I don’t think that you have any obligation to give to charity. I don’t think that people in Mali have any right to expect your generosity. I don’t believe in Socialism, I don’t believe in hand-outs, I don’t believe that just throwing money at the endemic disease and poverty in this country is going to make anything better. The vast majority of the time, I think that the best thing for Americans to do is to let the people of Africa solve their own problems themselves.
But every once in a while, someone like Etienne Dembele rides his motorcycle up to my gate. He wanted to know if I could help him find a certain “Madu Sogoba” – Dembele had heard that he builds toilets.
“Vous êtes arrivés à la vraie maison”, dit Monsieur Sogoba.
M. Etienne Dembele explained the situation. He hails from the village of Tounto – a 12 km ride from my own Sanadougou. Tounto is a settlement of some 4,000 people who are mostly simple millet farmers. They have a market, a small clinic, a primary school. Until recently they didn’t even have a secondary school – if the children of Tounto wanted to continue their studies to the 7th, 8th or 9th grade they had to wake before dawn at the call to prayer and walk the 12 km to le Diaramana Secondaire Cycle and back every schoolday. Dembele organized the parents of Tounto to petition le Bureau de la Mairie de la Commune, le Sous-Prefet de la Cercle, even their representatives in the national parliament and every NGO they could find to try to build them a secondary school. They all said no. So Dembele spent 4 years collecting funds from the people of Tounto itself and in the last year commissioned some local masons to build the school themselves.
If you’re not really familiar with the customary patterns of development in countries like Mali, the story of Etienne Dembele and le Tounto Secondaire Cycle is about as remarkable as they come.
However, there was one little problem; Monsieur Dembele was able to raise all the funds for a schoolhouse – but he came up short to build anything else. There is no well or pump in the schoolyard, so before class each day kids have to fetch drinking water from the clinic 1,000 meters away. This is a hassle, but it’s doable.
But more importantly, Dembele wasn’t able to raise enough funds to build latrines. So when the 7th, 8th and 9th-graders have to “go to the bathroom”, they have no choice but to just squat in the field next to the schoolhouse. The schoolhouse was built in a pretty open plain by the main road going through town, there aren’t even trees or bushes to hid behind, so these kids are more or less urinating and defecating in plain sight of each other and anyone else who happens to pass by on their motorcycle.
Since there’s no nearby water source, there aren’t even the customary plastic teapots that Malians typically use to wash their hands after they cleaned their butts. Maybe the kids can find some grass or leaves and wipe their hands off. But no matter how hard you wipe your hands with a couple of twigs they really can’t get all the poop or pee or diarrhea completely off their fingers, there will always be some residual germs. And then when they come back to the classroom they’re going to share their scarce textbooks and pencils with all the other students. And of course they’re going to share whatever germs they might have.
Etienne Dembele estimates that 75 percent of all of the students at this school come down with diarrhea over the course of the year, at least 65 percent come down with full-blown dysentery because they have to learn with classmates who cannot go to the bathroom in a sanitary fashion.
The Director of the Secondaire Cycle, Monsieur Fousseyni Sogoba is a generally cheerful young professional in his early 30s. But when he speaks of the lack of sanitary facilities at his school his face contorts into a raging scowl, “My students are children as young as 12, but in the highest grade they are as old as 16, 17 years. The female students are of marrying age, and in our Muslim society it is dishonorable for a woman to be seen undressed by a man who is not her husband. For them to urinate and defecate in the open is the greatest shame. The girls who have diarrhea are condemned.”
The epidemiological hazards of open defecation effect all students equally, but the shame factor hits schoolgirls the most. When girls feel disgraced by shitting in the field for the whole town to see, they simply stop going to go to school – this is especially true when puberty hits and they start menstruating. Though women slightly outnumber men in this society, girls make up less than 40 percent of the student body at Tounto Secondaire Cycle. They make up less than a third of all Secondaire Cycle graduates.
I agree with the Peace Corps philosophy of development which emphasizes those projects which consist of pure education, which require no financial expenditures. But in certain extreme situations, no progress can come about without some significant capital investment – this is one of them.
I told Monsieur Dembele that if he was really serious about building latrines, he had to find out the prices for all the materials we would need and to write up a budget. Two weeks later, he showed up at my gate once again - with a comprehensive budget, typewritten in French. Even after checking all the prices out myself there wasn't all that much to edit. I had never before witnessed this kind of gumption and initiative and professionalism in this country, and to tell you the truth I was downright dumbfounded.
So for the first time in more than a year in Mali, I have agreed to help a local activist fund his project.
Dembele and I have submitted a proposal to Peace Corps Washington to build two first-class latrines - one for boys and one for girls – and three hand-washing stations at the Secondaire Cycle. First the people of Tounto are going to pay a team of well-diggers to excavate the latrine pits. Then after the harvest the dugutigi is going to charge the men of the village out to the fields to gather 100 donkey cartloads of sand, 60 carts of gravel and 12 carts of porous sedimentary rocks. Once these are in place, we are going to Koutiala to buy all of the cement, rebar, plastic tubes, roofing, doors, etc. Tounto is going to pay a team of masons to build the latrines, and I am going to build the hand-washing stations.
Altogether, Tountokaw are paying for 29 percent of the overall cost in labor, transport and raw materials – the labor isn’t just being donated, they’re collecting 170,000 francs (~ $400) to pay the well-diggers and masons, and another 20,000 francs (~$48) to pay for the truck to carry it all from Koutiala to Tounto. The community’s contribution in cash is roughly equal to Mali’s per capita GDP.
And once construction is complete the village of Tounto is going to be responsible for cleaning and maintaining these latrines and hand-washing stations. Most likely the schoolchildren will be doing most of the cleaning themselves. UNICEF provides the school district with some soap, but it is nowhere near enough for these kids' hygienic needs and so parents will be responsible for paying for additional soap as part of the annual school fees. And of course, the teachers will be responsible for teaching and enforcing proper hygiene practices indefinitely.
Despite the drought and the fact that this is going to be a really bad year for all of Mali’s cash crops, the village of Tounto is ready to invest a significant amount of their scarce resources into improving the sanitation at their children’s school. I cannot emphasize enough that in a community as poor as Tounto, this effort is absolutely extraordinary. But they could use some help to pay for the cement, rebar, tin and plastic without which nothing that they contribute can be of any use.
And so, if you would like to donate to a cause which will prevent diarrhea and dysentery and help girls to have an equal opportunity in education, click here.
Update: Apparently so many people donated to fund this project that all of you donors cleaned up shop within 100 hours of it being posted on the Peace Corps website, before I could even bike into the city to post this on my blog. To all of those who contributed, from here in Mali I grant you a big "In'i che kosibe kosibe!!!!!" Thank you very very much!!!!!!
And to those who wanted to donate but didn't make it quickly enough, do not fear - all signs point that after the latrines are built in Tounto, there are plenty of other schools within biking distance of Sanadougou lacking in proper sanitary facilities. Stay tuned!!!!!
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