Mali – February 17, 2020

Greetings from Mali!

It is hard to believe that I am starting my second decade of annual trips to Mali. Every year as I take my first steps onto the streets of this big West African capital, Bamako, it is easy to first notice the chaos, dirt, and poverty. Your senses are bombarded by this as anyone who has been in a West Africa capital knows. This is also supported by the data from the UN Human Development Index, which shows that eight of the fifteen countries at the bottom of this index are from West Africa (including Mali at 5th from the bottom), and another four from neighboring Central Africa. However, on this trip, as on others, by my second day it was easy to see through the first layer and get a strong glimpse of the resilience, friendliness, industriousness and hope. The strongest thought that always pops into my head is, “If these people only had some of the basic things we have in the West.” I guess these days, in the U.S., such a statement might be considered a culturally inappropriate thing to say.

Mali even has its own French verb, cousinage, which the different ethnic groups use to talk about their familial relationships with other ethnic groups. I enjoy watching the enthusiasm with which the people engage with each other. I have yet to find this word used in other West African countries. The ethnicities themselves are noticeably different from one another, and each adds color to the fabric of society whether it's the majority Bombara, the cattle-herding Fulani, the Bozo fisherman, the nomadic Tuareg, and the beautiful and high-cultured Songhay (whose king Mansa Musa is thought to be the richest human being to have ever lived). In 2010, Mali was still known as one of Africa’s “bucket list" countries where it was hard to walk ten feet without someone greeting you. Sadly it has been a rough road for Mali since 2012, and to a great extent, the country is still suffering from the tragic events of that year.

What brought me to Timbuktu in the first place was not philanthropic work in education, but rather the many UNESCO World Heritage sights, fascinating cultures, soul-stirring music and of course the name recognition of Timbuktu itself which signifies the “middle of nowhere.” It is the work that Caravan to Class does here, with an amazing team of professionals I call my close friends and the children in the villages where we work, that making coming back something to really look forward to. I hope you do not mind this more reflective note than usual. The 10-year anniversary mark of traveling to Mali is a good time for such introspection. Outside of raising my sons with my dear wife, my decade of experience with Caravan to Class has been the highlight of my life.

image of grounded UN plane on the runway due to sand storms

Sahara Sandstorms, Oy Vey!

I experienced a bit of bad luck on this trip. I arrived at the airport in Bamako at 5:30 am on February 10th for my UN Humanitarian flight to Timbuktu. We took off at 8:00 am, but landed half-way about one hour later in the town of Mopti due to serious sandstorms in the Sahara which reduced visibility to below the minimum safety threshold. We waited and waited at Mopti, and finally at 3:30 pm, the pilot made the decision to return to Bamako, the capital. The next day, I again arrived at 5:30 am, again waited in the Bamako airport until they announced, at 1:30 pm, that the day’s flight was cancelled—as were all UN flights to Timbuktu for the remainder of the week. Therefore, on this trip, I was unable to visit our schools. As they say, “We cannot control what happens, only how we react.”

Caravan to Class team visits our 14th School construction project at Bokoi-Koiria

Despite not being on hand while the Caravan to Class team visited the village of Bokoi-Koiria for the school's inauguration, I was still able to follow events closely, both on the phone with my colleagues, and through WhatApp pictures and videos. As usual, the greeting was incredibly enthusiastic. The children wore their Caravan to Class-supplied uniforms, and women were in their best dress. One of the young women, whose daughter attends the new Bokoi-Koiria school, who learned to read and write in her local language (Sognhai) due to Caravan to Class’ Female Adult Literacy program, read a story that she wrote. The pictures of the school, outside and inside, the children at their desks, and the speech given by the Head of the Village all conjure images in my head, from previous years, of a very special day. The Head of the village made a strong point in saying, “We are incredibly grateful to the Caravan to Class Foundation and its supporters for this beautiful school which we will commit to maintain. We will also fulfill our commitment to ensuring that all the children of this village will be in school because we want them to succeed in life.” Below for you is a video and a few pictures of the Bokoi-Koiria school from the inauguration day.

image of students and villagers at the inauguration of Caravan To Class' Bokoi-Koiria school
image of students at there desks in Caravan To Class' new Bokoi-Koiria school image of sign in Bokoi-Koiria announcing Caravan To Class' new school
image of celebrating students at the inauguration of Caravan To Class' Bokoi-Koiria school

Caravan to Class team visits the site of our next School construction project, in the village of Dourgou

After the inauguration of the Bokoi-Koiria school, the Caravan to Class team visited the village of Dourgou where we are in the planning stages of our 15th school construction project. The village of Dourgou is situated in the “Cercle (district)” of Gourma Rarhous right along the Niger River, and is between the villages of Kacondji and Nanga where Caravan to Class built schools in 2015 and 2017. The population lives economically from agriculture, goat-herding, and fishing. Although the village is multi-ethnic, the majority of the population of over 1,200 inhabitants is Touareg. It is a large village with more than 400 children of school age. The village has attempted to educate its children, but its present facilities and support are lacking with the following challenges:

    image of the degraded school structure in the village of Dourgou
  • The present “school” is scattered around the village in mudbrick houses donated by the community for use during school hours. The houses are insufficient in both size and quality.
  • The children sit on mats on dirt floors, mostly without desks.
  • There are only two certified teachers for close to 300 hundred students.
  • A number of the students walk two kilometers to attend the school and are without any nutrition during the day.

In short, Dourgou makes a perfect school construction project for Caravan to Class: A large population of school-age children; a village in the area where we have built schools before, and have strong relationships with regional and village leaders; and a community that has already prioritized education but lacks support and suitable infrastructure. The school in Dourgou will likely be the largest that Caravan to Class has supported in terms of students; and we could find ourselves building an additional school there in the very near future.

Meeting with Bourse Jackie recipients

The highlight from my trip last year, 2019, and this year as well, is meeting with the “Bourse Jackie” recipients. “Bourse Jackie” is a scholarship program that Caravan to Class launched in the name and honor of my dear wife, Jackie Hoffner, to provide university scholarships to a very select group of female high school graduates from Timbuktu. Thus, this program is very personal to me, and I believe we designed an excellent program. The initial call for applicants (from all female seniors at high school in Timbuktu) in early 2018 yielded close to one hundred applications. From these applicants, we selected the best 12 candidates. We then administered an academic exam to the 12 women and gave scholarships to the highest five scores. So much in West Africa is done through connections (and corruption) that it was important for the program to have a transparent/objective process.

I was very much impressed with the women we selected for our initial group of “Bourse Jackie” recipients. This year, in 2020, we will choose our second cohort and are currently working on that. On Saturday, February 15, 2020, I met with four of the “Bourse Jackie” recipients for a long, three-hour lunch. We spoke both in French and in English. Whereas last year, we spoke only in French though I could see that they spoke some English and wanted to practice with me. This year, we could have spoken the entire time in English. This is thanks to Caravan to Class and our donors that sent them on a 3-month intensive English program to Accra, Ghana during the summer.

The girls were so incredibly grateful for the opportunity to earn the scholarship. They explained the challenges and hardships of living far away (1,000 kilometers) from their home of Timbuktu. Due to transport challenges, they have gone two years without seeing their families. They generally get up at around 6:00am and do not return home until close to 8:00pm due to the terrible traffic and harsh conditions of public transport in the capital, Bamako. Yet, they are incredibly enthusiastic about their studies. In fact, three of them go to 2 different universities. As they explained, while the education in the public university is vastly inferior to the private universities, it is important to finish with a degree from the public university (in which tuition is free). These enterprising women are getting a degree at the public university for career promotion, but also getting a degree at a private university where they are doing the real learning. One of the women is studying Social Anthropology, two are studying Logistics (which has good job possibilities), and the other has switched her major from Journalism to Marketing & Communication, as she explained to me… ”Unfortunately Journalists are not well-respected in my country and depend on the government for information. Marketing & Communication can lead to me starting my own company that does not depend on the government. The future of my country is for entrepreneurs, not for people attached to government.” The best thing is that she said this in English! These are a group of seriously smart, resilient, engaging and hard-working women who deserve to be supported in their quest for education.

A Malian friend, who works for an NGO in Bamako and spent most of her life in Canada/France, met with these women and said this; “It was a pleasure to have met those young, dynamic and engaged Malian women, it gives hope to the future of Mali. Courage, curiosity, dynamism, recognition and giving back to the community—this is what struck me by talking with them. They have a real thirst to learn and multiply experiences (e.g. English Immersion in Ghana) so that they give it back to their communities and contribute to its development.”

Observation on Mali, Feb 2020

The headline news on Mali (and a few of its neighboring West African countries) has not been great due the ethnic violence that rarely existed before 2012. The UN Peacekeeping mission in Mali, MINUISMA, is still among the largest UN missions in the world with 15,000 UN staff and soldiers. The country, including Timbuktu, which used to earn a significant amount of money from tourism due to the fascinating cultures, friendly people and number of UNESCO World Heritage sights, is now devoid of tourism. Despite this, I did observe a few positives on this trip while in Bamako, which were also confirmed by my colleagues in Timbuktu. More UN funding seems to be going into infrastructure than before. In the past, it used to be a complete nightmare both arriving and departing from the airport in Bamako. On this trip it was easy with a new terminal, no lines and easy processing at immigration, no waiting for luggage, and more professional staff. I have also seen much more and very professional security around Bamako in the hotels, airports, on the road and in restaurants and shops. This gives more assurance. In Timbuktu, there is a new road from the airport into and through the town. Making circulation easier for both arriving aid workers and the general population is one step towards getting people to see the UN work as benefiting them. Finally, the President has signaled that he is open to starting a dialogue with the Jihadists while at the same time strengthening the Army’s presence in towns where there was little presence in the past.

In Closing

Thank you for your interest in and support for Caravan to Class and our work. With your support, we are able to provide for education, at a number of different levels, for the deserving students of Timbuktu. We do so in an economic, efficient, model-driven and results-oriented manner, thanks to a strong team of professionals on the ground, and a 10-yr track record.

With gratitude,
Barry Hoffner - Founder, Caravan to Class

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Drone footage of the Kokonji school newly-built by Caravan to Class in Mali