February 14, 2019
Whenever the question pops into my head about how long I might continue to move Caravan to Class forward, a day like today answers the question very easily. It is no exaggeration to say that my favorite day of the year is the day I spend touring the villages where Caravan to Class has built schools. Today, on Valentine’s Day, I did just that. Specifically, I visited the village of Nanga where Caravan to Class just finished building our 13th school, and also the village of Bokoi-Koiria where Caravan to Class plans to rehabilitate a school in 2019.
My gratitude for your support for our work is equally matched by the gratitude of the villages that receive our help in their quest for education. On this trip, I realized a different dimension of appreciation for our support. As we passed by the village of Nanga on our way first to Bokoi-Koiria, on the main artery of the Niger River which is Africa’s third longest river, I saw the Nanga school standing in full view—a view that many other boats plying the river could equally see. Later that afternoon when we arrived in Nanga, the head of the village in his speech said, “Now along with being able to provide our children with education, every boat that passes by on their way to Timbuktu, will know of the village of Nanga because they will see our school.” When I think about how little it costs to provide these deserving people—not just with education, but also hope—it redoubles my motivation to move Caravan to Class forward. We could not do this without your support, so thank you again.
Climate Change and Timbuktu
With regard to Climate Change, the environs around Timbuktu experienced two extremes of weather the past couple of years. The year 2017-2018, one year ago, was the Sahara's worst drought year on record in this latest devastating drought-cycle. However this past year (2018-2019), Timbuktu experienced a volume of rain that most people there had not seen in their lifetime. In my ten years of traveling to Timbuktu, I saw for the first time many areas of the Sahel with standing water—despite the fact that the rainy season ended any months prior. Needless to say, even though the rain did cause some problems (we did have to repair some of our schools), it was very apparent that economic conditions were improved, particularly in the agricultural sector. The country of Mali has had areas threatened by famine only very recently.
UN Peace-keeping Mission (MINUSMA)
Mali is still home to one of the world’s largest UN Peace-keeping forces, MINUSMA (Mission Integree des Nations Unies pour la Stabilization au Mali), with a very large contingent in Timbuktu that has been in place since 2014. I decided to stay, this year, at the MINUSMA base—not because security has deteriorated in Timbuktu, but to take less personal risk. The MINUSMA compound is like its own city with roughly 10 country sectors. It is good to see that they are starting to take their mandate of peace and stabilization seriously, with a number of new programs, for example, to help professionally train youth for careers in the trades. Much of the difficult security/military work, targeting the Jihaddists that seek to do violence in Timbuktu, is being done by the French and Swedes, each with their own separate military bases in Timbuktu. It is likely that both MINUSMA and the French/Swedes will be around for quite a long time.
The Work of Caravan to Class - our Theory of Change
I spent the day with my team in the two villages, traveling a few hours south-west along the Niger River by large canoe-like boat (called a pinasse). With a 4:00 pm curfew back at the UN base, we unfortunately did not get to visit all the villages where Caravan to Class has built schools. I noticed immediately the increased vitality of commerce along the Niger from the river’s fullness as a result of the rains. I was also very pleased to see a number of the physical school buildings, built by Caravan to Class, as we passed by those villages on the river: Samdiar, Kakondji, Bantam, and Koiria. Caravan to Class has established a "critical mass" of schools in this area (the Cercle of Dire) that is a purposeful part of our strategy. This reinforces our Theory of Change: “Our goal is to build as many schools as we can in carefully-selected villages, to create a 'tipping point' in the minds and actions of villages and authorities, leading to universal and mandatory education for all the children of Timbuktu.”
The Work of Caravan to Class - visits to Bokoi-Koiria and Nanga
By late morning we arrived in the village of Bokoi-Koiria. As usual, the entire village was on-hand to give us a soul-raising welcome as we disembarked the boat. We went directly to their current school, built in 2005, but in need of significant repair. The reception we got, particularly from the children, was on par with the most enthusiastic I have received in my 10 years of traveling to these villages. It is literally impossible to leave without holding or shaking the hand of every single child! These visits always reinforce our decision to invest in these villages. For one of our major projects for 2019, we will rehabilitate the Bokoi-Koiria school.
Afterward, we said goodbye and returned to the river to travel to the village of Nanga where we just recently finished our 13th school construction project. Nanga was an interesting and different choice for our 2018-19 school construction project. The actual village itself is small, but it is in an area where there are many fishing communities (Bozo) close by, in addition to the nomadic cattle-herders (Peul). Thus, the school will draw children from beyond the actual village. Initially, when we were in the planning stages of the school, after a number of meetings, we made the decision that this school would give many children access to school who would otherwise not have the opportunity. And we are betting that the numbers will prove this to be a good decision.
Normally, we put a plaque by the school mostly to thank you, our donors, for supporting the project. With Nanga, the Head of the Village asked us to also put a plaque at the entrance to the village right on the along the bank of the river. As mentioned, he wanted everyone, who travels the river, to know that his village has prioritized the education of its children. The Nanga school is beautiful, and I was privileged to be given the key to ceremoniously open the school which is outfitted with new desks. chairs, and chalkboards. The children also have new school uniforms. Indeed, what a special day it was to see this project come to fruition thanks to your support!
Finally as I end this letter, Mali—and particularly Timbuktu—have a ways to go with peace & reconciliation and security. However, these challenges do not impact our work in any way. On the contrary, our work is more needed and appreciated than ever, and has clearly brought not just education, but also hope to a very deserving population—so much so that we are in the planning stages of investing in education in one of the further desert communities, in the region of Taoudeni where we have not built schools since 2011. It is important for Caravan to Class to be seen as an equal-opportunity provider of access to education, and not just focusing on a few selected ethnic communities. We are already starting to plan for this school for 2019-2020. That will require some new logistics, and I have already been directly in touch with the Governor of the region to ensure his full support.
Thank you again for your continued support of our important work.