I booked my first trip to Africa with a sort of "no fear" attitude. I was 23 and was frustrated by the feeling of being a little rich girl, doing her bit for the poor in a nice cosy office in London. I wanted to really understand poverty, to see it instead of reading about it, and so one day I booked a ticket to Bamako, Mali, without a second thought.
I was going to stay with a lady who worked for a non-governmental organisation out there. The charity I had been volunteering with in London hoped to help her organisation raise money and I had offered to go and visit the projects that needed funding. I had never seen or spoken to this lady before, but my boss assured me she "sounded nice in her emails". So I left London one Sunday night with nothing but this lady's name and photo.
The second I checked in at Heathrow airport, I was cursing myself. Why did I want to leave my cosy lifestyle? Why did I feel the need to experience something different? Why couldn't I at least have found a friend to come with me? I then spent most of the plane journey envisaging everything that could go wrong. All of a sudden in my head, all Malians were thieves, rapists and murderers. They were probably going to kidnap me and torture me as soon as I landed…
The second I stepped out of the plane in Bamako, my fears began to subside. There was something unbelievably calm about the atmosphere. I walked down the stairs and across the dusty ground to the small building that was apparently the airport and there she was waiting to meet me in her colourful African dress, Madame Kandji Dambele. She smiled, shook my hand and told me "nous sommes ravis de vous accueillir en Afrique", we're delighted to welcome you in Africa. She led me towards her car, telling me how excited she and the other locals were that I was visiting them. They had been planning my visit for weeks. I was amazed, not even my closest friends and family get that excited about seeing me.
The drive from the airport to Kandji's home took about half an hour. It was 3 o'clock in the morning and I had been travelling for the last 11 hours but I still felt alarmingly awake. I was determined to take in everything around me, from the dusty paths, to the broken traffic lights, to the huts lining the roads, sometimes with colourful painted signs, sometimes with groups of people sitting and chatting outside. As we bumped down the dirt track to Kandji's house, she warned me that the accommodation she could offer me was not "luxurious". I assured her I would be happy with whatever she could offer me, but the thought of my comfortable bedroom back home did cross my mind.
Kandji's house was quite a large brick building. There was no running water, very little electricity and no glass in the majority of windows, meaning birds and various other insects were flying around freely inside. The light was very dim and as Kandji showed me to my room, I couldn't help dreading the nasty insects that could be biting at my ankles. After Kandji wished me good night, I set up my mosquito net, had a quick wash in the bucket and lay down hoping to get some sleep. This turned out to be difficult since everything I had seen and heard over the last hour, since my arrival in Africa, was going round and round in my head.
After a few hours of thinking, dosing, thinking and then dosing again, I got up to start the long process of getting ready for my first day in Africa. I poured a bucket of water over my head, and then covered myself with sun tan lotion and mosquito repellent. I put on my lightest clothing that covered as much of my delicate, freckly skin as possible, checked I had a bottle of water, money, passport, anti-diarrhoea tablets, spare mosquito repellent and spare sun-tan lotion, and I was ready.
As I sat down in the front seat of Kandji's old mercedes, four screaming children bounced into the back. Kandji shouted at them in French, they squealed back in Bamara (the local dialect), she replied in French. She then turned to me and explained that she was trying to teach them French, since this was Mali's official language and therefore the language they would be following their schooling in. However, in everyday life, people always spoke Bamara so the children weren't that motivated to learn.
We dropped the children off at Kandji's mothers and then headed to Kandji's office. What struck me most about driving through Bamako was the amount of people sitting by the side of the road. They had very small wooden chairs and would pass the day watching the world go round and chatting to passers-by. "Doing nothing" is a concept we no longer understand in the hustle and bustle of the western world. If we're not working, we're socialising, or doing the housework, or playing sport, or doing the shopping, or planning our next holiday. Even when we have a couple of hours free, we like to fill it with a film, or a book, or cooking. The idea of actually doing nothing is almost shocking. But yet in Mali, it seems to be how the majority of the population spends their time. Even if they have a job they go about it very slowly, more with the idea of making enough money to feed their family than "enhancing their career".
On arrival at Kandji's office, I was welcomed with open arms. All the employees were over the moon that I was prepared to leave the comforts of my country to come and see how they lived. Several assured me that even if nothing came out of this visit, they would be forever grateful for my courage. I was surprised. First of all that anyone would consider me courageous (I was afraid of spiders and after scary films, I was always petrified to leave the cinema), secondly because everyone seemed to understand that it was difficult for me to leave my comforts behind and head of into the unknown. It wasn't just expected of westerners, like we should be giving something back to Africa. Throughout my stay I often heard stories from Malians who had met European or American volunteers and they spoke about these people with such admiration. A westerner visiting Mali becomes a sort of local hero.
This feeling of being a local hero was at it's strongest when I was taken to visit the small village of Kawerla. We drove for approximately five hours across the dessert to find it. There was a convoy of cars and in them included the deputy Mayor of Bamako, Ben (an ex-inhabitant of Kawerla who now made a successful living selling European clothes to diplomats), two of Kandji's sisters, Kandji and myself. As we approached the village, we saw crowds of people all running in the same direction. Where they were running I didn't know, but they all had huge smiles on their faces. I stepped out of the car and was immediately welcomed by a young girl with a wooden bowl of water. I was told to drink, as it was a blessing. I tried to put to the back of my mind all the warnings of the guidebooks about what a bad idea it is to drink tap water in Africa and took a small sip from the bowl.
I was then lead between two lines of people, some dancing, some singing, some playing instruments. I looked up to see a banner saying "Bienvenue Anna". I couldn't believe it, all this for me. The emotion began to overcome me and I could feel tears rolling down my cheeks. These people didn't know me, they didn't understand my background or where I came from and yet they were so excited at the thought of a westerner visiting their village that they were prepared to do all this. I sat down and an elder lady knelt down in front of me to sing a song which, as Kandji translated, wished my family and me long live and happiness. Next came the dancers. Men and women in colourful clothes, singing and dancing and playing the drums. I'd seen African dancing on the television and in films before, but seeing it in real life brings such a better understanding that for these villagers this is their entertainment and their culture.
I then spoke to the some of the villagers with the help of a translator (the majority hadn't learnt French since they had never been to school). They explained to me that women often died when giving birth because there were no hospitals or health centres and that they feared for the future of their children since there was little schooling available. They needed a small school and a health centre in their village. The construction of both of these would amount to the equivalent of £80,000. Although it may be true to say that the average European would not have this sum of money to hand, it is far from the inconceivable amount that it is to the people of Kawerla.
I couldn't stop talking in the car on the way home. I was so desperate to express the way I was feeling. "In Europe we have our comforts," I was saying, "but we're always wanting more." The people of Kawerla wanted a school and a health centre so women could give birth and children could be educated. They were not asking for electricity, or phone lines, or cars, or restaurants, or anything like that. They just wanted to be healthy and to learn. "Often in Britain, someone will have a nice house, and two new cars, and plenty of clothes and food and still want more," I continued. Everyone started to laugh and it dawned on me that they thought I was joking. The thought of wanting more than the basics in life was actually funny to them.
That night, despite the unbearable heat, I slept like a baby. I felt contented, happy that even people living in what we describe as poverty can still smile and dance and be positive. Before, I had had this image of despair, and although there certainly was a lot misery in the lives of these people, they hadn't lost their spirit, nor had they lost hope. Perhaps one day Mali will turn into a developed country and this will all change. In some ways of course this would be a positive thing: A lot less children would die of illnesses that should be easily cured, fewer people would go hungry and a lot more people would get the opportunity to learn the skills they wanted. However, the African culture and lifestyle is largely based around the fact that they are contented with the bare minimum. Developing the economy would inevitably have an impact on the African spirit.
I left Africa in two minds. I never doubted that the quality of life across Africa needs improving. This can be done through providing aid that is sustainable (for example building a school or health centre, or training young people in transferable skills). However, is it possible to develop a country whilst conserving the "I'm happy with what I've got feeling"?