New Islamic Directions

By Imam Zaid Shakir

Journey To Timbuktu   Part Three

Posted in articles by Imam Zaid Shakir on 2009-03-12

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.


By Ibraheem S on March 13, 2009 at 8:29pm

Masha'Allah. Perhaps I should tour West Africa sometime. Insha'Allah.

By Ibraheem S on March 13, 2009 at 8:35pm

I just remembered something a professor in undergrad told us. She once went to visit Kenya and, seeing many poor people, she asked if she could help. They asked for nothing more than pens. If I go, I'll bring boxes of those cheap bic pens. Maybe I can show them how to make pens out of reed and ink out of almond shells.

By a sister on March 14, 2009 at 3:36pm

Asalamu Alikum, MashAllah. May Allah honour and bless the works of everyone involved in this project with success that reaches all in need. It is inspiring. May you also get to visit some of the old mosques and archives where much of the knowledge is stored. Ameen. I wanted to extend a tangent to your reflections and ask for your prayers. Recently, I had the opportunity to accompany a team of fellow teacher candidates and Faculty of Ed. professors to Singida, Tanzania to help rehabilitate an orphanage our faculty has adopted. I went in expecting many inequities against orphaned children. The one that left my heart pierced was the reality of these children -- named Fabiano, Rose and other non-indigenous European names. Many of these children wore crosses. But they were Muslim. As teachers, we're taught of our many roles is to ensure we affirm identities and give agency to our students. These children ran to us -- myself a 'hijabi' & another Kufi wearing brother -- with a Qaida in hand. This one boy recited verses of the Quran written at the back of the book. In the girls room, this little girl tapped her hand over the heads of some of the other girls, stating "Musalman". When I raised my hands to my ears to ask through gestures if they prayed-- one little girl called the Adhan. Another one ran, took off her shorts, and put on a longer, traditional Kanga skirt. Many of them are Muslim, its seen in thier enthusiasm for Islam... but some of their names have been changed and they no longer consider themselves Muslims -- overtly at least. Not only are they stripped of their deen, but also their family identity. It breaks my heart -- but Allah guides and protects. The brother on the trip said/asked.... well, we can't get angry at those that come here and help and in turn the children embrace there faith -- we can only wonder, where are the Muslims? Your journal answers his question. So, Alhamdulillah, of course there are many Muslims doing their part for an equitable world. May Allah bless you/them/us all, and move the entire Ummah to similar action --backed with sound intention (another struggle). Please pray for the children. Also, if Islamic relief would be interested in helping out, especially if they have ties to that region -- it would be greatly appreciated. We really need to develop ties to ensure sustainability. More so, our faculty has applied for grants, please pray that they come through as the children and our team are both anticipating our return. I often wonder if we did them wrong by going, because they were devastated to see us leave, they bawled as if their world crumbled -- and that in no way was flattering. May Allah bless and keep them safe. Walikum asalam wa rahmat Allahi wa barakatu

By Meghan on March 29, 2009 at 9:34pm

It is amazing how in such a poor area the simplicity and beauty in life is so obvious. Here in the states, we work and sleep and eat and work, so much is lost! Thanks Imam Zaid for your beautiful writings and description..p.s..what are your top ten favorite books? Salam Meghan

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