Early the next morning, we awakened for the morning prayer in the courtyard of the IR center. After praying, I ascended to the rooftop to take in the surroundings. Looking around I was treated to a spectacular view. As I mentioned previously, the mighty Niger River was a few hundred yards north of our building. The desert landscape was highlighted by the orange-hued sand which flowed up to the horizon where it met the steadily brightening morning sky. The neatly arranged adobe houses combined with the breathtaking surroundings bestowed upon the place an almost surreal beauty. I thought to myself, “If scenes this beautiful exist in this world, how beautiful will Paradise be?” After a hurried breakfast of fresh bread, honey, and the remnants of a goat that had been cooked the previous day, we left to visit the regional health center in Rharous.
The health center here, unlike the on we had visited the previous day, was well-staffed, bustling, filled with patients. The patients were suffering from a variety of maladies as we would subsequently learn, most commonly malaria. The chief doctor was a serious gentleman who was trained in Moscow. He had formerly worked in Timbuktu and had just recently been reassigned to this medical center. He took us for a tour of the facility. Most of the patients were children. In fact, the child patients had taken over the women’s wards in addition to the rooms designated for their treatment. Most of the rooms were also crowded with family members, some of whom were enjoying a late breakfast on the floor of the room their children were being treated in.
Most of the patients we saw were suffering from malaria, a disease that is particularly devastating to children and pregnant women. One young teenage girl was particularly affected. She was receiving serum through an IV tube and lay debilitated on the bed, unable to move. There were other patients, also suffering from malaria, who were much younger than her. The government of Mali has initiated a program to help protect mothers and children from the disease. However, they lack the resources to adequately cover the entire population. When we later visited the pharmacy of the hospital, the doctor told us that they had run completely out of malaria medicine. One of the reasons we had undertaken this trip, in addition to creating he promotional material needed to help raise the money to save the projects Islamic Relief had undertaken in Mali, was to initiate an anti-malaria campaign in some of the hardest hit areas of the country. This effort on the part of Islamic Relief is part of a wider campaign being undertaken by many major NGOs towards meeting one of the Millennial Development Goals, ridding the world of malaria by 2015.
All was not gloomy in the hospital. After touring the rooms, the almost bare laboratory, and the sparely stocked pharmacy, we met in the lobby of the facility which had filled with the beaming faces of healthy children, whose laughter complimented the chatter of their mothers and few male family members to create a joyous atmosphere. They had gathered to participate in a program initiated by Islamic Relief. This incentive-based program rewarded all of the mothers who had followed the 9-shot vaccination program of the clinic, and had kept their child’s shot record to prove it, with a new set of clothes for the children. This day was designated for the distribution of those clothes. A few of us were chosen to hand out some of the clothes. It was a very joyous occasion. However, it was not free of drama, as one of the attendees was trying to convince the doctor, unsuccessfully, that she had been diligent in following the vaccination program, but had left her shot card at home.
Afterwards we met with the doctor and he outlined form us some of the healthcare challenges faced by the center. In addition to the lack of ample supplies and medicine, the great distances between the villages of this desert region made communication and transportation exceedingly difficult. Even if ample medicine was present getting it to the people of the district was difficult. One of the villages in the district was 200 kilometers from Rharous. He reminded us that one of our cars had broken down traversing the unpaved roads of the region, and supply cars and ambulances, even if they were available would be exposed to the strains that had so taxed our vehicle. Getting people out of the villages to receive emergency treatment was likewise an extremely arduous task.
After departing from the hospital we went to visit what I call WDSR, Desert Radio. This radio station, whose signal could be picked up in a surrounding radius of over 100 kilometers, was the primary means of information and education for the people in the region. It had been built with funds provided by Islamic Relief and was a vital lifeline. The programming was almost exclusively informational and educational. I delivered a live Arabic address, Imam Talib Abdul Rashid said a few words over the air, and the people of the region were treated to a few excerpts of some Native Deen songs, courtesy of Naeem Muhammad who presented the staff with a few copies of the groups latest CD, I Am Not Afraid To Stand Alone.” The lead DJ at the station was a charismatic figure named Muhammad. He had learned a little English from an American aid worker who had stayed in the area for a month. I told him that if the gentleman had stayed a year he would be fluent in English, a veritable Shakespeare. He kept us smiling with his “Funkadelic” sunglasses, his “bopping” stride that would allow him to easily blend in on the streets of Harlem or Baltimore, and his hilarious imitation of an American rap singer, hand gestures and all.
After visiting the radio station we set out for Serere where we would visit a school and a very impressive sorghum farm. The school, the first in this particular area was a simple structure constructed of a few tree branches and thatched walls and a thatched roof. Inside was a small detached black board, and about forty dust covered disheveled students. Who despite their obvious poverty were very eager to learn. The major of the settlement told us that they people of the area realized the importance of education and had started this humble school until they had the resources to build a sounder more presentable structure. As we sat there, I reflected on the massive, well-endowed schools of many areas of the United States where students were literally running away from schools that were equipped with running water, toilet facilities, gyms, cafeterias, libraries, etc. I am writing these words from New Mexico. A couple of days ago I heard a news story that was mentioning efforts to combat the state’s dropout rate of 46%. A staggering 46% of all eligible students in New Mexico do not graduate. As sad and disconcerting as that news is, New Mexico’s dropout rate is the second highest in the country. There is another state with an even higher rate. Here, along the banks of the Niger River, students were spending most of the day sitting on a dirt floor, in a building with no real walls or roof desperately thirsting for the keys to knowledge, understanding the power it bequeaths to its possessors. May Allah bless us to be more thankful for the resources and opportunities He has blessed us with; for as many are learning during the current economic downturn, the blessings we enjoy can be taken away in an instant.
The sorghum farm was by far the greatest project Islamic Relief has undertaken here in Mali. As we drove up a band of green on both sides of the road almost covered the horizon. As we approach I though to myself that this must be the work of some major western government. I would learn that Islamic Relief, by providing a large pump and major irrigation ditch, had facilitated an irrigation scheme that had helped the local people to literally make the desert bloom. It had also instilled the farmers working the land with a sense of pride, dignity and self-respect, which was visible in everything they did, the way they walked, talked, and worked. As we inspected the project, the workers would walk up to the paved irrigation ditch, perform ablutions and pray. My wife would later tell me that one of the women, who had their own agricultural project going, which included a booming dried tomato business, had told her that this project had not only helped to alleviate poverty in the area, it had also united the various tribes and made them proud to be Muslim. What an incredible return for a small investment!
After the visit to the farm, and a nice lunch with the workers, we continued up the road for a brief while to the crossing on the banks of the Niger where we would cross the river for the final leg of the journey that would take us to Timbuktu. In the late afternoon sun, like countless travelers who preceded us to this spot, under the watchful gaze of a towering tree that dominated the horizon, we prayed the Asr Salat. As we prayed the rejuvenating breeze, blowing from across the river, told stories that only the ears standing at that spot could understand. We listened intently as it spoke of the human stories of triumph and tragedy, promise and pain, loss and gain that had unfolded on these banks deep in the heart of Africa.
The ferries that were available could only accommodate two cars at a time. I leaped aboard the first one with Usama, a young Algerian who had migrated to Britain at the age of twelve with his family, fleeing the orgy of violence that had transformed the promise of progressive Islamic governance in his native land into a dark night of senseless killing that would see upwards to 200,000 people perish. When we attained to the distant shore he discovered that his glasses were missing. I advised him to recite Sura Duha, which mentions variations of the word wajada (to find) several times, along with the Fatiha. He recited these chapters from the Qur’an, and set off up river with a lone driver, the boat had returned further down river from the original point of departure, to seek his glasses. After about twenty minutes he returned with the spectacles nestled on his beaming face. He had an incredible story to tell. When they returned to the spot we had prayed in, one of the children, noticing them looking for something, informed the driver that after the group departed a man from the adjacent village had picked up some glasses and left for the village. When they reached the village, they found themselves in the midst of a joyous wedding celebration. One of the celebrants, sporting Usama’s prescription glasses, saw their eyes fall upon him, stood up walked towards them and surrendered the glasses. Apparently, he had no malicious intent when he took the glasses. He probably thought he would never see the strangers again and therefore decided to augment his outfit. Luckily for him, Usama returned, for the strong prescription would have likely ruined his eyes.
Having crossed the river, we were now on the bumpy road to Timbuktu. As the desert sun set, we entered upon a stretch of paved road the rewards a vehicle that has survived the demanding trek across the desert with a smooth entry into the city that was a gift of Islam to the people of these harsh desert environs.