An African Trip – Of Hope And Toothaches
Royal Air Moroc have a policy, I suppose, of total darkness in the aircraft cabin from the minute the cold and tasteless snack service is over to the time it begins descending at the destination. It’s a cue to all traveling in cattle class to sleep, no excuses. Naturally, the mostly uneducated African travelers returning from long labor stints in richer countries are happy to comply. When my bladder acts up, I grope my way to the pitstop towards the rear. The crew at the back of the aircraft are lost to the mindful world, all 3 napping, one snoring slightly, even. I pause to admire the ability of trio to sleep so well up 34,000 feet. A pretty air hostess, her name tag says she is Maimoona, must sense my presence, for she lifts one lazy eyelid up to gaze at me. Not finding me noteworthy, the eyelid slowly settles back and she is gone to the zzzzs once more. I finish my business in a smelly loo and head back to my seat, except I can’t tell which one it is! The clue is the only unoccupied aisle seat and I am home.
This aircraft is flying fellow Trustee Sohail Abdullah, well-wisher Mohammed Bhayani and me from Casablanca to Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, about a 3-hour redeye flight. This tongue-twisting city always makes me sweat; I can never pronounce it and MS Word never helps either. When we land at the sleepy airport towards 2AM, we are greeted with bleary-eyed but quiet polite police and immigration officers who process our visas and ask us to cough up $165 each for a 2-day visit visa; my toothache begins.
I am joined in Ouagadougou by Naseen Valji of Beta Charitable Trust (BETA) who are partners with CAI on the school project for the poor and by Mushtaq Fazal, a frequent visitor, and well-wisher to CAI projects. We are to visit the newly constructed school in a poor area of the city, which will educate 600 poor students (at full strength). Unfortunately, due to many constraints and bureaucratic hurdles, the school is only 70% complete. Bummer. This is the first time Mozdahir, CAI’s partner in West Africa have come up short and disappointed. But I have to accept the trials and tribulations of working in Africa and this is one of them, except, rightly or wrongly, I am not a person endowed with much patience. My toothache accelerates.
This letdown is somewhat remedied by the excellent completed school that greets us at Bamako, Mali, an hour’s flight and US$250 away. It is modern, sturdy, clean and I can visualize our children making a tolerant, productive and giving life for themselves and their progenies.
To state that all West African countries are pricy is an understatement. We are staying at the Sheraton, the most secure and new place in this somewhat dicey and violence peppered city of Bamako. A room at the Sheraton is US$270 or thereabouts and breakfast only US$54 per person. It is a very uncomfortable feeling to cough up these kinds of dollars but the security and safety of us all is an overriding factor in my decision to stay here.
I’ve always had dreams of one day visiting Timbuktu in Mali. It is a place that was most studied in my geography class in high school and it fascinated, captivates me. The ancient city of trade and commerce and center of Islamic, Sufi culture and studies conjured up so many visions that shaped my adolescent life. But Mouhammed Aidara, the impressive and awe-inspiring person who makes CAI projects fruitful in West Africa, is dismissive about my desire. He laughs out loud and tells me that ISIS would love to see and greet an American in Timbuktu. I shut up.
We all travel to Marka-Coungo, about 70 miles away from Bamako. Here, CAI and partners have helped build a high school, an orphanage and renovated an elementary school. It is a soopa hot and humid day, with an unrelenting sun and temperatures close to 104F. At the impoverished village, hundreds of school children and villagers are gathered to greet us. They shout slogans of welcome for Aidara and us. After we eventually gather in a stuffy hall, a host of local dignitaries give speeches that have me glassy-eyed and wanting to nod off, except it is too hot and the stains of perspiration are making patterns of maps on my t-shirt; I try to stay alert by looking for Timbuktu in one I imagine to be Mali in Africa.
There is a speech in Bambara, which is translated into Fulani and then translated into terrible English, except the English translation has nothing but thank you, thank you, thank you more and more and more. And thank you again. And more thanks. I want to scream so bad, I can gnaw my nails right out of my fingers. So I start taking deep gulp of breaths to calm down, a technique handed down by my late lady guru, Shantaben, who inspired me to live again, when I was losing it. Finally, the local mayor speaks. Now, here is a guy that not only thanks, but is a shrewd politician, always looking for credit and votes. He reminds us that they want more, much more. That there are several other poor villages that need schools and toilets and orphanages. When Aidara insists I speak, I tell the non-comprehending crowd that further donor sponsorship depends on how they maintain the current first-class facilities and how well the students do. I mean it to be a stern pointer, that nothing is free unless CAI sees solid results and the expectations for cleanliness and maintenance are met or exceeded. Except my English is then translated into Fulani and Bambara. I hope the sternness and cautioning carried through?
When I was here about a year ago, I had met a lovely and attractive young girl, Fautuma, perhaps 7 years old, with whom I had fallen in love instantly. I search the crowds for her haunting, appealing face, but don’t spot her. Disappointed, heartbroken, I ask Sohail if he remembers the child. He does! Sohail produces Fautuma’s photo and I ask the Principal to allow me to speak to her. Alas, Fautuma has taken the day off! My toothache knows no bounds.
When Sohail settles the final bill for the 2 of us, US$800 for 2 days, I want to swoon. Imagine my toothache then?
Here are links for photos, in Burkina Faso and Mali, that you may perhaps enjoy?