Imagine

Mali, a West African, vibrant, and hard-working country, is home to approximately 18 million people. A brief reflection on perspectives from Mali is a refreshing reminder that most contemporary societies did not emerge from the world’s colonial history at an advantage. For many in the developed world, it is often easy for people to forget the luxury and value of having a decent standard of living, exercised civil liberties, and easy access to basic needs. Like much of Africa, Mali, a country which is sub-Saharan and landlocked, has long been subject to colonial and post-colonial systemic injustices, ultimately resulting in millions of people placed in a position where they are forced to lead very tough lives. Lives which are precarious since health care is often inaccessible and unaffordable and lives which are limited and constrained due to restricted access to a dignified education.

Take a moment to reflect on the life you live and the society you live in. Keep that in mind as you read the narrative below, imagine how different life would be like rural Mali. This is a story derived from the voices of local people themselves, those who live in Doneguela, Mali – a small community which HATN operates in.

Note that aliases will be used for direct quotations out of respect for members of the community.

Life in Doneguela, Mali

At the age when many people in Canada would be expecting to take that huge first step into high school, Malian girls are commonly pulled out of school to tend to their newly wedded husbands with babies on the way. Indeed, cultural norms can subject girls as young as 14 to be forced to wed in an arranged marriage and it is not unusual to have pregnancy follow shortly after. Jane Coulibaly I, 16 years old and already bearing a child, does not mince her words when describing her situation, “I got married one and [a] half years ago without my consent. I [did] not agree at all about my marriage but my parents forced me [to] get married”. Jane I explains that she had been a top student in all of her classes when, in grade 7, she was pulled out. She believes she was too young to get married, and now it is compromising her ability to become educated and pursue a dignified career as a nurse or a teacher. Jane Coulibaly II, 18 years old and married at 15, similarly explains that she also wanted to continue schooling but her parents and husband wouldn’t allow her to continue. Her hope now is to provide for her child what she was deprived of, “I aim to give the opportunity to all my children to go to school, [to] be educated and have a job one day”. The cultural expectation of women to be caregivers, as well as the onerous manual labour work they must do to physically survive, means that they carry a ‘double burden’; even though they strongly recognize the value of gaining an education, their circumstances often limit their capabilities. They only wish that the situation improves for their children.

Traditional social norms and gendered expectations are not the only barriers precluding children from acquiring an education. In Doneguela, many adults acknowledge that the sheer travel distance that was long required to commute to the nearest school has historically deterred children from going. Jane Coulibaly III explains the difficulties of going to school that many children experienced for years, “Before our children used to abandon the school very easily because of long distance and lack of food at other places. They could only have one meal a day [italics added]”. This means that young children had to choose between gaining an education and only eating once per day, or staying close to home with the incentive of multiple meals per day. It is amazing that any children at all demonstrated such commitment under the circumstances. Although, that has since changed because HATN has constructed a school right in the local community, meaning that children no longer have to travel far distances and implying they can remain under the close care of their mothers. Alongside these benefits, the initiative has also been a beacon of hope for many from within the community, “Now thank God and thank[s] to our partners who built this school for us. We can now dream that one day we will have ministers, nurses, doctors, teachers, etc…from Doneguela and this school” (Jane IV Coulibaly). Invoking the United States civil rights success which began with a vision from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a more promising, prosperous, and just future begins with but a dream. Unfortunately, for Doneguela, there is much more work to be done in order to ensure the realization of that dream.

Brought to Life in Doneguela

One major problem that must be brought into light when talking about ‘hope for the future’ is the shocking reality of recurring child mortality and, more generally speaking, a lack of access to basic health care. Children cannot exercise their right to a basic education if they do not live to the age where they can begin attaining one. The United Nations declared a similar assertion when, on July 28, 2010, the UN General Assembly announced that access to clean drinking water and basic sanitation were universal human rights; they are essential to the realization of all other human rights. Thus, health care, including water-related needs, are imperative in order to obtain an education. The following is a description of the gut-wrenching motherhood experience lived by Jane V Coulibaly (49 years of age), “I am all of the time fearing about my children’s health, the reason is simple, I lost 5 of my 11 children because of health problems [italics added]. That’s why even to see my child crying make[s] me very sad. The ones alive are my life…my first three children passed away”.

Residents living in the rural, isolated, impoverished community of Doneguela have described that there are a number of (unacceptable) reasons to explain the prevalence of such repeated atrocities. The first and major reason relates to the closest health center – 18 kilometers away. Without reliable vehicles and with bumpy roads that may be closed depending on the season, 18 km out from Doneguela is not a trip to be considered trivial. This poses significant health risks for pregnant women and their children straight from birth; there is no ‘designated’ location or community midwife to assist in delivering a baby, “We deliver our babies in different places, at home without assist[ance] of a health person [or in] Koula, Nonsombougou, Dialakoro, and Koulikoro [surrounding villages] health center[s]. Sometimes it can happen on our way going to a health center, in the bush or in the next village” (Jane VI Coulibaly). Due to social expectations and cultural norms, the effects of poverty disproportionately impact the women of the community; this is most heavily demonstrated when reflecting on the duties and responsibilities of women even while pregnant. “We (ladies) are very tired in this community, we don’t have minimum of freedom. We work as well as the men [and] even in our pregnancy period we work [italics added] (preparing food, working at the farm, paying our children education and health, pounding mill and other crops, etc.)” (Jane Coulibaly IV).

When inquiring about prenatal health care and about the well-being of pregnant women with the women of the community themselves, an interesting issue was raised that can, at least partially, attribute to the why women do not discontinue onerous manual labour while carrying a child. For most women, being pregnant at such a young age, on top of the lack of health services directly within the community, means that they simply are not aware of how they should be taking care of themselves. In other words, they do not know the effects of putting their child at risk. Jane Coulibaly IV even goes as far as to suggest prenatal health care is simply not a topic of discussion at all, no matter where you go, “I didn’t talk about pregnancy care when I was pregnant with anybody, either Doneguela or the health center where I delivered my baby.” This reflects another interconnection between health and education. We know that health is needed in order to acquire an education, but this is a prime example of how education is necessary to positively impact health. Thus there is a vicious cycle that exists within the community due to this ‘health-education nexus’ that exists; poor health prevents the acquisition of an education, which negatively impacts the health of pregnant women and their children, in turn lowering the chance for children to become educated – and the cycle continues. One way of describing how HATN conceptualizes development work is by thinking of it as working with the community to identify the complex vicious cycles which inhibit them from thriving. Then, using appropriate means and strategies for intervening, the ultimate goal is to break these cycles and entrench sustainable and preventative measures to ensure they never reform.

Opportunities for Change

The partnership between the community, HATN, and, more importantly, its local representatives (TEGEW) has been a catalyst for positive change within Doneguela. “We thank you (TEGEW/HATN) a lot for school, fertilizers, repairing water pump, women’s education, etc…”  (Jane Coulibaly IV). With continued hard work and thoughtful collaborative efforts, life in Doneguela is improving. The new school has brought education and positivity throughout the community. The interviewees agreed, though, that there is still more to do, starting with a dire need for a new health center and improvements to the water system.

“My big wish is to see the health center/maternity in Doneguela. Anyone who build the maternity of health centre for us’ we will thank God and thank a lot that person. We ladies are very tired at the pregnancy period, so we are in need of maternity centre” – Jane Coulibaly IV

“My last word is to any goodwill to give us clean water because we don’t have clean water especially in dry season. That time is very hard to have water.” – Jane Coulibaly VII

These words are a call to action for all who can pitch in. “It takes a village to raise a child” is said to have originated from Igbo and Yoruba, a Nigerian Proverb. Doneguela embodies this saying as HATN, TEGEW, the Region of Koulikoro, the village of Doneguela, and donors from around the world have, and will continue to, come together to support the people of Doneguela in a time of need. We believe HATN’s three pillars – water, health, and education – are the catalysts for change in this situation and our belief has been proven by the voices of the people. One pillar has begun to rise in education; now we must solidify this foundation with water and health!

In terms of water infrastructure, the most pressing needs are to fix the existing pump on site and bring in holding tanks for harvesting rainwater during the wet season. It is hoped that the additional water supply from captured rainwater will alleviate stress on local wells to prevent them from running dry during the dry season. An abundance of clean water will also assist in the struggle for improving health care in the area. The main goal for healthcare is to build a new Health and Maternity Center within Doneguela, one which contains a trained midwife. This will encourage prenatal care and ensure the safety of new mothers as they come to term.  A new health center will also potentially be a space to create new jobs in the future such as nurses, assistants, and doctors. This will encourage further health-related education and will surely disseminate throughout the community through discussion between the people of Doneguela.

Dreamers

“I still want to go to school, that’s my dream but I don’t think my dream will become truth. Because when I came to Doneguela (got married), I asked my husband and his family to let me go back to school; they told me no and no. No way for me to go back to school.” Jane Coulibaly II

Though everyday life in Doneguela, just as any other community, can be filled with ups and downs, this community, in particular, is full of dreamers. Women and men who work hard every day to make life a little bit easier for the next generation. Already mentioned above, Jane Coulibaly IV dreams her community will one day have ministers, nurses, doctors, and teachers. This passion can evolve from many places, including the people surrounding you. For some reason, this incredible community has passion, love, motivation, and hope all bursting out the seams. It is clear from the many interviews conducted, the members of this community continue to lift and support each other through their many dreams. “My dream in this village is to have a job in which I can help to earn money to develop my community” (Jane Coulibaly I). With the partnerships of TEGEW and HATN, a wider community has be built to allow the Doneguela people to climb higher and dream bigger. Dreams like continuing education, even after marriage, and earning money through hard work, can be accomplished. Once small goals are accomplished, there can be a snowball effect in change in the community. The people of Doneguela have witnessed the difference a new school has made to their community. Small changes can turn to larger ones, and dreams can be accomplished.

Thank you for reading our interpretation of the stories of the people of Doneguela. We hope their story has touched your heart as much as it has ours! Continue to browse the website for more details on how you can directly help the people of Doneguela or any other of the communities which we partner with.