Traverse City Record-Eagle

March 17, 2013

Following from afar: Students want to give back to Mali

By Anne Stanton
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Next week will mark the one-year anniversary of the overthrow of Mali, once a democratic model in Africa that’s been rocked by violence.

Northwestern Michigan College students Fatima Hanne and Bako Mariko closely follow the events and are eager to return to their West African nation and share what they’ve learned here.

“I have learned a lot of things in my journey,” said Mariko, 29, who came to Traverse City five years ago. “When I came here, it (was) natural to me for helping people.”

Mariko, a business student at NMC’s University Center, said his “big dream” was and still is to earn a lot of money, but now thinks anyone can help the poor, no matter their wealth.

“You can teach people how to do things differently,” he said.

Hanne, 23, came to the U.S. about three and a half years ago and to NMC in August 2011. She wants to guide Malian women and girls, who are considered equal to men “on paper,” but not exactly in the home or workplace.

“Your country already passed that part, and we’re going to get there,” she said.

Hanne, an accounting student with a quick wit, wants to ensure that aid money indeed reaches the African poor, instead of the corrupt pockets of politicians as it’s prone to do.

Mali’s politicians and military clashed last year, leading to the government’s sudden overthrow, said Robert Gribben, a former Rwandan ambassador who will speak in Traverse City on March 21.

At the time of the coup d’etat, Mali endured a festering problem in the north, where the Tuaregs, an ethnic group, had long sought independence, he said.

“They took advantage of the turbulence in the capital following the coup d’etat to declare their own state, and they did,” he said.

Some of the Tuareg tribesmen served as mercenaries in Libya; when Muammar Gaddafi fell, they returned to Mali and brought weaponry with them, Gribben said.

Extremist Islamic groups then seized control of the secessionist movement, triggering the French to intervene and chase al-Qaeda terrorists into the mountains, Gribben said.

Elections this summer likely will return the country to democracy, but the new government must find some accommodation for the Tuaregs, Gribben said.

“That’s the conundrum for Mali,” Gribben said.

Hanne and Mariko said the country is 90 percent Muslim; when they grew up, everyone lived peacefully side-by-side.

They have found Traverse City to be a welcoming city. In fact, Mariko was invited to live with an NMC instructor’s family for more than a year.

Besides her invaluable help, she taught him to tone down his hand gestures when he got excited, he said.

“It made them think I was fighting with them,” he said, laughing.

The two view their time here as a chance to break down stereotypes. Hanne said in her literature class a middle age woman was talking about how Muslims are terrorists and didn’t like Americans.

“I let her finish talking. It’s not her fault she thinks this way,” she said. “Finally, I said, ‘I am Muslim,’ and she was surprised. ‘You don’t wear a hijab!’”

Mariko said he guards against the prevailing belief that all Muslims pose a threat. He didn’t pack a Koran in his suitcase, for example, on his trip here for fear he’d be mistaken as a terrorist.

One big challenge for both has been the cold weather. Now that he’s adjusted, Mariko dreads returning to Mali’s hot temperatures.

“Don’t go back until you have money for an air conditioner,” Hanne kidded.