An American Lawyer Finds Inspiration in a Senegalese Social Worker

Most Rev. George Thomas and Constance Proctor, members of the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) board of directors, visited CRS Senegal last week. They visited SIDA Service on Dec. 1, World AIDS Day. SIDA Service is a CRS partner that works with HIV-positive Senegalese (SIDA is the French acronym for AIDS). Lane Hartill, the CRS regional information officer for West Africa, filed this dispatch:

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Bishop George Thomas and Connie Proctor talk with Paul Sagna, the executive secretary of SIDA Service. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

In a spotless Dakar apartment, decorated with photos of beaming children and plastic flowers, a Senegalese social worker won the heart of an American lawyer.

These two women come from different worlds: one graduated cum laude from Vassar College; the other has never set foot in such lofty institutions.

The lawyer spends her days representing influential clients in the Pacific Northwest. She lectures budding law students with the crisp elocution and precision required of her profession. She sits on boards with some of America’s most accomplished women and men.

The social worker spends her days scuffing through Dakar’s streets, working her way through forgotten neighborhoods that smell of sewage and warm sand. She dodges bleating sheep and dusty kids and hikes up her skirt to step over sludgy canals. She ducks into dank apartments and drinks tea with people who look forward to her visit all day.

Mostly, she listens. She listens to people who tell her their secret, something they can’t tell anyone else. They keep it bottled up for days. When she shows up, they unleash the emotion that’s been smoldering inside them.

They tell her what it’s like to live with HIV. They ask her how they are going to survive. But in that soft voice of hers, she tells them she knows what it’s like. She has it too. It’s OK, she says, they are going to make it.

The lawyer is Constance Proctor, a member of CRS’ board of directors. The social worker is “Chantal.” When they met a few days ago, it didn’t matter that they spoke different languages. Or that Connie didn’t know the depth of the stigma from HIV in Senegal. They instantly connected. Chantal radiated kindness; Connie felt it and immediately realized she’d discovered one of Senegal’s hidden treasures.

Chantal works for SIDA-Service, a Catholic organization that strives to combat the spread of HIV and counsel those affected by the disease. Its volunteers crisscross the country, giving talks at schools and in poor neighborhoods, encouraging people to get voluntarily tested for HIV. Their work, supported by CRS, has helped keep Senegal’s HIV prevalence rate to around 1 percent.

Connie gravitated to Chantal. When Connie heard the story of Chantal and “Ann,” she knew she’d found a gem.

“[Ann] was remarkable in the sense that she repeatedly told us over and over: I want you to listen to this. I want you to know the truth about how wonderful SIDA had been to me,” she says. “It almost made me cry.”

Ann has three children. When she fell sick with HIV, Chantal stepped in. After work each day, a day spent breaking the news to Senegalese that they have HIV — and then consoling them after they dissolve into an emotional mess — Chantal would go do Ann’s job for her: she would buy goods wholesale and resell them to retailers. Chantal took over for Ann. And not just for a few days. She did her job for seven months.

The money Chantal earned while working for Ann was always handed over to her. Chantal never wanted a penny.

Connie could hardly believe it.

“I was thinking how devoted these people are to their mission. It really embodies what Christ wants us to do, and that’s to live out the Gospel,” she says. “[Chantal] was giving this woman hope for her life and a sense that she mattered.”

When Connie met with Ann and Chantal, emotions could have bubbled over. But Ann held it together. She was dignified. Like any proud mother, she had to show off her kids. She quietly opened the door to her room to reveal two bleary-eyed boys napping on their mom’s double bed. Her daughter wore Capri pants and sported létheu, the tight braids that are favored by girls in Senegal.

While Connie was listening to Ann’s words being translated from French to English, if you watched closely, you could catch Ann exchanging smiles with her daughter. Chantal sat quietly beside her the whole time.

Chantal’s selflessness is a trait that is becoming increasingly hard to find in the U.S. these days. It’s certainly there, but it’s buried beneath hype and flash. It’s breaded with spin and deep fried in advertising. Not here. Not with Chantal.

Connie found it — maybe in its most pure form — 6,000 miles from home. An American lawyer, blown away by an African social worker who has taken kindness to another level.

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2 Responses to “An American Lawyer Finds Inspiration in a Senegalese Social Worker”

  1. Godlove Ntaw Says:

    This is a remarkable story. It is no surprise that Chantal and Constance connected so easily. Constance, a CRS Board Member understands what the work of Catholic Relief Services(CRS)is all about and Chantal is a living example. SIDA Service was founded over 15 years ago and received its first funding from CRS at a time when AIDS was not really an issue in Senegal. Many were sceptical about the need for SIDA Service. This story in as much as it talks of an instant connection between two remarkable women, it also a celebration of CRS’ foresight and dedication to its mission.

  2. Roy D. Mercer Says:

    Mr. Hartill,

    What a well done story. I started noticing your stories on the web and appreciate your voice that you are giving to the people in your interviews. I look forward to reading more. Keep up the great work and stay safe.

    Cordially,

    Roy D. Mercer
    Sanute, KS

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