You are here: Mali Update, February 2016
You are here: Mali Update, February 2016

Dear Supporters of our Kakondji school construction project on Global Giving:

I wanted to provide an update on my February 2016 trip to Timbuktu about both the security situation in Timbuktu and Northern Mali, and most importantly our just-completed school in the village of Kakondji.

Once one of the world’s most literate places, and more recently an important travel destination for the intrepid traveler (it is hard to believe now that Bono was in Timbuktu only 4 years ago), today Timbuktu is a surreal place of ancient UNESCO World Heritage sites, pastoral scenes of camels and donkeys transporting agriculture, and more than 3,000 UN Peacekeepers. There are military checkpoints everywhere in a heavily militarized environment void of tourists and non-UN foreigners.

Timbuktu is really on the front lines of the world’s fight against global extremist violence. While we, in the west, experience the occasional terrorist incident, it is in places like Timbuktu that the true battle for tolerance is taking place almost every day. It brings the point home that this is not a war between Islam and the West. The vast majority of extremely peace-loving moderate Muslims in Timbuktu are victimized by the extremist violence—more than we can imagine.

The above fact makes the work of organizations like Caravan to Class more important than ever. It is the concrete actions of NGOs on the ground which help the local population maintain hope that the forces of tolerance can overcome the darkness that the extremist forces of groups like Al Qaida and ISIS bring.

For those of you interested in the security situation, please see below or else you can skip to the information on our Kakondji School.

Security Situation

Since I was last in Timbuktu in April 2015, the government has signed a peace agreement, although some of the rebels groups did not participate in the signing. The agreement did open up the way for many refugees to return to Timbuktu both for perceived economic opportunities and because in previous host countries, like Mauritania, the refugees are no longer welcomed. Thus, Timbuktu’s population has grown both due to the large increase in UN peacekeepers (more than 3,000 now from many different countries, Holland, Germany, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Nepal, even El Salvador + the French have their own separate military base) and returning refugees. This has created two particular problems of unintended consequences: 1) the inflows of cash particularly from UN peacekeepers has driven up prices of basic goods from 20-50% from prices observed last year which has not helped the local population; and, 2) some of the returning refugees have little allegiance to the government and country at best, and at worst may be tacitly, if not outright, supporting some of the rebels/jihadists. This is evidenced by the suicide truck bomb that blew up a military checkpoint just at the entrance to Timbuktu last Friday only a few hundred feet from Caravan to Class’ local NGOs partner, Nord et Developpment. This was the first actual suicide bomb experienced within the city limits since the conflict began in 2012.

Image of a UN peacekeeping vehicle on patrol in Timbuktu

UN peacekeeping forces patrolling Timbuktu

Being objective, it is not at all clear how the situation will sort itself out with none of the important actors paying a helpful role: some of the returning refugees' loyalties are unclear, the rebel groups are content to play the spoiler role for both political and economic reasons, the government continues to promise but does not deliver on practical help to aid the local population, the UN peacekeepers are a large contingent that is both driving up local prices and is seen as doing very little practically. While their visible presence does help the security situation they have no mandate to engage the enemy unless fired on. I met two British mine-sweepers who are working for the UN in another Northern Mali town, Kidal. They told me that their job is to clear IEDs but unlike in Iraq, they are doing no forensic work on the bombs they clear… ie. The UN is pursuing a “stabilization” policy rather than aggressively pursuing the perpetrators of violence. We will have to see if this strategy works, but I am skeptical.

Despite little practical development help for Timbuktu from the government, there is a political movement in the works which may be the true hope for resolving the challenges in Timbuktu and other parts of Northern Mali. I call it the carrot and stick approach. It is a negociation with all factions in the works called “Integration” which would incentivize both rebels and government sanctioned armed groups to turn in their arms and commit to peace. If they do so, they have the option to be integrated either into the government army or the political/development wing of the government, bringing economic and career opportunity. If they do not, the army will be mobilized to aggressively pursue the bad actors, something they are not doing enough of now. Lets hope that this takes fold. Even with the unclear loyalty of some of the returning refugees, the vast majority of Timbuktu citizens are peace-loving, and simply want to have hope for their future.

Image of the completed school in the village of Kakondji built by Caravan to Class

New Kakondji School near Timbuktu

Kakondji School

It is the concrete projects which aid the population in very basic things, like education, that sustain hope for a better future in Timbuktu. Thus, I thank you so much for your generosity in supporting the Kakondji school construction project. I was grateful to be on hand myself for the inauguration of the Kakondji school, and was handed the key to the school. In addition, the Head of the Village gave a blessing to the donors of Caravan to Class for realizing this project which began only about 4 months ago. I was told stories about how excited the village was about the school, something they had petitioned the government for more than fifteen years ago, that many of them worked day and night to see the school completed as soon as possible.

Image of Caravan to Class founder Barry Hoffner in a newly-built classroom with students in the village of Kakondji

Barry Hoffner with students at the Kakondji school inauguration

Image of the dedication plaque with students from the school in the village of Kakondji built by Caravan to Class

Plaque Thanking Donors

As I arrived by boat (traveling the Niger river, the third longest river in Africa, after the Congo and Nile), an auspicious sign came before up when a large Hippo popped out of the water just in front of the village. I was lead through the village to the new school, and awaiting me were roughly 200 children (many more than we had forecast) in their new school uniforms thanks to your support. There is little like the feeling of seeing a school come out from the sandy ground of the desert—particularly the Kakondji school—as it represents a clear sign of hope for the village with the children able to attend school for the first time in the village’s history. The village Chief told me “Mr. Barry, one cannot be President of Mali without an education. Now with our new school, thanks to you and your donors, maybe one of our children will be President of Mali one day.”

Moving Forward

Finally, we scouted out our next school project in the village of Koura. Koura is the largest village in which Caravan to Class has intervened. It already has a reasonable 3-classroom school. However, with more than 300 school-age children, the classrooms are over-flowing (with grades 1- 6 having to double up), and thus we have committed to building a new 3-classroom school in our next calendar budget. I will make sure to share this project with you towards the end of 2016 in hope that you may consider supporting it.

Sincerely,

Barry Hoffner
Founder and Executive Director, Caravan to Class

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