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Sweet Charity

By Julia Leis


Amidst the heat and dust of Kaolack, a little over 100 miles east of Dakar, something delicious is cooking, and it isn’t just cookies. Several young enterprising girls are baking as the scrumptious odor of social action wafts from this small pastry shop called Celebration Baked Goods.

Viola Vaughn, a native of Detroit, MI, founded the organization, which seeks to help young girls in Kaolack. The “10,000 Girls Educational Support Program” has assisted over 300 girls between the ages of 10 and 18 since 2001. 

When I arrived in Senegal in the Fall semester to study abroad, I didn’t know that dessert after a meal rarely takes place, if at all. A faithful lover of chocolate and with affairs on the side with homemade sugar cookies and muffins, I jumped at the chance to visit and work in Vaughn's organization, Women's Health Education and Prevention Strategies Alliance (WHEPSA).

An oasis amid Kaolack's bustling and vibrant covered market next door, Celebration Baked Goods is a trip back in time to a mom-and-pop bakery more likely found in small-town America than in Africa.

In 2001, Vaughn and her family joined others in the African Diaspora who have returned to Africa. She’d traveled extensively throughout Africa, and specifically Senegal, during her work as a consultant with the U.S. government. After her daughter died and she inherited her daughter’s five children, she was finding the cost of living in Detroit to be too high. So she decided to move to Kaolack.

Shortly after arriving in June of that year, a 10-year-old neighbor named Mame Gueda Agna knocked on Vaughn’s door, asking for help with her studies. With no support from her parents or society, Agna began taking lessons with three other girls. Within two weeks, four girls had grown into 20 and a basic reading, writing, and arithmetic summer school program developed.

Yet, once the summer was over, Vaughn realized she didn’t have the resources, the capacity, or any prior business experience to continue the program. But the young girls knew they had bitten into something sweet. Recalling a program they had seen on TV where American Girl Scouts sold cookies door-to-door to raise money, the girls decided to borrow the idea and swiftly began learning to cook and bake with the help of Vaughn.

With their leader by their side and a “Better Homes and Gardens Step-by-Step Cookbook,” they were soon on their way to selling cookies and juice door-to-door, which soon expanded into a plethora of orders for international breads, cakes, tarts, pies, and anything else Julia Child would have been able concoct in a cozy American TV studio kitchen. They quickly got into sewing handmade dolls, quilts, baby bags, and tablecloths to be exported to the United States. And five years after starting with nothing Vaughn and her girls, who affectionately call her “Mum,” now have ovens, utensils, and appliances donated by various foreign embassies, businesses, and NGOs. It all packs into the bright pink cramped kitchen behind the pastry store.

Vaughn contends, however, she is not teaching these girls to become domestics, nor is she here to change the education system in Senegal.

"They are decorating homes, not sewing,” she says. “It's nutrition education, not cooking. We don't look at them as kids, but as adults with responsibilities."

Vaughn recognizes that these girls not only need life-sustaining skills, but "they need someone to talk to, to encourage them.” Vaughn's program is tackling the dilemma when it comes to girls and education in Senegal—girls are 10 times more likely to fail or redouble their classes than they are to succeed.

The statistics can be staggering: Only one percent of girls who begin in primary school will eventually graduate from high school. And even though all children are required to attend school up to a certain age, the Kaolack Regional Development Plan from 2000 states that out of 162,707 school-age girls, only 19,547 were actually enrolled. Most students in the villages only attend approximately 16 hours of school each week, as compared to the 25 hours in Dakar or the 30 hours for American students.

What makes keeping these girls in school so difficult? For one, the community does not generally see the importance in encouraging girls to finish.

“It’s true that most girls are looking for a husband to take care of them,” says Dahsira Ka, the manager and head accountant of Celebration. “The goal [of the program] is to teach them to educate themselves and not to depend on or wait for a husband.”

Ka was working in a hair salon in 2001 when she heard what Vaughn was doing, and so she volunteered to help teach. Though she doesn’t even have a high school diploma, she has learned complicated accounting systems in the less than four years since she met Vaughn. She has also been able to continue her education, and to delay getting married. “I don’t want or need a husband,” she says. Ka, however, is an anomaly amongst her peers.

Young girls start school, with mothers often wanting them to eventually start earning money for the family. They also expect their daughters to help with the various household duties like births, children, and cleaning. Rarely, if ever, do girls who marry young continue with their studies, and often it’s their husbands who forbid it.

“It’s an error,” says Maina Gaye, who does public relations for the organization. “[Girls] think they’ll be more comfortable once they are married. We want to show the men these girls need to study.”

And this illustrates the necessity for educational support where Vaughn gives the girls a nurturing environment, resources, and the time they need to study. Agna, the girl who came to Vaughn in 2001, comes from a household of 38 people. She was at the top of her class after sticking with Vaughn's organization, but a year later she started to fall in rank. When Vaughn asked why she was struggling, Agna admitted she did not have a pen to take her exam and was too embarrassed to ask for one. The money being raised by the pastry store thus goes towards combating problems such as resources and self-esteem.

The program has witnessed steaming success in such a short period. The after-school program has grown from 20 to 222 eager young girls as of October 2005. This doesn’t include the participants in the entrepreneurship program, nor the 1,200 plus number of girls Vaughn and WHEPSA has recruited to enroll in public schools in Kaolack only this school year alone. The waiting list is already over 350, and the only obstacle barring the entry of more girls is the availability of resources and finances.

Inside Celebration Baked Goods the clock is ticking awaiting the day the program reaches its goal of including 10,000 girls by 2015. It seems an overly ambitious endeavor, but Vaughn's tenacity is unrelenting. As the girls continue to receive more education and training, Vaughn hopes the organization's entrepreneurial endeavors will increase.

There is no blind idealism in Kaolack: Vaughn and the girls know the odds that they face, yet they just keep singing and smiling as they sit around the table rolling balls of dough into delicious concoctions.

"Keep it simple,” Vaughn says. You use what skills you have, and you go with it,"

Julia Leis studied abroad at ACI Baobab Center Fall 2005 with the Georgetown University Program.

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