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Part six of a multi-part journal that first appeared on Dec. 30, depicts the author’s experiences while in Dialakoroba as part of the Build A School in Africa collaboration.

Friday, Nov. 25: Save the Children’s guest quarters are available for a modest fee to employees of the Malian government, or people from other NGO’s. Last night I met Dr. Moussa Makan, from the Congo. He is here with the World Health Organization to set up a polio vaccination program. I am always amazed at how multilingual most educated Africans are. Makan speaks Swahili, Bambara, French and English, switching easily from one to the other as the conversations around the dinner table change. Sad to say, this is not often the case in the U.S. — a relatively small percentage of American college graduates can claim real fluency in another language.

Along with Dr. Makan, there were Modibo Bamadio and Mamadou Samake, from the STC Bamako office, and Youssouf Coulibaly, the guest house manager. We discussed many interesting topics, from medicine to world politics. I was happy to hear that the political situation in the Congo has greatly stabilized, since the American news media does not routinely provide much coverage on events in Africa.

It’s good to see that the polio vaccination programs in West Africa are back in high gear. As a matter of fact, there was a large group of Rotarians from the U.S. on the plane with me who had come to help with polio immunizations in another part of Mali. There had been some outbreaks of polio a while ago that started in parts of Nigeria, where some radical clerics were spreading rumors that the vaccine would cause people to become sterile.

Although this seems ridiculous to an educated population, Dr. Makan told us that in the past there have been situations where vaccines for various diseases were either ineffective because they were past their expiration date or hadn’t been kept properly refrigerated, or caused harmful side effects when combined with other medications. There have also been problems in some countries with counterfeit vaccines. Unfortunately this makes it easy for people with anti-western political agendas to use scare tactics to undermine important health initiatives.

I’ve been re-reading some of the program descriptions for both Mali and neighboring Burkina Faso, where Save the Children also has some programs. Mali is a poor country, to be sure, but it is politically very stable. Since the overthrow of the dictator Moussa Traore in 1991, Mali has had a democratic government and the country has been quite peaceful. Burkina Faso has not been so fortunate. Economically it is in worse shape than Mali, and political problems have interfered with or delayed many betterment programs.

Consequently, even though Save the Children has been a presence in Burkina Faso several years longer than in Mali, it is just now able to institute projects that have been in effect in Mali for several years. Even goals as basic as building sanitary latrines with hand-washing facilities at all the schools, which I’ve seen everywhere here, are still not universal in Burkina.

One of the especially heartening statistics here in Kolondieba is the relative gender parity in school enrollment. In a part of the world where educating girls is often considered less important than educating boys, 40 percent of the students here in the Kolondieba District are girls. All over the world, it has been proven that educating women is an essential part of improving a country’s development, since educated women have smaller, healthier families and support both family and national economies through better employment opportunities and the establishment of their own businesses.

Because Save the Children has a steady source of income due to their sponsorship programs, they can more readily achieve long-range planning objectives. Each sponsor makes a monthly contribution in the name of their sponsored child, but the money does not go to the individual families. Although $30 per month is less than a cup of coffee a day in the U.S., it is a lot of money here. If just a few families in each village had this windfall, it would create tremendous inequalities and resentments. So Save the Children pools all the district’s donations and uses this money for projects with lasting benefits.

School construction, furnishings, books and supplies, teacher training, health, hygiene and nutrition programs, digging wells for safe water, the establishment of community market gardens — all these projects help improve the lives of everyone in the district.

For information about enrolling as a sponsor, contact Save the Children at www.savethechildren.org or (203) 221-4205. Save the Children encourages their sponsors to come for a visit, but most sponsors never get to Mali to meet the child they are sponsoring. I’m one of very few that can come every year. Sitan was just a first-grader when I started, and she’s now in her fifth year. It has been rewarding to see her grow, and I hope she will continue her education in the new middle school we are building.

To be continued.

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