Plein en Afrique: Mali Notes from the Field #3

Bamako, Mali

A calm sets over me whenever leaving a city for the countryside. I can breath again when the bustle is left behind. In Quebec and Utah, my dual home existence, the most powerful medicine for my soul is that of listening to the wind in the trees and the birds chirping. It’s the same everywhere in the world. Africa is no different.

On Wednesday we left early for our trip into rural Mali. Road infrastructure is well and alive with more than decent pavement between Bamako and the district of Bouroungi, largely in part to Libya. Jeff, my companion on the transfer, mentioned the lack of animals or birds. I mentioned perhaps it’s because we’ve been in the city and in cars. The trip has been one non-stop series of visits, meetings, play days and meals. The only time there’s been for a gasp of air has been used to try to write it all down.

I always find it difficult to recount the human experiences when in the field with Right to Play. Words always seem inadequate when compared to the richness they hold. I feel I lose the grasp of the English language when trying to paint some kind of picture with words. But still, like the story of how to Move Mountains, I must try. So much to share. So many experiences that my head and my heart feel ready to explode.

It’s Saturday and the week has come and gone. The agenda has been met and I am left feeling full. Full of the memories of kindness. Kindness from all Malians we met along the way. Kindness from the entire Right to Play country staff in Bamako and Bougouni. Led by Boris in Bamako and Cheick in Bougouni, each and every ‘RTP-er’ has given us the best they have for a work week. The thing is, I know this is just who they are. As with every experience I’ve had with RTP, I’m left feeling so gifted from being in the presence of greatness for the week. Greatness in the form of those just mentioned. People that move mountains.

Our experience in rural Mali was what I would expect in rural Canada. People who live in the country have an openness, lack the walls that go up in a city when a stranger comes into their lives. All the people from the Bougouni region, from the Mayor who gives RTP the office space to work in, to the Chiefs of the villages, to the elders, the mothers, the children. The only way to describe this welcome feeling we enjoyed time and again is to think back to the feeling of stepping out of the vehicle and into Ouroun, the first of our village visits.

We saw them before we heard them. Our welcome wagon waited long before we arrived. A bumpy, sandy vein of cleared vegetation made for the road to the village. Many a time the SUV came to a halt to manouver through yet more eroded roadway. Finally, a group of adobe huts with thatch roofs came into sight. One grouping linked with another and another. These clusters and the manner of building made me think of the ancient Anasazi ruins Peter and I hiked to find last month in Utah. Those were sometimes over a thousand years old and here, though not perched high in a sandstone cliff, the setting was much like I imagined the Ancient people of the desert southwest living. Here and now was an existence I find hard to fathom exists when I think of the riches of Canada.

Corridor of kids

We came to a concrete structure and to another halt. A corridor of children clapping ‘Right to Play…Right to Play…’ over and over again mixed with laughter of some and giddy screeches of others. I wondered if my bright orange hair would freak them out. No, this was not the case.

A swarm of little hands and smiling faces enveloped me as I exited the vehicle. The kids were too small to understand who we were and why we were there, but the excitement was something else. To have visitors was something else, I think. Yes, indeed, we were in rural Mali. Each and every welcome was like this. Each visit made me realize how important it was to visit an array of RTP partnerships. The chiefs and elders of each such place told us ‘that you came to visit makes us take your programs seriously. It means that you care. You want to meet us and show respect, and see what these programs do here in our home.’


Kids and one big kid

To the kids here and even the youth, we are just ‘Tubabu’ or white people. Our sports mean nothing in this African nation. There is no ice here, no organized bike racing, and no kayaking for sport. And certainly no girls doing what I do at my level. At least for most of Malian society, this ideal does not exist. It is a poor country and sport has a very different place in society. It is an outlet for each level of child, youth or adult involved: it is a method in which tools of survival are given (protection against HIV/AIDS, malaria control and awareness, vaccinations, nutrition, inclusion, leadership and so much more) to the people that need them most. It is also a tool of empowerment in a positive way: leadership for the coaches, teachers, junior leaders and everyone trained in the RTP trained methodology. Leadership that is used to promote, encourage and allow for growth, all the while protecting the rights of the children. Practical tools to teach kids and instill discipline, concentration and motivation in them. It is something different to everyone; something different in every locale. RTP shifts and shapes to meet the needs of the community it enters, always maintaining its core philosophies of sport for development and the protection of children.

This trip has once again reinforced my belief in these powers and the potential of education through the tools of sport and play. I’ve seen it in action for five days and what an education it’s been for me.

Vivid memories of one village chief, blind in one eye, stepping into the massive circle that enveloped the open play space in his domain. In the process of warming up, he was invited to lead a clapping sequence to bring attention to the 200 or so kids. Instead, he threw off his shoes and proceeded to dance with the energy of a child. He had the moves and had us clapping along, everyone laughing and cheering. ‘Now that’s how you warm up!’ he said in French. Now that’s one awesome chief.

A health day was visited before our departure to the bustle of Bamako. Health day meaning vaccinations and education. Right to Play provides a motorcyle for the local regional doctor to travel easier from village to village. We watched as mothers did some games which, honestly, I thought how can adults play these games, they are for children….but there they were, a circle of mothers, laughing like kids and actually learning and then discussing the sings and symptoms of malnourishment.

All the while, kids were being vaccinated, a porridge (made of corn flour, cooked for 25 minutes in a massive cook pot over fire, then mixed with powdered milk, fresh lime juice and some sugar) was prepared to show the mothers how to fortify the typical preparation of porridge (corn or millet flour and nothing else but water). The previous month they were taught a porridge made of millet flour, ground peanuts, milk powder and some sugar.

They have all these ingredients but don’t know the concept of mixing them up to give variety to really young kids and nourishment, too. Mali has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world. It’s hard to believe they don’t know these things but this is the case. Mali is a poor country and a contributor to the economic state is ignorance. Not ignorance by choice but by situation. I saw clearly that RTP is helping educate in very basic ways out of this cycle.

Time was spent with students of the Youth Initiative that I am funding. Listening to the young adults talk about what they hope to get out of the program and trying to help them understand the power of leadership skills sticks with me in more ways than one. That many of them were not able to write or read made me understand the literacy component added. That the soccer league was added made sense when many of them asked about organized sport and their desire to have the time to play football.

Students of the Mali Youth Initiative

One young man shared with us that he had never written a letter (a single letter of the alphabet), let alone a word before the initiative he was chosen for. He said this was special in his life but what would he do with this when the program was over? I knew in listening to the students that they won’t really grasp the skills they will have until they have them. Some of them will take this power of leadership and bring it back time and again into their communities with initiatives to better their immediate environment and others will not. If one of these students ‘gets it’ at the end, it will be a huge success. There’s no doubt in my mind there will be more than one.

Youth Initiative members and their volunteer teacher

I can go on and on about our time in the country but must return now to Bamako. Back to the bustle and the diesel fumes. Goats filled every open space in every corner of the city in preparation for the ‘Fete de Mouton’ on the 6th November. I understand it to be the most important day of the year here. The ‘day of the sheep’ (or goat…we still cannot figure out if they mean goats or sheep because what they call sheep here definitely look like goats to me!) is the day when each family sacrifices a sheep to give thanks to God. Or Allah, as 90% of the population here in Mali is Muslim.

We asked how it can be the celebration day for the sheep when they get the raw end of the deal, and everyone eats the sacrifice. Not a great day for the goat/sheep in Mali, I’d say. It’s like the turkey in North America. Not a very thankful day for that bird. Nonetheless, each are feasts for them or us. Imagine turkeys crowding each city space in preparation for Thanksgiving. We are so removed in our world that we just go to the freezer section in the grocery store and pick out the fattest bird, the only concern is if it will defrost in time for cooking in the oven. Not the fire, the oven. But this is a whole other set of comparisons. Let’s stick to Right to Play for now.

One last day with the RTP programs saw an early start and a press conference with national media, meetings and a discussion with youths on leadership, meetings and a fantastic meeting of the minds with the members of the youth parliament of Mali…hearing their hopes and dreams for their country and then encouraging them to dream big and act bigger. How to put those dreams into actions and change their country…to finally the end of five very packed days…a play day at a youth detention center that blew my mind. I thought it would be difficult and the young men we engaged with in RTP programs would be tough, but there we were all holding hands, playing handball, clapping and singing. These youth that have gone the wrong way are indeed capable of shifting to the better way. RTP is in their each week to lighten their load and give them something to smile about. Nothing like the power of sport to break down barriers.

Last night was a celebration with all the Bamako RTP crew with food, music and dance. Dance! Ever step onto a dance floor in Africa? With live music and the singer chanting your name? Thankfully I am a better athlete than dancer and I don’t represent Canada on a regular basis in the latter. Adam, on the other hand, killed it on the dance floor. The truly remarkable dancers of the professional band as well as the RTP staff were impressed with our Adam. He held his own and kept up to the frantic progression of the beats being played. The pro dancers made the moves harder and more complex, and somehow Adam kept going, even adding his own moves at times as a challenge to the pros. Adam kept Canada in the game on the dance floor. What a scene.

Thank-you’s were said and soon enough it was time to disperse. We were all exhausted after five hectic days. Not just us, perhaps more so the RTP crew who organized, managed, planned and then executed successful visit after visit. They provided an array of windows into the RTP Mali world. We all leave both impressed and inspired by the views.

Personally, this being my 5th visit to the field with RTP, I am impacted by the deep and passionate commitment to RTP in each place. Each country staff leader has given him or herself to the advocacy of every single child’s Right to Play. They speak with conviction and passion on every possibility and each action plan. They truly believe they can change the lives of their people and are acting on these beliefs, making them realities. I saw this last year in Rwanda with Massamba, and once again witnessed it here in Mali with Boris.

I am left with myriad memories and stories to tell. That I can only share a few of them here is both frustrating and satisfying. The former because I want to tell of each hand I shook, each smile I shared, each dream I heard…the latter because my heart is full and I know I will have ample opportunities in Canada and around the world to share each and every encounter which fills my heart, my mind, my spirit.

I leave Africa once again full. ‘Plein’.

Check out Adam Van Koeverden’s blogs they are fantastic he has a much better ability to remember and report details than me!!!

Au revoir, Afrique.

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