March 1, 2017
I just returned from my annual trip to Timbuktu to see the Caravan to Class programs in action. While Caravan to Class is focused on literacy for Timbuktu, our BIG GOAL is nothing short of a Timbuktu Renaissance for this deserving and fabled place that can demonstrate its important cultural heritage of scholarship.
After learning more about Timbuktu and Caravan to Class’ programs, I hope you will agree that this special place is worthy of our support! What follows is my trip note to donors.
As I walked towards our recently completed Bantam school, I thought to myself, “On this day, I feel like the luckiest person in the world!” With your confidence and support for Caravan to Class, I was able to witness a special event: The inauguration of our Bantam school. With this new school we are able to not only bring French-based education to over 120 children ages 6 – 12 years, but just as important, hope to entire village. My good friend El Hadj, who accompanied us on the trip to take photos, said to me, “It is amazing that in the middle of so much conflict, insecurity, and other serious challenges the area is experiencing, that on this day, one could see a future for this deserving village. It really gives hope.” It was clear to me that the Bantam school gives the parents a positive vision of future possibilities for their children! At the end of the day, the children put on a skit for us. The final line of the skit, from an eight year old boy, was: “We ask our parents to please send us to school, as we are the future of the country.”
Over the last two days, we got to see a lot of the work of Caravan to Class in action. We first visited one of our two new schools built in the past six months, and funded by USAID (the first US government funding received for our work), as well as our Female Adult Literacy program (teaching Tamashek, language of the Tuareg), both in the village of Kabara Sans Fil. Representatives of USAID have not yet done the final inspection of our project, so the children were still in the outdoor tent-school Caravan to Class set up for them four months ago.
The next day, we left Timbuktu early in the morning to travel by pinasse (an oversized, motorized canoe) along the Niger river to the village of Kakondji.
Kakondji is where Caravan to Class built a three-classroom school in 2015 – 16, and I can see that we may already need to think about another three-classroom school there. Kakondji was a village that never had any organized education of any kind. In the 2nd grade alone, there were two classrooms filled, with students sitting three or four to a desk (note to self — to order more desks for Kakondji)! There were probably more than 100 children in the 2nd grade alone, far exceeding even our most optimistic expectations.
We next visited the village of Bantam, a school we finished in January of this year. As you may know, the Bantam-Turtle school is named after Ms. Irma Turtle who passed away in 2016 and did a lot for the area. The village was waiting for the inauguration ceremony before using the school for the first time. The inauguration of the Bantam school was very special for me, as my older son Benjamin, currently taking a GAP year before starting at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown, was ceremonially given the honor of taking the key from the head of the village to open the school and let the children in. The students put on a flag-raising ceremony and did a series of really cute skits for us, all in very good French! We also visited the Bantam Female Adult Literacy program funded by Dining for Women, this one in the Songhai language. The women really seemed to be enjoying coming up to the board to sound out some of the written words.
Our final visit was to the village of Koiria, a very interesting village with a mix of Tuareg who settled there after coming back as refugees, and the Songhai. It is always nice to see mixed villages that seem to integrate well. Caravan to Class will build our next school in the village of Koiria. It is the first time that we will build a school in a village that already has a cement school building. However, that building only has one classroom and there must have been more than 75 students in that class, with another 50 or so in a tent-school. This is clearly a village deserving of a Caravan to Class school construction project.
I have been coming to Timbuktu since 2010, and this is my fourth consecutive annual trip since 2014. Back then, Timbuktu was only beginning to recover from the nearly one year occupation by some of the world’s most notorious Jihadists. Timbuktu tourism thrived for the previous two decades and was an important part of the local economy. I thought to myself that it would be at least five years before Timbuktu would see the return of any tourism. Unfortunately, that forecast still looks to be proven correct. The city is still dependent on a 6,000 soldier UN Peacekeeping force in additional to a French military contingent. The environs just outside the city, in many places, particularly in the north, are lawless. The peace accords that have been in process for a few years are not yielding any important results. We seem to be at a stalemate: The international community has drawn a line in the sand that it will not let the separatists/militant groups nor the Jihadists regain control of Timbuktu, but neither can they bring about needed security outside of the city limits.
Despite the above, I did notice some positive signs from my visit:
- While the UN is still present with a very large base, Timbuktu is no longer as visibly militarized on the streets, i.e. we saw much less of a visible presence of patrols in the city. That is a good thing, as it allows the population to regain a somewhat normalized life.
- There was much more commercial and social activity in the city center.
- There is a new road from the airport through town. This is a major positive change.
My annual visit to Timbuktu always reinforces the feeling that Timbuktu, of all places I have visited, is deserving of support, and the long-term goal of this fabled place should be nothing short of a Timbuktu renaissance. The ancient manuscripts, saved from destruction by the work of Dr. Haidara and his team, show an important cultural heritage that demonstrates a high level of scholarship in Timbuktu dating from the 12th century, along with a number of other UNESCO world heritage sites. In addition, the people, a mixture of Tuareg, Songhai, Peul, Bozo and Arab, are some of the most hospitable anywhere in the world. The music coming from this area is spectacular.
The villages where Caravan to Class works have been severely underserved by their government and the international community. For a relatively small amount of money, Caravan to Class fulfills such a basic need: the right for children to be in school. With our 12th school construction project starting shortly in the village of Koiria, a Female Adult Literacy program, and a new girl’s scholarship program for continuing education, Caravan to Class has been able to do our work in an holistic way in the villages, with strong administration and control. We could not do any of this important work without you. On behalf of the thousands of children of this historically important place, we are incredibly grateful for your support.
Video from our February 2017 visit to Timbuktu to see schools in villages of Kabara Sans Fil, Kakondji, and Bantam
Video of Dining For Women's Dr. Veena Khandke and Caravan to Class' Founder and Director, Barry Hoffner discussing
the impact that the organization is having in bringing literacy to the Timbuktu region of Mali.
Barry Hoffner, Caravan to Class Founder and Executive Director