At the age of nine, he has his future decided: Liedson wants to be President of São Tomé and Príncipe to “help the country.” For now, she is one of more than 500 São Toméan children sponsored in the education support program of the Portuguese organization Helpo.
The fourth-year student enters the day care centre at Monte Café, in the district of Mé-Zochi, and Miguel Yeep, Helpo’s coordinator in Sao Tome and Principe, asks him about his glasses.
“I took it because I can break them,” he said. Liedson complained that he could not see well, and after being diagnosed with myopia, the Portuguese nongovernmental organization (NGO) offered him his glasses.
“My mother took me to the hospital, they used the prescription money to buy glasses for me, my mother did not have any money and Miguel brought her glasses. I can see the picture right now” in the classroom, she described.
In the Monte Café daycare, an old two-story house, Helpo retrieved the toys in the yard, set up a vegetable garden and equipped the library, but also “help with the enrollment for the boys to study,” Professor Eugenia Seabra.
A school year costs 250 folds, little more than ten euros, but “there are parents who do not pay, others who pay only half.”
“Things have changed a lot, very much,” thanks to the support of the Portuguese organization, assured the educator.
Most of Helpo’s funding comes from the sponsorship program: at 21 euros per month, it is possible to support a child, from whom the ‘godparents’ receive letters twice a year, but the value reverts to the whole school community. From the fifth year of schooling, the ‘godfathers’ can support all the expenses of a student during a school year, with a single donation of 55 euros.
Helpo has been in the field in São Tomé and Príncipe since 2009, supporting children from daycare to higher education.
“We go to the communities, we know of the difficulties that parents have to keep children in schools. In Portugal, the organization seeks people who want to help, and the liaison with the ‘godparents’ is made,” told the coordinator. NGDO in the country, Miguel Yeep.
In some cases, the ‘godfathers’ end up travelling to São Tomé and Príncipe to meet the child they have supported and Helpo takes them “to visit the community”.
“The ‘godfather’ has the perception of who is helping and gets to know the person and where he lives,” he said.
In addition to sponsorship, Helpo uses funding from organizations such as Camões – Instituto de Cooperação e da Língua, or Unicef.
Monte Café is located on the edge of the only road that connects the capital, Sao Tome, to the south of the island. Further into the forest is St. Nicholas’ farm, a small set of dilapidated houses.
One of them, in wood, is the nursery, whose aged aspect contrasts with the blue sky wall just constructed. Here, Helpo surrounded the schoolyard and offered slides and wooden toys, and provided school supplies.
In the room, with about 20 children up to five years old, the attraction is a true ‘puppet’: one of the helpers has just fed her two-month-old baby and throws her into a crib. Immediately, several girls come up from the bed and give birth to the newborn.
“Be careful, do not hurt the baby,” an official says.
To the older children, Helpo offers a ‘kit’, with a backpack, notebooks and other school supplies, for entry into primary school.
But for the children of this locality, entrance to primary education will mean another reality: the only school is that of Monte Café, and so the children have to walk every day, on foot, several kilometres between the two places.
They go in small groups, down the mountain, and so any hitchhiker is welcome. It is with enthusiasm that children quickly occupy the seats of a car or climb into the open box of a minivan as they sing, excited.
In another locality, the da Saudade farm, the support of the Santa Casa da Misericórdia and the Portuguese OGND allowed the construction of a new school, an old dream of Professor Natália Silva, which came to fruition after “knocking on many doors”.
Still, in the old school, visitors are greeted with a song: “How good that you came, it was Jesus who called you, and you accepted, how good,” the children chant, accompanying the rhythm with clapping hands. There are about 45 children up to five years old here.
“Our greatest difficulty was to have the largest school,” he told, admitting that “it is difficult to find support” within the country, but “from Portugal” receive a lot of help, and sometimes even offer materials to other schools.
In Ribeira Afonso, Cantagalo district, a poor community, Carolina Reynolds, a nutritionist, supports children and mothers at the nutritional level, the other area of activity of the Portuguese organization in São Tomé.
“The boy must have a worm,” says the doctor to a mother, looking at one of the children, with a swollen belly. “And what are those nails? You have to cut them off,” he warns. “I know, doctor, I’ll handle it,” the woman replies.
When deficiencies are detected in the diet, the older children are fed with milk and beans, and for babies, formula milk is given.
“Many times [the problem] is not the food shortage, but the way food is given. We have many mothers with a very low-income level, and scarcity can be a reality,” she said. Tomé e Príncipe “is a country of fertile land, it is necessary to get these foods to children and families.”
Many children also suffer from intestinal parasites, which makes it difficult to properly absorb nutrients, so they have to be treated with medication.
In the most serious cases of “severe malnutrition”, children are even hospitalized.
Other problems in mothers are anaemia and high alcohol consumption – the most common drink is palm wine, extracted from palm trees, which is fermenting throughout the day, gaining alcoholic content.
“The goal is to promote healthy foods and habits, along with the most clinical team, and to try to solve these problems that result in malnutrition,” he said.
In the area of nutrition, Helpo’s sponsorship supports around 90 children and mothers.