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Months after leaving Mali, I still think of Fatoumata.
I was interested in visiting Mali for logical reasons. I wanted to teach abroad after college, so when the opportunity arose to do so through Ethics and Development in Mali, I signed up immediately. I saw the course as a chance to fine-tune my classroom skills in a foreign school--and, of course, I looked forward to visiting a new place. The trip would be exciting as well as practical, I reasoned: the best of both worlds.
Mali, it turned out, was more wonderful than I could have expected. I arrived in the rainy season and was surrounded by lush greenery wherever I went. In the streets, women carried wares on their heads and children on their backs, walking across uneven terrain with a grace I could never muster. Men played drums between their knees, singing from the bottoms of their bellies and smiling with their teeth. The air smelled of plantains and was filled with laughter.
I have many vivid memories, but I remember one small girl most fondly. I met her two weeks into my stay. I had been teaching at Ciwara School for a week, and it was my turn to instruct the third grade. That morning, I found thirty children sitting on a threadbare mat in the center of the cement classroom. The windows were open to brighten the room, as there was no electricity. Sitting quietly in a ray of morning sunlight was Fatoumata.
Fatoumata was small, like all the children. Despite the heat, she wore sweaters most days, and her small chin poked out shyly over their collars. Her head was always cocked slightly to the side, her hands behind her back. She didn't speak much, but she listened. If you were to come across her, you might look right past. I nearly did.
She was different, though: Fatoumata was brilliant. In a class dominated by boys, she stood out. Fatoumata knew the answer to every question I threw at her. She not only had the English alphabet memorized within minutes, she could also spell her name and those of all of her classmates. Fatoumata soaked up vocabulary. She was always the first one with her hand in the air, patiently crouched on her knees so her small fingers could reach over the sea of heads. After every correct answer, she would blush.
Few girls get an education in Mali. I had read this before my departure. But the words meant little to me until I stepped onto the distinct red soil and saw the consequences firsthand. As the grades get higher, the number of girls per classroom becomes smaller and smaller. Though things are changing, girls are still married off young or relied on at home, and they are thus pulled out of school much more frequently than boys. Those who finish primary school rarely move on to any formal secondary education, which isn't considered necessary for women.
Knowing this is difficult. It means that despite Fatoumata's intelligence, she may leave school early. Even if she stays in school, she will struggle, and her education won't be of the highest quality. Mali's education system offers few options, so many Malians dream of scholarships to foreign schools, although these are extremely competitive. In a sense, the difference between myself and Fatoumata is only a matter of where and when we were born. My education came by chance; she and others like her deserve it just as much as I do.
My experience at Ciwara solidified my belief that all children deserve a quality education and my desire to provide that education by teaching in Mali and places like it. While I don't expect to transform the world, I do hope to improve it. Holding Fatoumata's hand while she read aloud, I felt I was exactly where I was supposed to be. Maybe I'll come across her again someday. Until then, in every class I teach, I will see in my mind a small hand in the back, raised patiently, and think of her.
Leila Chatti is a third-year student majoring in English and the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University