To call it a life-changing experience isn't hyperbole. The three-week trip USC College students took in December 2009 to the West African country of Mali -- where they oversaw plans for the construction of a bridge and labored in the community garden -- was enlightening.
The trip was the brainchild of USC College post-baccalaureate alumna Lauren Ciszak, who had studied abroad in Mali and spent several months in the village of Sikoro learning the local language, Bambara, while researching the work of non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
The villagers told her they wanted to build a bridge across an area that flooded every year, cutting them off from the middle school, market, road and health center. They had the plans, but not the financing. When Ciszak started her post-baccalaureate pre-med program at USC, she began looking for ways to fund construction, contacting the nonprofit Bridges to Prosperity, and forming a partnership with a Rotary Club in New Jersey. Hoping to assemble a team of dedicated students to aid in the project, Ciszak contacted professors asking them to spread the word.
Fellow post-baccalaureate students Rebecca Wilkinson and Myra Chai joined the project after reading Ciszak’s e-mail. In an effort to involve undergraduates, the group incorporated a College anthropology class, using the lectures to teach Malian history, culture and basic language. The students completed independent research projects while in Sikoro as a requirement for the class.
“I had already prepared myself for a world I knew nothing about,” said Shaimaa Abdelhamid, a junior history major. For her project, Abdelhamid spoke with the women of the village, looking for a connection between their role in society and oral history. The women told her and Ciszak that they wanted to take literacy classes, to learn to read and write in Bambara, so the group is trying to hire a teacher. Since returning from Mali, Abdelhamid is planning to change her focus from East Asia to West Africa, and wants to learn French, the country’s official language.
Additional funding was secured from the Institute for Global Health to establish a community garden in the village. During their stay, the students woke early each morning, walked half a mile to the garden, and worked alongside the women of Sikoro, tilling the soil, planting and watering. Since only village women worked in the fields, and some of the male students endured good-natured ribbing from the men.
Though Adrian Au, a junior neuroscience major said, “I heard that when we left…it turned out they had a whole field day where all individuals, men and women, went out and worked. I thought that was really cool, really inspiring.”
Together they grew lettuce, peppers and onions among other vegetables, which not only gave the village nutritional variants, but crops that the women could sell at market.
“Whenever we get together, we’re just like, ‘Can we go back now?’” Abdelhamid said. “It’s hard, wanting to be somewhere that you can’t be.” She and several of her fellow travelers are already discussing their plans to return next winter. Construction of the bridge is underway, and the students hope to raise money to set up a soccer field on their next visit.
For senior Berit Elam, a double major in international relations and gender studies and one of the trip leaders, the most rewarding part of the experience was getting to see her host family again. Ciszak had approached her after discovering that Elam had also studied abroad in Mali and was familiar with the culture.
“I wanted to give back in some small way to the country that had hosted me and been so generous to me for four months,” Elam said. “All of the feelings of connection and belonging that I had developed while being in the country and in the years that have passed since I was there, it was like, ‘No, that’s real. This is my family.’”
Passionate about the project, the students speak animatedly about the experience. When asked what she’d gained from the trip, post-baccalaureate student Lauren Nalepa said, “One of the major things is that it’s made me more active in really getting out there and fighting for issues I care about.”
“I think what’s important about going to a third world country,” Abdelhamid said, “is that you have to go with an open mind and an open heart, and you have to be willing to be challenged and experience new things.”