Last week we began volunteering at La Pouponniere on Saturday afternoons. If you’ve read posts on my blog(s) last year, you’ll remember that La Pouponniere is an orphange that is run by Franciscan nuns for infants and children that are under the age of two (blog post1, blogpost2). It was begun in 1955. You can find different videos on YouTube of the orphanage, but currently they have a sign up forbidding photographs. Clink on the above links to last spring’s photos if you are interested.
We actually spent two Saturdays searching for the orphanage before finally locating it. The first trek was almost two hours of growing frustration by my children as we circled, and backtracked through neighborhood streets looking for where I thought I remembered the location. I had only been there once last March and my friend Lisa had been driving. I had tried to burn it into my brain, but Maggie will attest that my brain must have been leaking.
The first search was a little scary for me. I shouldn’t have been, and I didn’t let on to the kids that I felt a little nervous, but I was. To get there we had to drive from our home to the Corniche (the main road along the Atlantic. It runs between our neighborhood (Mermoz), the school, downtown, and almost every place I’ve gone to so far. Once on the Corniche (which is a divided, 2 lane on each side, ‘highway’. I say ‘highway’ because you definitely wouldn’t see some of the things we see on the highways back home), you follow it past SeaPlaza (the ‘mall’–subject of another post), Terrou-Bi (the hotel/casino), Magicland (an ‘amuesement’ park), under overpasses (often very smelly), past several statues, an area where fisherman and their pirouges depart and return from fishing, until you spot one specifc statue of a figure sitting on a metal structure, blowing a horn. The ways on and off the highway are short exits/entrances on the right with no additional road signs to tell you they are coming and without names. It is all paved though but I was not planning on getting out of the car until I saw the orphanage.
Once off the Corniche, we turn left onto an overpass and then take an immediate left onto the entrance ramp back onto the Corniche going the other way. After passing a gas station and other road markers we’ve come to recognize, you turn right on “Furniture Row” (what people call it because it’s a road of vendors selling furniture alongside the road) and head down until you see the road on the right that is marked with ‘Dakar’ and an arrow sign.
During our first searches, we went up and down every single road that ran parallel to the Cornice looking for the orphanage. I had a picture of the orphanage facade in my mind and could not find it. We saw neighborhood streets with people sitting outside talking, washing goats, vendors selling fruits and vegetables on every corner, murky, smelly liquid, flooded streets with vendor stands, stray dogs, wandering children, and more. What we didn’t see was La Pouponniere. I stuck with it much longer than I would have on my own because I knew the kids had been looking forward to volunteering and Maggie would give me ‘heck’ if I didn’t find it.
Finally I had to admit defeat and return home. Maggie took it as a personal insult.
The next Saturday I set out with a new determination and no trepidation. I was going to find that orphanage if I had to ask everyone I saw on the street in my terrible French. I had checked with two other friends at ISD and they were able to confirm that I had been in the right area when I’d been looking previously, but they were unable to describe exactly where it was. Once I was on Furniture Row, I stopped and asked the first taxi driver I saw, “Ou est La Pouponniere de bébé? (Where is the baby orphanage?)” Somewhere after his second droit (right) and gauche (left), I knew I was on the right track but not much beyond that. I took the droit that he had told me to take and stopped within the first block asking the same question to a group that was sitting with a roadside fruit and vegetable. This time when I asked “Ou est La Pouponniere de bébé?”, the two older women practically fell over laughing and slapping their knee. Gut-busting, falling over sideways, almost completely toothless laughing! Now I know my French is not that great, but really? Knee-slapping funny? Well, I steeled myself and asked again, complete with a baby-in-my-arm rocking motion. More laughter, but this time they pushed a young boy of about twelve over to the car window. I repeated the question, to which he said, “Haah?” and quickly backtracked to his group. When I didn’t drive away and sat there looking at them, a man of about my age pushed himself up and walked over. When I started to try to elaborate my question, thinking that would help get my point across, he cut me off with, “I speak English.”
“Do you know where the orphanage is?”
“Yes. Drive to the next corner and ask that group of people.”
Sigh. That wasn’t very helpful, especially as there was no group of people on the next corner. I drove another block and then backtracked around the block.
Going further down the right off Furniture Row, I pulled over and asked a young woman. She didn’t know.
Five blocks down and I asked a group of old men sitting in front of a tiny store. No luck getting them to understand me.
A couple more blocks, past an area where taxis seemed to park and I pulled over to ask one of the drivers. He told me just a ways down this road.
Finally I stopped and asked a man working on constructing (or demolishing?) a wall next to the road. He face lights up and he tells me “RIGHT HERE!”, pointing at the building behind him. At that same time, the kids start yelling that they see a sign that says Pouponniere. Thank goodness we had found it! No more berating by my middle-schooler for not trying hard enough to find it.
Why didn’t I recognize it? What had been the problem? I had been looking for a yellowish walled courtyard with flowering vines, a gate and guardian that I had remembered last time. Now, the wall was gone, some sort of construction was going on in its place, and it appears that another building had been added to the grounds. It was a smack your head “Doh!” Homer Simpson moment.
Breathing a sigh of relief, I pull the Civic up on the curb across from the orphanage and parked. Getting out, we made our way to the front door and are greeted by two young women in matching gowns made from a pretty white and blue fabric that had pictures of Jesus as part of the pattern. I recognized the fabric as one my housekeeper has for Easter.
Trying to explain to the girls in my broken French that we were there to volunteer and that I had been there last March also didn’t go very smoothly. Another couple of women I made laugh for some reason I didn’t understand. I hope I’m not swearing by accident. I tried elaborating by describing the family I had come with in the past and where I worked. It didn’t help, but did make them smile.
They had us sit and wait for the head nun to come and okay our volunteering. After about ten minutes of waiting another young woman who had been retrieved to check us over, told me she spoke bad English and what did we want? I told her I spoke bad French, her English was very good, and that we wanted to volunteer. She went to get someone else.
Finally the ancient, Asian nun who I had met last spring arrived and asked in her heavily accented English, “You want to play with the babies?”
“Yes, we want to volunteer. Chaque samedi. Each Saturday.”
She looks us over, and then has the young woman lead us through the courtyard to the stairs leading to the second floor. She takes us the room I remembered from last spring where we washed our hands with soap and were offered a cotton gown/apron to wear over our clothes. I wasn’t really wanting to wear another layer, as I had anticipated it was going to be very hot, but wasn’t sure how to ask if the gown was for protecting my clothes or for protecting the babies from my germs. It was easier to just put it on.
Down the hall we went to a large room that was gated off from the hallway. Along the way, we passed four bays of cribs, each one that held about 8 beds, shelves with clothes and blankets, and a changing table. Painted Pepto Bismol pink, there were cartoon paintings of Winnie the Pooh and his friend Rabbit, and baby Roo. We took our shoes off in the hallway and stepped over the knee-height painted, metal gate. The room was surrounded by large windows that went from waist-height to almost the ceiling. There were screens in all the windows and they were open wide to catch as much breeze as possible. There is no air conditioning. Despite that, I was the only person in the room sweating.
There was French children’s music playing on a CD player. Three mats were covered with clean sheets and babies old enough to sit up through age two, were around the room, with baby toys. Sitting, crawling, standing, more than twenty babies were in the room. Before we arrived, there had been four young women sitting on the floor playing with the babies, keeping the music going, clapping, singing, and generally entertaining and watching over the babies. Maggie, Simon and I sat down near a group of babies, and were immediately rewarded by many watching baby eyes, and at least one crawling eagerly towards each of us. We had brought two small rattles with us that were eagerly grabbed up by toddling babies.
Boys, girls, they were all in clean clothes, smelled like clean babies (better than sweaty old me!), and there was very little crying by any of them while we were there. If one cried, it was because of the normal bumps a young toddler would get in a room with other young toddlers-falling over while sitting, having a finger poked to eagerly from one of their peers in an eye or ear, etc. Overall it was much calmer and easier to deal with than any time I had ever spent in a church nursery over the years with a lot less children!