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Margaret's life-changing journey to Mali

Margaret GilsenanThis journey was something quite different to my usual travels in that I was on my way to Mali, the third poorest country in the world, to visit a five year old boy called Madou Wane who I sponsor through Plan Ireland.

It felt strange to be embarking on a visit to people knowing that at my age, 41, Malian women would typically have only another four years or so to live instead of the forty years Irish statistics tell me I can expect.

If I were in their place I would be likely to have had more than six children, two of whom would have died as infants, I would survive by subsistance farming, there would be only a one in five chance that I could read and a one in eight chance that I would be living with HIV. All of these issues were going through my mind during the weeks and days before my departure.

It didn’t take long for the differences between our two worlds to be made clear.  A man on the flight who was dressed in traditional garb signalled to me that he wanted, as I understood it, to borrow my pen. After some confusion however, I was shocked to find that he wanted me to fill in his immigration form for him. He was illiterate.

A bigger shock was to come as I copied the details from his passport. Under the date of birth heading was “XX XXX XXXX 44” showing only that he was 44 years of age. He had no date of birth - like many hundreds of millions of people around the world- his birth had never been registered.

I began to worry about what I had let myself in for and whether or not I had made a big mistake. This one, seemingly small, incident on the flight had started me thinking about the lives that so many millions of people endure in poverty stricken countries and I hadn’t even landed yet! I got quite nervous about what I was about to encounter.

I was worried about how difficult I would find the trip in terms of the living standards of the people I would meet. I was worried that I would not like the way Plan worked on the ground and I was worried that it might feel like white Westerners arriving with their largesse and imposing their solutions on local African communities.

I am happy to say that, on all counts, my worries were unfounded. Far from being depressing, my trip to Mali turned out to be one of the most uplifting experiences of my life.

I was delighted to see that only two people working for Plan Mali were foreigners, everyone else was from Mali.  Plan really does espouse the philosophy of “teach a man to fish and he can feed himself for life”. They work in collaboration with local communities, helping them find the best solution for them by offering three key services -advice, education and finance, as appropriate. 

In rural Mali people live in small communities, there are no shops (everything is traded) and only the more prosperous villages have a water pump, a school or a health centre. There is no electricity, except perhaps in the health centre.

Low literacy levels present a significant challenge. Apart from making it difficult for future generations to improve their lot, it also means that important messages such as how to slow the spread of HIV/AIDS must be communicated by word of mouth – which in a land of 1.2million square kilometres, 12million people and very little by way of infrastructure, is a major challenge.

Visiting the Plan Ireland programmes I soon realised that nothing is straightforward when it comes to helping with community development. It is not enough to simply build a school – families must be shown the importance of education and how valuable it is to let their children to attend.

It is not enough just to install a water pump in a village; the community must also be helped to understand the value of keeping water clean.  In one of the villages we visited we met the water committee who manage the distribution of water. They have been taught the benefit of clean water and in turn pass this knowledge on to others in the community.

Meeting Madou Wane and his family was not half as nerve wracking as I thought it was going to be. We had to communicate through a translator but it soon became evident that, just like me, they had not known what to expect.

Once we got over our initial shyness we got on like a house on fire and when we exchanged gifts it cemented a relationship which I know will be long lasting and beneficial to all. Madou Wane’s father had made me a beautiful wooden carving which is very, very special to me and now takes pride of place on my mantelpiece.

There are obviously huge differences in our lives. Whilst they may be extraordinarily poor, the people of Mali also have a lot to give. They have a lovely greeting which translates to “you have left your home, but here you are at home again” and everywhere we went we were offered far more ‘cead mile failtes’ than I have ever witnessed in Ireland. 

I found the sense of community to be inspiring and the local people were very proud of the facilities that they had developed with help from Plan. These include a clinic for people living with HIV, schools, a microfinance scheme designed to get small businesses up and running and a nutrition programme.

It really did my heart good to finally meet the people who up till then had been only in my imagination and when I saw all the benefits that had come about as a result of Plan’s interventions I felt really proud to be a part of it.

I would really recommend sponsoring a child with Plan. It costs just €22 a month which to most of us these days is nothing – the price of a few drinks or a meal - but it is truly amazing the results they achieve. The improvements they have made to the lives of Madou Wane, his family and the wider community cannot be underestimated. To be a part of this is richly rewarding for the sponsors too.