I could see the crowd gathered as our truck slowed to a stop along the dirt road. My hair and face and glasses were covered in a thin layer of dust from the drive through the bush to reach this village of just 600 people. I was not prepared at all for what I was about to experience.
I followed Alhouss, a staff member with buildOn, and Kadar, my translator, toward two lines of villagers waiting to greet me. A woman kneeled in front of me and presented me with an aluminum cup of cold water. I slowly took it from her hands, unsure of what I was supposed to do. Kadar whispered that I could sip it if I wanted but it was okay if I didn’t. He and Alhouss took sips instead. Then a man stepped forward and handed me a bowl of kola nuts and bag of candy. Soon, I was surrounded by several others snapping my picture on their camera phones as three costumed dancers performed in front of me.
I froze, unsure of what to do. Then I asked Kadar if it was okay if I took some pictures and pulled out my camera.
After a flurry of poses and photos, Kadar and Alhouss led me over to some chairs and invited me to take a seat. It was only then that I was able to stop and really soak in everything. More than 100 villagers sat and stood with me in a circle; behind us was the brand new school that our team at Passports with Purpose worked so hard in the fall of 2013 to raise money to build (the actual construction was facilitated by buildOn). One man in particular stood out to me: he was wearing a purple Jared Allen Minnesota Vikings jersey. Awesome.
Soon, an enthusiastic man in a black buildOn shirt silenced the crowd as he spoke into a mic. They actually had a loudspeaker system! No electricity or running water, but they had a loudspeaker! Over the next half an hour, I listened to the village chief, the chief of women, the mayor of the surrounding municipality and the headmaster of the school repeat a common theme: how thankful they were to finally have a school in Menie and how happy they were that their children would have access to education. Perhaps a future president of Mali could even hail from Menie! It brought tears to my eyes listening to their gratitude for something that we often take for granted back home.
Then, I was being called up to speak. I definitely wasn’t prepared for that! I carefully choked out a few words, trying to convey how happy I was that they were so happy and that I wished Mara, Meg and Michelle (the other board members of Passports with Purpose) were there to celebrate with them as well. I was surprised yet again when the village chief presented me with a large wooden sculpture that I later learned is a Chiwara – a ritual object representing an antelope used by the Bambara people in Mali. As cool as I thought it was, I was also secretly wondering how I would get it back to the United States with me!
Before it was all over I was also presented with a baby goat and a chicken – both of which I suspect soon became part of that evening’s meal.
As the sun started to set, we headed to the family compound of the headmaster, which is where I would spend the night. I was given my own mud hut with a straw bed that was slightly elevated off the floor and was directed to a private (yet outdoor) area where I could take a bucket shower, as well as the hole in the ground that was the toilet. Night fell and eventually dinner was served – a large bowl of beans and later a bowl full of goat meat (which I highly suspect was from the goat I was given earlier!). While Alhouss and Kadar dug in with their hands in typical Malian fashion, I was given a spoon. It all reminded me of the meal I enjoyed while visiting the mosque at Beket Ata in Kazakhstan during my career break trip.
By 9:00, Alhouss seemed to be close to falling sleep and I was still jet lagged and feeling pretty tired myself, so I retired to my mud hut to go to bed. Not an hour later, though, I awoke to the sound of drums and singing so loud that I thought it was right outside of my hut! But it wasn’t – it was the loudspeaker from earlier that day and it carried on for hours! Part of me wanted to get up and figure out where it was coming from, but everything around the compound was dark and I had no idea where to go. I was also exhausted and seriously wanted to sleep. I finally dozed off around 2:00 a.m. and it wasn’t until the next morning that I learned from Alhouss that the whole village had been up singing and dancing and celebrating the opening of the school until the sun came up!
The next morning, we enjoyed a breakfast of chicken and porridge before posing for photos with my host, his two wives and their children, and then going to visit the village elders to thank them for their hospitality and receive their blessing for our journey onward. Again, it made me smile to hear the elderly chief speak with so much excitement about the chance for the children of Menie to get an education.
Finally, we visited the school, where class was in session. Only one of three rooms was currently in use, with 40 children aged six to nine. The teacher was going through a French lesson, teaching the students the French words for various body parts. He walked around the classroom, pointing to his leg or his foot and asking the students to repeat the French word after him. Alhouss mentioned later that a lot of the students had also been up late the previous night and were quite tired!
Finally, we gathered the children outside for a group photo before it was time for us to move on.
This may have been my first visit to Menie, but I sincerely hope it won’t be my last. I hope to return in a few years to see all three classrooms packed and to hear of students going on to high school and beyond. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll be meeting a future president of Mali hailing from the small village of Menie.
To learn more about buildOn’s work in Mali and other developing countries, visit the buildOn website.