundnuts, rice and millet for family consumption.” Momodou has two elder sisters, one of whom lives and attends college in Washington, and four younger brothers. He also has two sons, who are living in his family’s home while he attends the fellowship classes here.
When Momodou was in second grade, he was sponsored by Debbie Gautreau, who lives in Massachusetts.
As his sponsorship began bringing him letters and photos, as well as support to help his family pay school fees, he says, “I thought first, the world is full of good people.” He attended a primary school built by Catholic missionaries in 1949 and was one of the youngest students there — and considered one of the smartest, he says with a laugh. Momodou’s educational background has helped him in his current position as a ward councilor, representing people who speak four different dialects: Fula, Mandinka, Jola and Wolof.
“I went to school with children from these communities,” he says, explaining how he came to understand and speak all four dialects.
ChildFund still impacts his life in many ways. Momodou served for three years as board chairman for a group of local partner organizations that work with ChildFund in his community, and both ChildFund International and ChildFund Deutschland (our Alliance partner in Germany) have contributed assistance. In Momodou’s ward, there is a water and sanitation project that has delivered clean water to the population of 600. His boys, ages 5 and 6, have attended our Early Childhood Development programs too.
“They’ve learned to say the alphabet and name animals and objects,” he says proudly.
Debbie, who spoke with Momodou over the phone, said that she is thrilled to reconnect with him after 12 years. When they last were in touch, he was entering an information technology program post-high school, with plans for a career in the field.
“I feel like he’s my third son,” Debbie says. “Some of my friends and family remember when I sponsored him. He was very ambitious. School was very important. He seemed like he was going places.”
She was 28 when she first sponsored Momodou, near his current age, and Debbie says she has saved all of his letters and his first picture. They hope to meet while he’s in the U.S. this summer.
“He made me cry,” Debbie says, recalling their first phone conversation. “He’s just so kind and appreciative of my help.”
And true to form, Momodou continues to have great ambitions for himself and his country.
“I wish to continue on my political career to the highest level possible,” he says, perhaps as a national legislator or even The Gambia’s president. “My sons are expecting their father to come back a different person.”
Stay tuned for a second story in August, after Momodou takes part in the Mandela Washington Fellows’ summit and meets President Obama — and hopefully, and possibly even better, his former sponsor, Debbie.