I thought wrong.
Folona wasn’t quite as remote as Menie – it was just a few kilometers off the main road from Bougouni to Bamako. It was also larger, with more than 1,000 residents, compared to just 600 in Menie. And, it already had a school, albeit an old, run-down and way-too-small one.
My welcome in Folona was even more overwhelming than in Menie. As I exited the truck, I was immediately engulfed by people. Drummers were in front of me, dancers behind. At some point, Alhouss (the buildOn staff member who arranged my trip) or Kadar (my translator) grabbed my camera and started taking pictures of me walking through the craziness in complete awe.
Dust flew everywhere but that didn’t stop anyone. As we approached a large circle of villagers gathered to welcome me, a man splashed water from a bucket all over the ground to try to minimize the dust, but it made little difference. After a brief pause in the dancing as Alhouss, Kadar and I greeted the village chief and elders, the drums started up again, one woman started singing and another woman started tossing a large bowl with strings of shells attached to the perimeter, creating a rattling sound that complemented the drum beats. And of course, the women danced. Sometimes there were two and sometimes there were closer to twenty. They danced solo or in circles, sometimes moving slowly and sometimes shaking their hips like they were in a New York club. Many carried their children on their backs, held in place by colorful scarves. Occasionally a brave male joined them, only to quietly drift away.
Eventually, the dancing stopped and there was a brief ceremony. The headmaster of the school spoke extensively about the need for the village to take care of and maintain the school and expressed the hope that eventually they would get another one. Another man from the village interrupted and spoke about his experience joining the buildOn staff to pick out the materials and prepare to actually build the school. I was once again invited to speak and this time, I was a bit more prepared, echoing the sentiments I shared in Menie, but hopefully with a little more eloquence. And then, as the sun started dipping below the horizon, we headed back to the compound where we would spend the night.
As in Menie, I had my own hut, this time with a thick mattress on the floor covered by a silky bedspread. As Alhouss, Kadar and some of the other men went to pray, I washed up and then enjoyed the sunset as it turned the sky all shades of pink and purple. Once they returned, we snacked on fresh papaya and bananas and then dug into the main course: rice and chicken. Dinner was followed by tea and even though it was only my third night in Mali, I had already come to love the Malian way of serving tea. The tea is strong, but sweet and is served only after it is poured back and forth multiple times between the teapot and two shot glass-sized glasses in long, drawn out pours.
After a good night’s sleep, we finally got to visit Folona’s new school! Sitting just across from the old school, the new building has three classrooms to accommodate more than 100 students in grades one through six. In each class, we were met with shy smiles, followed by laughs and giggles as the kids started to pose for pictures. While Alhouss had told me the kids in Menie were all exhausted from being up until the wee hours of the morning celebrating the night before, I couldn’t help but think how much more excited the kids in Folona seemed.
It was also inspiring listening to the village chief talk about how happy he was to see the new school built. He explained that he is too old now to get an education, but he is happy that he is alive to see his grandchildren go to school. He also poignantly stated that “Americans, Europeans, African people, we are all the same – when we are happy, we smile; when we are sad, we cry.”
With those words, it was time for us to move on. And all I could think as we drove away through the bush was that I would have to return someday – to Menie, Folona and to Mali in general. Perhaps even to help build another school in another village that sorely needs one.
To learn more about buildOn’s programs in Mali, visit the buildOn website. To learn more about Passports with Purpose or to donate to this year’s fundraiser (through December 17), visit the PwP website.
Interested in building another school in Mali? Email me at katieaune @ katieaune.com or comment below and let’s see if we can make it happen!