The Empire of Mali is a third grade Standard of Learning: Virginia Social Studies 3.2. Mali has a magnificent past. When the light of learning in Europe dimmed for a time in the Middle Ages, it was burning more brightly than ever in Mali. The university in Timbuktu provided safe haven for the Latin and Greek texts of fallen Rome. Griots sang epic poetic songs of history and tradition.
Over the years I have developed an integrated unit about Mali that is rich in folktales, history, geography, art, and music. Many of our American traditions, like the banjo, can be traced back to this part of West Africa.
I teach about Mali every year, but this year it has been hard. Mali is in the headlines. Mornings begin with a cup of coffee and horrific stories of drought, violence, famine, and fear. As my children dance to the traditional music of Mali, I think back to an article in the morning’s paper: Mali’s musicians have been silenced and are fleeing for their lives.
As we talk about Griots and their traditional tales of triumph, I can’t help but think of the newly orphaned children whose life stories have been interrupted by loss. Can I, should I, teach the glorious past of Mali, in the shadow of the current suffering of its people–Without even mentioning it?
How do I open my students’ eyes to the suffering in Mali, and at the same time protect their tender hearts and shield their joy in time of wonder? My steps on the path of truth-telling must be gentle steps. I lead with the story of The Magic Gourd by Baba Wague Diakite. The story opens with Brother Rabbit (Dogo Zan) looking for food in a time of drought. As he searches, he sings a song of hope. Luck does come his way, but he takes only what he needs and shares it with many.
We’ve learned that drought leads to famine; famine leads to hunger; hunger often leads to a scramble for power; a scramble for power often leads to violence; and violence leads to loss.
When confronted with suffering, children need to know that they are safe. And then they need to know that they can help. I have assured them that they are safe and that we can help. I suggested a bake sale to support a project that would help children in Mali. They loved the idea and we got right to work.
On Tuesday, just before the P.T.A. meeting, we will have a bake sale to support the Zorkoro Project in Mali. This is a project to expand an orphanage that has a sustainable farm. You can read more about this project (and even donate) at www.acfacorp.org.
I began this journey with a folk tale. Once again, a story is our doorway to truth. And truth is a doorway to change.