The journey back to Bamako from Timbuktu was via the Bambara Maude, which would make it several hours shorter than the journey preceding our arrival. The trip to Gossi had taken us north of Timbuktu, so that leg of the trip had already been eliminated as we made our way south to Bamako. The trip back was very quiet. Imam Talib had heroically struggled with the rigors of the journey despite being challenged by his diabetes. Our eating scheduled had been irregular throughout the journey. The breakfasts and dinners were fairly regular. However, lunches and snacks were intermittent. This fact, combined with the late nights and early mornings combined to lead to the Imam sleeping most of the way back. The other members of the team riding in the car with me were rendered silent for other reasons. Perhaps they were reflecting on the momentousness of the visit to Timbuktu. As for me, the uneasiness that persisted in my stomach discouraged much conversation. Hence, the mood was perfect for contemplation.
As we traversed the sandy road back through the inhospitable desert, then the mountainous regions and finally the more populous and densely wooded areas of the southern part of the country, my mind was alive with reflections. The beauty of the land was already calling me back for future visits. The dignity and grace of the people was etched into my consciousness, we had not encountered a single beggar. Even the destitute children we had met throughout our journey would try to sell us something, salt, jewelry, tapioca powder, as opposed to begging from us. None of the adults we had met had asked for a handout, just a helping hand to overcome some challenges that they were being divinely tested them with. I recalled a recent survey that had found the people in Mali the most optimistic people on earth. People with faith will always be people of optimism. However, I was aware that the optmism the people we had met entertained, and others we had yet to meet, was not foolish or baseless optimism. It was genuine, fostered by the mercy of God that had spared them the genocidal catastrophes that had afflicted so many in other parts of Africa. It was a realistic, cultivated by the ability of so many people to eke out an existence from oftentimes miserly terrain. It was a deep optimism nurtured by a belief that as surely as the rains eventually come to give life to the parched earth, a better day lies ahead.
I asked myself, “What will we do to justify that hope?” “Will we work to share the bounties we have been given so copiously, or will we squander them without working to ensure that part of their benefit accrues to others?” “Will our hearts be moved by the scenes of the struggling masses of humanity, or will we turn off their plight like it is a troubling television program that has intruded too deeply into that isolated space surrounding our oftentimes empty lives?” As I was entertaining such thoughts, we pulled up at a fairly large Qur’an school in the middle of the desert. It was located in a walled compound. One of the principals of the school was fluent in Arabic, so we had a brief conversation. It was a joy to find someone in this particular region who was conversant in Arabic. I reflected on how Arabic was once the lingua franca of all educated people in this region. Now that unifying language was French. The extensive effects of French influence throughout the region were telling. The pervasiveness of that influence would not be so disturbing were it not so pernicious. In addition to the military incursions that had claimed hundreds of thousands of lives throughout North and West Africa, millions if we include the Algerian War of Independence, the French had disrupted entrenched cultural patterns, and siphoned off billions of dollars in economic resources.
Eventually, we found ourselves back on a paved road. After a few hours we were back at the Mopti Hotel in Sevare. We had stayed there a few nights earlier. During the daytime, it appeared a different place. As we awaited the arrival of the other cars in our caravan, we learned that another vehicle had broken down and would have to be left behind for needed repairs. The driver was in the process of renting a substitute car. This developing situation would not only delay our trip, it led me to reflect once again on the difficulties and expenses needed to get medicine and other vital supplies to people living in the remote and scattered villages located in the desert expanses of the northern parts of the country.
We took advantage of the opportunity to pray our Dhuhr and Asr prayers behind the hotel in a mosque used by the workers. This little mosque was a patch of earth demarcated by a boundary of stones, which separated it from the adjoining earth. Such simplicity served as a stark reminder of the bare essentials that are sometimes hidden from us by the layers of junk and stuff that we have been deluded into believing are essential for our existence. As a few of us crammed into that no-frills mosque, it was too small to accommodate us all, the serenity that enveloped us was no less riveting than what I had experienced in Blue Mosque of Turkey, the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, or the Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu. Allah’s remembrance is rooted in the heart, and sometimes simple things can enliven our hearts in the profoundest of ways.
We eventually got back on the road. However, our trip delayed by several hours, we decided to eat at a roadside restaurant. It was actually an “Italian” restaurant. The pasta was wonderful, served African-style. There were several Europeans eating in the restaurant. They stared curiously as our eclectic group found a space near the entrance of the restaurant to offer our Magrib and Isha prayers, in combination. It is interesting how some people are amazed by overt signs of Islam in an overwhelmingly Muslim country.
We arrived in Bamako well after midnight. Mercifully, some of the events we had scheduled for the morning were cancelled allowing us to sleep a couple of extra hours after Fajr. The hotel we were in has a beautiful courtyard highlighted by a massive banana tree. That tree was at least two stories tall. We had a light breakfast before hitting the road again. Our first stop was the Islamic Relief office located less than a mile from the hotel. When we arrived, we received terrible news that would be the low point of our trip. The Islamic Relief Office had been robbed during our absence. Several of the key officers had traveled with us. Apparently, the thieves were under the impression that our delegation had brought an infusion of cash for the local operations. Realizing the facility was understaffed; they had tied up one of the guards and then headed straight for the finance office. The thieves managed to abscond with some petty cash and a couple of computers. Unfortunately, such lowlife elements are to be found in every society. May Allah spare us their wickedness.
Our sadness upon hearing the news of the robbery was compounded by the news that we had missed the Mawlid, the celebration of the Prophet’s birth, peace upon him. The night prior to our arrival the mosques of Bamako had been alive with speeches and songs relating the virtue of our beloved Prophet, peace upon him, and the incumbency of us following him and adhering to his sunnah. We had also missed the Mawlid in Timbuktu, where the entire city shuts down in festive commemoration. I had promised to myself that my next visit to Mali would be during the time of the Mawlid.
Hence, it was with heavy hearts and dampened spirits we departed for our next destination, the village of Simidji where we inspected a couple of large diameter wells that Islamic Relief had dug. The large wells were a source of potable water for the village. However, some of the villagers mentioned that a deepwater well was needed, for during the rainy season the water in the large diameter well would become very chalky and undrinkable. Our visit to this village was brief because our late start had placed us off schedule. Since we had to fly out later that night we could not afford to try to make up the time we had missed in any one location. Our next stop was the village of Dienfing. Our visit there would be the highlight of this particular day.
Islamic Relief has several projects in this village, about an hour outside of Bamako. We would visit a primary school, a well, widows and orphans, a maternity center, and a shea butter project. The village is surrounded by mango trees and distinguished by neatly arranged bundles of wood. That wood, used for building, cooking, and the production of charcoal, provides a source of steady income for the local people. However, it is a major contributor to the deforestation that is plaguing the wooded areas of Southern Mali.
At the school our spirits were lifted. This particular school had been funded in part by the British Embassy, along with Islamic Relief. It was a good investment as a large number of students were accommodated in a spacious, clean environment conducive to sound education. The students themselves were clean and well-dressed. They were “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.” Their eagerness to learn was inspiring, as it shone on their faces.
From the school we went to visit some of the widows and orphans. Islamic Relief believes that orphans should be kept with their families. Hence, its orphan sponsorship programs involve the children staying with their mothers or other relatives. This is a more natural arrangement and it also allows other family members to benefit from the wraparound services that the sponsorship program provides. The widows were very happy with the sponsorship program as it not only helps to meet medical, food and clothing expenses for the members of the orphan’s family, it also provides funds to help the women rebuild their adobe homes when the mud walls are partially washed away during the rainy season. One of the sad parts of these visits would be revealed later when my wife related that one of the women had lost her husband from an infection that developed as a result of a cavity in one of his teeth. Such stories reminded us of how the simplest medical care can save so many lives in this part of the world.
We also visited the shea butter “factories.” In reality, these were home-based cottage industries that involved shelling, grinding and then processing the shea nuts that abound in this part of Mali. The edible nuts are a source of nutrition as well as income. Unfortunately, we learned that people involved in the production of shea butter were being paid virtually nothing. A large western company was buying up the product at an extremely low price. One of the projects being proposed by Islamic Relief workers in this area was unionizing the shea workers and setting up an actual factory to process the nuts and then marketing the butter at a fair price. This could actually be a profitable venture for some enterprising members of our community here in North America, given the tremendous popularity that shea butter is enjoying here in the West.
The last project we visited in this village was a beautiful maternity clinic similar to the one we had inaugurated the previous week in Diena. The only noticeable difference was that this clinic had been built, but it had not been equipped. Its new walls, fresh paint, and airy interior were calling out for all of the trapping that made the clinic in Diena such a major success. I inquired and learned that for eight thousand dollars the clinic could be fully stocked with medicine, and for an additional twelve thousand dollars it could be equipped with beds, a generator, a well and solar panels. Perhaps one of the readers of this article can come forward to undertake this tremendously valuable and highly appreciated work. One of the highlights of the visit to this clinic was having all of the students who had trailed us there from the school along with their teachers gathered around as I recited a poem I had written in 1976. I felt it was eerily appropriate as we sat on the steps of the empty clinic. It is entitled, “Some People.”
Some people in our world today waste more food than they eat,
while others in the same old world don’t have enough to eat.
Some people who have most of all take pills that make them high,
while others can’t afford medicine and watch their children die.
Some people need big fancy cars an image they must keep,
while others lack both house and home and sleep at night in streets.
Some people are dissatisfied and strike for more cash money,
while others eat from garbage cans, they know not milk or honey.
Some people in our world today can dream and wonder why,
some people in our world today can only wait to die.
From Dienfing we went to the Islamic Relief field office in Ouelessebougou. The office is a neat building with a garden of mango and papaya trees in the front courtyard. We prayed there and then enjoyed a simple but nourishing meal of freshly slaughtered goat and thick, fresh bread. The goat had actually been given to us as a gift from the people of Zelabougou, when we visited there several days earlier. It was so fresh that steam was still rising from the pieces of meat as we hastily devoured it.
From the field office we returned to Bamako to visit one of the Islamic Relief projects in the city itself. The project we visited was a health clinic, named the Center of Hope. This center had formerly been located in one of the wealthier areas of the city, near the American embassy. However, it was difficult for the poor people in the more densely populated neighborhoods to reach, as it was not on a bus route and the taxi fare was exorbitant. It had recently been moved to a poor neighborhood where its services could be more accessible. One of the main focuses of the center is combating malaria. In addition to medicines, the center strives to educate people about sanitation practices that can help to cut down on the breeding of the mosquitoes that transmit the parasites that causes that debilitating affliction. The director of the center gave us a tour of the facilities and explained the focus on serving some of the poorest residents of the city.
We had one more stop before going to the airport for our flight back to Casablanca and then onward to the United States, Britain, and Canada. We had been invited to dinner by the Director of Islamic Relief in Mali. He is a Moroccan. Islamic Relief has a policy that the head of operations in any country cannot be a native of that country. This measure is designed to eliminate nepotism and favoritism in allocating projects, both of which could quickly undermine the efficacy and integrity of the organization in the eyes of the local people. This policy is one of the reasons that Islamic Relief has evolved into such an effective and reputable organization.
The dinner was a classical Moroccan feast, replete with the wide array of appetizers and soup (Harira) that characterize the Moroccan cuisine. The appetizers were followed by the ta’jine chicken and the couscous. The conversation was even more delicious than the meal. Among the quests were members of the Moroccan diplomatic corps in Mali. These were seasoned diplomats and highly educated individuals. They were cognizant of the challenges confronting developmental and relief work in Africa. They shared with us valuable insights that can only be gained through experience.
Perhaps the most interesting guest, as far as I was concerned, was a Moroccan named Khalid al-Hijazi. He had worked in Africa for many years for a Kuwait-based charity organization. He was currently working as head of a large orphanage in Bamako. He had formerly worked in Darfur, the south of Sudan, and Rwanda, among other places and possessed a firsthand insider’s perspective on those gut-wrenching conflicts. A charismatic and deeply principled individual, he freely shared gems of wisdom that one would be hard-pressed to find anywhere on earth. Like many of the members of our delegation he expressed his disappointment with the anemic support the wealthy Muslim states had afforded to their Muslim brothers and sisters in Africa. He has seen how far a little bit of money and goodwill can go in communities similar to those we had visited. This gathering was truly a fitting end to our journey.
Before we departed, we took a collection from the members of our delegation to purchase two pumps for the garden projects in the north of the country. Seeing our earnestness, all of the quests who were present chipped in and we were able to raise $2100 in cash on the spot for the pumps and the cost of transporting them to the north. Al-Hamdulillah!
From the director’s house we hastened to the Islamic Relief compound to gather our goods and head to the airport. Arriving at the compound, we found that the guards were still dismayed by the robbery and there was a somber air hovering over the place. However, we had no time to dwell on what had transpired as the night was getting old and our flight awaited us. Quickly loading our gear into the land cruisers we departed. Soon, we were soaring, high above the savannas, jungles, deserts, deltas, hills, and rivers of West Africa. That still mysterious land has many stories to tell. Graciously, she had shared some of them with us.