Two Bracelets, Two Years
July 31, 2012
Two summers ago, I took a trip to a village called N’Tiola in Mali, Africa with an organization I worked closely with in high school and continue to admire today, buildOn. The 15 days I spent in the village passed quickly in adjusting to the different environment; adjusting to the difference in buildings (made mostly of mud and clay), bathrooms (that was a funny one to adapt to – my tolerance for public restrooms rose a lot after this trip) and language (the national language is French, but the villagers spoke Bambara, and we were fortunate enough to have translators).
The situation in Mali has changed a lot within the past several months, but it has done little to skew my perception of the country. The goal and purpose of my visit, supported by 14 other high school teens and several adults and translators, was to start the construction of a school while immersing myself in the culture of the people and the village.
The days in Mali passed slowly and quickly all at once. Our team would break into two groups, one taking the morning shift on the work site while the other took on a cultural workshop, and switching activities in the afternoon. We did things like sift sand, mix cement, tie rebar, and dig the foundation of the school. Not many people can say they have used a pickaxe in their life, and I’m proud to say I used one in the construction of a school. The physically challenging work mixed with rice, beans and vegetables as they became our daily food.
In cultural workshops, we learned how the villagers made shea butter, how they made their own food, as well as talked to the elders of the village and the midwife. I knew how different the lives of the Malians would be, but seeing it, living it alongside them, left a lasting impact on me I hope never wears off.
In the evenings, we spent time with our host families. The children in the village were fascinated by us as American teenagers, and it was simple enough to entertain them by getting them to count to ten in English or sing the ABC’s with us, but the smiles on their faces and their enthusiasm made everything worth it.
By one of the last few days in the village, I had decided that the people I had met and interacted with were the strongest people I had ever known. Today, two years later, I can tell you that they are still the strongest people I have ever known. Their resiliency, their compassion, their openness, their generosity, their hard work in the construction of the school to create opportunities for their children. These are all things I associate with the people of N’Tiola, and the people of Mali.
My last day in the village was a long one. We were meant to return to the capital, Bamako, by mid-morning, but our bus was running late, and we didn’t leave until mid-afternoon. We had an amazing celebration out on the construction site dancing and sharing speeches, and as we waited out the day for our bus back to Bamako, the children stuck by us with their playful antics.
One of the girls in the village approached me that day. She was maybe eight or nine years old, and I recognized her easily as one of the neighboring girls that came to play with me every night. She grabbed my arm with determination, and slid one of her many bracelets down my wrist. It was a tight fit – she was obviously tinier than I was, but determined to give me her bracelet. Without warning, she added a second one and squeezed it around my hand and down my wrist. She tried giving me a third, but I overcame my surprise and stopped her.
I smiled and hugged her tightly, and when the bus finally came for us later on in the day, I was sure to find her and hug her again. Why she gave me her bracelets, I’ll never know. They’re very symbolic to me – of my experience in Mali, of the work I did, of the people I met. They most definitely remind me of the girl who gave them to me. They are a constant reminder that I made a difference to at least one person, that I left a lasting impact on her life, and that she left a piece of herself with me.
It’s been two years since I was in Mali, two years since I first wore these bracelets. I’ve never taken them off in the past years – not even once. And I expect to wear them for many, many more.