by Errin Byrd (Mali 1997–99)

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I HAD BEEN WORKING with this women’s group for over a year. I had helped them learn how to sew, dye cloth, make soap and run a small business. It had been a great year overall. Now, we were at the point where all our hard work was going to be rewarded. We had earned enough money from our small projects to buy a millet grinder. A millet grinder meant a steady source of income for the group. Each women would work once or twice a month at the machine to collect money. At the end of each month the earnings would be divided by those who worked to give them some extra income in addition to sponsoring monthly community development projects.
     The final meeting before the purchase of the millet grinder was scheduled. But, as luck would have it, the rains came down so hard that no one was able to attend. That day I went to the meeting place and waited and waited, only a few members came. I was frustrated about the poor turn-out, but understood because when it rains in Mali, no one goes outside. A subsequent meeting was decided on but it was poorly organized and poorly attended, the rains had threatened but never came.
     It seemed that the group was losing interest in the millet grinder. I was perplexed that we could be so close to realizing this longstanding goal and yet lack enthusiasm. From the beginning the women said it was their goal was to own and operate their own business. I spoke with the president of the group and she assured me that the women were still interested.
     Finally the group decided on another date. I was looking forward to this meeting because I was going to get a chance to speak to them about all they had accomplished. I knew that I would have to speak to them in Bambara (their native language) and not French so I was a bit nervous about the meeting. Although I spoke in Bambara with them everyday, I knew that it was very important for me to speak clearly in order to empower them to see this business opportunity through. The idea that a women’s group could have started with nothing to become business owners was an incredible idea and I really wanted to express to the them how much I admired all their hard work and dedication.
     On the day of the meeting I was a bit down. I woke up to the rush of rain beating on my tin roof. The rains came down harder that day than I had ever remembered. I knew that it would be very difficult if not impossible for the meeting to happen. It was scheduled for 2 p.m. I wasn’t even sure if I could make it. The house where the meeting was going to be held was over a mile away and most of the road had been washed out or was now covered with water two feet deep. As two o’clock neared I feared that it would be a wasted effort to brave the elements to go to the meeting. But, I remembered that I had promised to attend the meeting regardless of the weather. I was hoping the women remembered making the same pledge as I threw on my rain jacket and trudged out into the gray mist.
     I could barely see where I was going and got stuck in the mud several times. As the lightening and thunder overwhelmed the sky, all I could think about was how ridiculous I must look. Nobody in my village was outside. Why would they be? I could hear them talking amongst themselves that it was “Allah’s will” not to work that day. There was an eerie emptiness to the normally bustling paths which tempted me to turn around and go home. Despite all these things I kept on going.
     When I arrived, I found that I had been completely wrong about the dedication of the group. Every single member had made it, on-time, and I specifically recall how I was admonished for being late. It was a funny revelation after I had waited over an hour for them at every other meeting we’d had. Everyone was in high spirits. There was a sense of mischieviousness in the air. I laughed along with them as they poked fun at me for my tardiness.
     My host mother was there and she quickly gave me a pagne (a wrap-around skirt) to change into. I was soaked to the bone but couldn’t feel a thing. I felt overwhelmed by the excitement and love that was in the air. Once the meeting began the women asked me to speak.
     I quickly forgot how nervous I was and began to speak to them about the history of our work together, the challenges we’d faced and now the reward for their hard work. I discussed the importance of working together without prejudice or politics. The importance of their friendship to me and their dedication to this project. But, most importantly I expressed to them how proud I was to say that I was a member of a group so motivated to succeed.
     When I finished speaking there was a silence and then the women stood up and started clapping. They said, “She's a griot, she's a griot” (a griot is a traditional singer that often performs at weddings, engagements or other events who is known for his/her public speaking ability). I knew then that all the frustration had been worth it. The whole history of our work together flashed before my eyes. All I could think about was how wonderful it felt to have been given the opportunity to befriend, work with and become part of the lives of these amazing women. Together, the strength of these women to bring positive change to their community was more powerful than any rains of Mali I would ever see. I was sure of that.
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