The flight from Casablanca to Bamako was routine. I was able to do a little reading. However, since we left close to midnight, drowsiness eventually rendered my attempts to continue reading futile, and I slept the latter part of the journey. The flight was longer than I had anticipated; a fact that gave me an indication of just how deeply into the African continent we would descend. Upon finally arriving at the Bamako Airport, we were greeted by staff members from the Mali Islamic Relief office and taken to a comfortable hotel near the American Embassy to pass the couple of hours remaining that night. The only noteworthy part of the trip was traversing a bridge over the Niger River, which even at night, during the height of the dry season, is clearly a great and expansive mass of water.
Afer Fajr and a light breakfast, we immediately set out to tour some of the sites where Islamic Relief was doing work in the south of Mali. Our first stop was the village of Diena. Reaching it required a journey of at least one and a half hours, the latter half on a dusty dirt road that passed through scattered villages occupying rich farmland, dotted with lush mango trees, and exhibiting the parched evidence of a land beginning to feel the effects of a long gone rainy season.
Nothing in my imagination could have prepared me for the reception we received. The entire village had turned out to greet us, men, women, and children, troops of dancers, drummers, and the hunters of the village sporting their assortment of mostly ancient rifles and single barrel shotguns, which they periodically fired as part of a somewhat broken and intermittent twenty-one gun salute hailing our arrival into the village.
This overwhelming show of appreciation was occasioned by the inauguration of a maternity clinic that had been built by Islamic Relief in conjunction with the Unity Center of Canton, Michigan. The clinic was a clean, presentable facility that includes an office, a delivery room, a recovery room, a small maternity ward, and an adjacent sanitary restroom facility. Both of those facilities are about twenty meters from a well that was also provided by Islamic Relief. In addition to the reception, which included the villagers accompanying us to a covered seating area, there were several speeches lauding the work of Islamic Relief in the area. There were addresses delivered by the major, the village chief, and one of the local Islamic Relief officials. I was also urged to say a few words and took the opportunity express a desire on all of our parts (members of our delegation from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom) to see that the work of Islamic Relief in the area is not only sustained but expanded.
The maternity center was opened just in the time to greet the birth of a young boy at 4:00am that morning. The infant, being the first child born in the new center was fittingly given the name Adam. I was asked to make a du’a for the baby and prayed that Allah bless him with a long and productive life as a servant of God, the Muslims and humanity at large.
Our second visit was to the village of Zelabougou, where Islamic Relief has recently built a primary school and a sanitary restroom facility. We were there to attend the inauguration of the school. The reception in this village was livelier than the one we had received earlier in the day at Diena. The streets were lined for about two hundred meters with the people of the village. Some of the dancers wore masks and costumes, which served to accentuate their riveting performance. One of the masked dancers flipped his way to me and handed me an official letter of reception from the leaders of the village. He would later give Imam Talib Abdul Rashid, a well-known Muslim leader from Harlem, New York, and the Vice Amir of MANA, The Muslim Alliance in North America, a personal, close-up demonstration of his dancing and flipping prowess, by flipping from a squatting position inside of a circle which he drew immediately in front of the Imam.
The hunters, who were more numerous than those at the Diena, fired their guns at random intervals, insuring that had the vibrant crowd wanted to be inattentive they would not have been allowed to be so. We were again led to a covered seating area where we were addressed by not only local leaders, elders and officials, but also by members of the national government. I was again asked to say a few words, and stressed the importance of education and its role in ensuring the continued relevance of Islamic teachings. The entire affair was filmed by the state television network of Mali.
On our way back to the hotel, we stopped at the field office of Islamic Relief in the village of Ouelessebougou. There we enjoyed a delicious meal of chicken and French-fries before heading back to the hotel. As we rode back to the hotel, I was impressed by the dignity of the people we had met. They were poor, no doubt. However, they were honorable and dignified. They were not asking for handouts, just a helping hand. We would see further evidence of this spirit in the coming days. It is inconceivable that in a world where white-collar thieves such as Bernard Madoff can pocket tens of billions of ill-gotten dollars, we cannot find the funds to meaningfully address the needs of the world’s poorest people. However, this is no time to complain; it is time to work and we have to all work harder to ensure a more equitable world.