Djiba, Ann, Roger and I piled into Madi’s sedan and drove to the first settlement site, not too far off the main road to Bougouni. We drove past the chicken farm owned by the Imam who generously helped these people with food and water when they first arrived. He willingly gave as much as he could but could only do so much. The refugee community was not far beyond his chicken farm.
We learned of this settlement thanks to Djiba’s keen observation as he drove along the main road one day and noticed a small settlement where there hadn’t been one before. So on the way back, he drove in and talked to this Imam chicken farmer who was his friend and he learned of their situation. Djiba told Anounou and they all came out to check things out. OA ended up donating about 30 bags of millet, enough for each family to eat for 3-4 weeks.
We were greeted by a small group of men, women, and children who were expecting us. They escorted us over to an area where the group was gathered to talk with us. Djiba introduced us, explained why we were wearing masks, and then we asked questions to better understand their situation.
• This settlement on the north side of the village of Sousounkoro was the first place occupied by refugees from the Mopti region of north-central Mali, a town called Bandiagara. They are Dogon people. The first had come down about three years ago and chose this location because there was another Dogon person who lived in the village and told them they would be welcome.
• The village chief was willing to let them stay temporarily. As in other refugee settlements we’ve encountered, the village elders observe the newcomers to see if they will be a positive addition to the community. This “testing” lasts up to five years. If they behave themselves, they may be allowed to buy the land where they have settled.
• This community now consists of 12 families, about 90 people. The vast majority have come in the last year, generally fleeing for their lives. We were told of one woman who was forced to watch the throats be slashed of her husband and two sons. She came down here but has since wandered off. They fear she has lost her mind. They fully expect that more of their people will come. They hope to stay here forever and are working hard to prove themselves. Most of the men leave early in the morning for Ouelessebougou to try and find any manual labor jobs they can to earn a little money.
• They shared with us their challenges, none of which were surprising. No clean water close at hand, no farmland to grow food, no school or clinic or mosque, no job opportunities for the men or women. We thanked them for sharing and explained that we were doing a quick visit today because we had to leave for Bamako, but another team would come tomorrow and take a more detailed look at things.
• They were happy to have us walk through the settlement to inspect their living situation. They are clearly very industrious and had built good mud-brick houses, latrines, and ovens. Things were well kept. Just off the edge of the open area where we were seated was their mosque—a plot of dirt that was outlined with 12-inch diameter rocks.
We looked at the crude well they had dug by hand that wasn’t very deep and therefore not very productive. Gratefully, a local group had come out, covered the well for safey, and poured a cement perimeter. We watched the young boys make mud bricks. We saw the bandaged mid-section of a young teenager who had had some sort of GI surgery at the Ouelessebougou hospital but couldn’t afford to stay there. Up north, he had had to hide in the bush for weeks to avoid capture like his brother and had suffered great physical trauma. His follow-up appt is tomorrow but they don’t have the money to pay for it.
• There was no pleading or begging or other histrionics. It was a serious-minded group of people trying to map out a new life for themselves in a strange new area. They wanted us to understand their situation and hoped we could find ways to help. But they seemed to understand that it would be a process that took time. They had been treated kindly by the village chief and villagers and OA had offered generous help with millet when they needed it most. They were willing to be patient. And grateful.
It took us about 10 minutes to drive to the second settlement site, on the south side of Sounsounkoro. We went back onto the main road, then turned west toward Tinkele, Neneko and Selingue. After a bit, we turned south onto a short dirt road and found our second group of Dogon friends. The situation here is much the same as the first site, except they are a smaller group: 10 families with a total of 50 people. And they were granted some farmland use about four miles away. They haven’t farmed it yet. Plus, they are very close to Sousounkoro so they have easy access to schools, the mosque, and a midwife. These refugees have all come within the last year, along with the others in the first settlement. The chief divided them up because the north site was full. They also dug a well by hand, but there was no cement perimeter or safety cover. It was also shallow and polluted. No one is very old in either of these two groups.
Before racing back to the compound, we stopped by to see the village chief. He was kind and open with us expressing his feeling that what happened to these Dogon people could happen to any of us. It wasn’t their fault and they are human beings the same as we are. He is happy to have places for them to stay but emphasized that they must prove themselves as assets to the community before they have a permanent place. He would love to share food and water with them but the villagers barely have enough for their own need. So he’s grateful if Ouelessebougou Alliance would help in those ways. He gave us his hearty approval to build wells so they could have drinking water. We thanked him for his generous offering of land to the people and expressed that we are partners in our desire to help our fellowman. He was generous in his praise of the Ouelessebougou Alliance.
The visit was sobering and important. We spent nearly three hours and came away with a great desire to do more to help. We hope to make a proposal to LDS Charities for wells and food donations. The Alliance can be the local partner organization.
Here are some of the photos I took today of these good people and the circumstances they find themselves in.
These hard-working young boys were making mud bricks to build more homes.
These are the faces that keep me awake at night. I hope we will be able to help here. These people are lovely and kind and trying to survive on very little. I wish all my friends who have plenty could come visit for a day and feel inclined to share a bit more with others.
This is the kind village chief who has provided the land for the refugees to live on. He said to us, “this could have happened to any of us. Of course we must help them.” I love people like this who give freely, without expectation of any reward or payback. He is a hero.
“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”
–Ralph Waldo Emerson