Geography, in elementary school, was a treat; for me. I would close my eyes and conjure images of different countries, peoples, cultures, and foods of our world. Timbuctoo, in Mali, always had an aura of mystery and danger, an irresistible air of adventure, of camels and trade caravans akin to the time of our Prophet (s). And so, lucky me, have an opportunity to visit Mali! I will not be going to Timbuctoo proper – there are some not so nice lunatics there that would love to slit my tender neck – but close enough, to Bamako, for a CAI sponsored school project.
I am going to 3 countries, as a matter of fact, Senegal, Liberia, and Mali. Officially opening the new CAI sponsored school at Kolda, Senegal, inspecting the already operating CAI sponsored school in Monrovia, Liberia and getting the ball rolling on CAI’s 32nd worldwide school in Bamako, Mali. CAI donor funds are currently educating about 20,000 needy children around the world, eradicating illiteracy, liberating vulnerable girls and shaping their future towards a dignified, tolerant and prosperous future. Insha’Allah.
Traveling to and within West Africa is neither easy nor cheap; entrepreneurs listen up – business opportunities? The only reasonable airline is Delta from New York where Abbas Jaffer, fellow CAI Trustee joins me on a rowdy and crowded, cattle-class redeye 7-hour flight into Dakar, Senegal where Murtaza Bhimani and Mushtaq Fazal from Dar es Salaam await. I am already struggling with fatigue since it is more than 16 hours I left home and dread another 10 to 12-hour drive to Kolda where the school is located.
We are off in 2 cars after Zohr salaat and once cleared from the usual unruly traffic chaos of the city, the cars pick up momentum. It is ‘winter’ here in Senegal, warm days and chilly nights. We arrive at a local ‘rest house’ 10 hours later where I take a cold shower while the others crash. We are off again early next morning, reaching the Kolda school site where a festive crowd of about 1,000 people greets us, including the Governor, the Mayor of Kolda and Minister of Justice in Senegal and other dignitaries. The crowds jostle us around as we head to the grand opening of the school, the cries of salawaat e Ahlebeyt (a) more vocal than that from Motabha at HIC.
At full capacity, 600 education deprived children will get an opportunity to better their lot in this school. The feeling of pride and accomplishment from this school opening is intense and dramatic. Trivial is the fatigue, aches, discomforts, absences from my daughter and home when the children, especially girls, speak, promising their best to excel in math and science and computers and professing their love for the Ahlebeyt (a). Takabal-Allah, insha’Allah, to all donors who have made this wonderful project a reality.
We dine at a restaurant in a hotel that serves the best grilled fish in Senegal and sleep at their mosquito infected hotel rooms; thankfully they have nets for protection. This restaurant is also the few remaining ones in this world that serve Coke in a glass bottle (remember them?). Murtaza Bhimani can guzzle a dozen of these; too bad we do not have salted karanga readily available. We are up and on the road before fajr salat, which we offer at a roadside masjid before continuing for another 12 hours back to Dakar. We are off to Liberia very early tomorrow.
Poor Liberia does not have a national airline, so we are forced to take Air Côte d’Ivoire from Dakar to Abidjan and then to Monrovia. Monrovia is still the same depressing and grimy city I last left it. What makes the trip worthwhile is to inspect the CAI school outside of Monrovia and support to another school in the city. These investments may not see immediate results, but we’ll be able to cash them in big time after we have left this world.
It’s another redeye from Monrovia to Bamako the next day. Air Moroc takes us to Accra, flying over Abidjan. We board at 2:00, the flight takes off at 2:30 and the aircraft goes totally dark at 2:32; not even a glass of water offered. People go to and from the bathrooms using the light from their cellphones. I find the crew dozing off at the back of the aircraft; I pray the pilots are not similarly inclined. The aircraft is so ancient, the bathroom door comes off the hinges when I open and slams onto my forehead, leaving a nasty bloody gash on my forehead. What fun.
Alhamd’Allah we land at Accra safely but alas, not our luggage. I guess the crew was too sleepy to bother with a few people getting off in Accra to mess with it; it takes off for Casablanca. It is fajr, so we offer salaat in the transit lounge and wait 5 hours for a flight that’ll take us back to Abidjan with a connecting aircraft to Bamako, Mali; I told you it’s not easy going from point A to B in West Africa. However, I must say Air Côte d’Ivoire is an impressive airline. On time, every time we flew them, with clean, modern aircraft’s, and a relatively young, handsome and helpful crew keeping our hunger pangs at bay. Naseen Walji from CAI’s UK partner NGO, Beta Charitable Trust, awaits us.
French speaking Bamako, with all its troubles, is a pleasure, especially meeting so many fellow Ahlebeyti Muslims who share CAI’s commitment to education opportunities for economically challenged children. The government of Mali, through the Minister of Lands, is granting Mozdahir, CAI’s partner in West Africa, 4 acres of land on which a high school will soon take shape insha’Allah. We are here to inspect the proposed area and complete due diligence for the project.
We are guests at the Minister’s house that night and feast on sumptuous grilled fish and barbecued beef. The Minister and his extended family greet us as if they’ve known us all our lives, including infant Ali who takes great pleasure in polluting my pants with his leaking diaper. This does not deter me in pigging out on the fish and beef.
I would be amiss to not mention our patron and host in French-speaking West African countries CAI operates – Mohammed Ali Aydara. He is a Sayyed and a Chief in his on right and holds considerable sway with the wheelers and dealers in the region. His organization, Mozdahir, is doing a fabulous job as NGO in many countries. We at CAI owe him tons of gratitude for making all that we do possible.
Naseen departs for London early the next morning, Mushtaq and Murtaza to Addis Ababa midday and Abbas and I will travel to Dakar and hop on to a Delta flight next morning, coming home to New York and Sanford respectively.
The only ugly incident of this trip occurs on our departure from the airport in Bamako. Abbas has US$2,500 on him, and the customs officers’ eyes light up at seeing the cash. Although we are within all laws to have the funds on us, they try to intimidate us into bribing them. I steadfastly refuse, although Abbas is tempted to offer a twenty. They march us out of the terminal to ‘seniors’ who seem not to care, ending up in an interrogation-like cell where a more sympathetic officer lets us go after we explain our mission to Mali. Still, the customs officer insists we ’help’ him, since he is ‘poor’ as well. I refuse, still, and he has no choice but to let us reluctantly go.
I meet him again at the airport prayer room, deep in ebadaat.