In June 2015 Conway students Molly Burhans “15 and Chris Hendershot “15 traveled in Mali, West Africa, visiting the site of their spring term student project. While there, they shared updates from the field. This is the second installment of two.



I could spend a month just trying to describe today. Throughout the week leading up to our departure for Mali it would hit me in a wave while I was working, “I’m going to Africa in three days,” “two days,” “five hours.” Looking out over the brush at the hazy sunset it really hit me, “I’m in Africa.”

At around 5:30 am I was woken up by monthdog barks echoing through the concrete house Chris and I were staying at in Bamako. Bamako was a blast. For me it was a somewhat familiar whirlwind of developing world urban chaos; of motor bikes and choking on clouds of diesel, of women trying to sell you ceramic bowls, Chinese DVDs, and fetishes (also known as dead animal parts); the smell of sweat, urine, gas, tropical flowers and heavy ozone mix into an eau de Bamako. It’s ridiculous, it’s dysfunctional on levels from the ruby dirt dust clouds to the very top of the half-abandoned hotel funded by Gaddafi; but it’s also fantastic and in the initial scene of what seems to be urban chaos one can find patterns and exceptional function, like all natural systems. It’s just like home in the United States in ways, but there is something about the zipping of motorbikes and the spontaneity of literal chickens crossing city roads with no adequate excuses that add a dimension of newness. Further, the interactions between the vendors and our client reveal a deeper sense of kinship that make this place stop being such an incredible sensory overload and start showing a story of the space and its residents.

The ride from Bamako to Kita took us on a several hour journey through the countryside of the Kayes region of Mali. One of the most striking things about leaving the city was the rural poverty. Looking out the window at a young child near a heap of trash with no shoes in an apparently isolated building in the middle of the Sahel I half-expect to hear a voice say “for only 5 cents per day this child can…,” but instead of a disembodied narrator their own life’s narrations show through their faces and hard-worn bodies. Goats with hip bones jutting from their sides and wiry dogs roam the country side between shanty homes, mud huts and half-finished development projects that serve as a real reminder of the seriousness of our project.

Roadside village on the way to Kita

Roadside village on the way to Kita

Alongside this striking poverty is the striking beauty of creation, of mountains with red cliffs, patterns and textures and colors that the best landscape design could only dream to have created; spring green brush, generously spaced wiry trees and yellow grasses contrasted against deep red earth. The trees speckle the arid scape with bits of green, reminders that there is landscape that is verdant and giving, ready to burst forth in a matter of weeks when the dry season ends.

On the way we stopped at a garden sponsored by the Minster of Water. There was a woman near a pile of mangoes, watering okra on her plot using a bowl to scoop water form a five-gallon bucket. There were plots throughout the woman’s garden; most were barren, but a few were covered in vegetables, like onions. The set-up had a water tower and large solar panels that collected electricity to pump the water from the ground and into the tower. From there it flowed into strategically placed cisterns through underground piping. Compared to the other places we had been it had some serious infrastructure. Despite the clear investment in infrastructure it did not appear to be functioning much better than other gardens that we saw, with the exception of a few plots.

Dialaye garden

Looking at infrastructure at the town’s garden in Dialaye.

We arrived in Kita and settled into our rooms at Bintou’s brother’s residence. I glanced at the car clock and realized that it was just about 6:30am in Conway. Bintou’s brother Seydou and several other men stood up from their tea pouring and greeted us.

It is a tradition to drink a mint tea that is ceremoniously heated over coals and then poured and re-poured until it lightly froths at the top—and perhaps some other criteria are met that I did not observe or understand.

We settle into our rooms in one of the buildings and get a tour of the compound; it includes the house of Bintou’s father that was built sixty years ago, storefronts currently being built, and the house we are staying in. There are signs of construction everywhere, like the cement bricks baking in the sun and half-remnant foundation where a building stood in the fall.

We travel onwards towards the villages, with Chris, the client, and I all periodically nodding off in the back seat of the pick-up truck. In the front of the car are Bintou and Soulaymane, Bintou’s son and our translator for navigating between Bambara, the national language, French, and English. Once we leave the graded road the ride becomes too turbulent to sleep, nevertheless the anticipation of arriving at the villages is palpable for Chris and me.

Greetings from Nicaraguan villages I had experienced the previous summer (while leading a service trip at my undergraduate college) flashed through my mind: the music, the incredible kindness, and trying really hard not to cry but going all waterworks the first time I was greeted at the extraordinary welcoming and love offered by the villagers. I braced myself in the car. I thought of the maps we made, the families identified, their compounds, and a semester’s worth of studies and life. We would finally get to meet the people who are the directors and users of our project; the people we are designing for and have yet had a chance to design with. The greeting was wonderful, not too tearful, and full of one of my favorite forms of communication: dance.


“Wow” ended up being the word of the week. Not a very attractive word, but pretty much the only word I can use to explain the experiences from my personal lexicon without serious mental effort at the moment. We were greeted by students from l’école de Paul Schaffer in their uniforms and with their friends, young kids excited and curious to see the car, and maelstromBintou and the rest of us. Some of them were shy, some were a bit scared. There were a lot of high fives and names that I wish I could remember exchanged between us. At the entrance to Djangoula Kita the remaining villagers, including adults and elders, waited to greet us.

Chris and I stepped into a maelstrom of drums and chants, women with babies strapped to their back shuffling, and men jumping in the center of a circle of people. It was fantastic. If you got a scarf thrown at you, you had to dance. In a short matter of time Chris and I found ourselves holding a scarf and being beckoned into the circle where we had to bounce around and dance. The circle turned into a massive procession towards the health clinic. We sat under a tree that I remember putting into an AutoCAD model the week before, a model that showed where the hydrologists had suggested a well site.

Chris dances during the Djangoula Foulala greeting ceremony (performing a great move—the "Henderhop")

Chris dances during the Djangoula Foulala greeting ceremony (performing a great move—the “Henderhop”)

The energy of the greeting was intense and incredible, and the abstract models and research we had done were visible alongside so much of the reality of the Djangoulas that we could not understand from home and that could never be captured or properly articulated with a model.

After the greeting ceremony we walked into an already sited woman’s garden, in the center of which was an open well under construction. A man scampered up its walls and out of its dark bottom with a hoe over his shoulder—he had emerged from the darkness six meters below the surface. This was a game changer—all of the sudden we have a sited area to also think about. Having it between the villages makes me excited for the possibilities, logically trying to be pragmatic about what we can do with the reality that Chris and I are set to graduate only two weeks after our return, and excited for the next people who may get to take all of our analyses and build from them something that could really work.

The afternoon was spent in the Chief’s family compound where the villagers discussed political affairs with Bintou. I spent a lot of the time still coming down from the excitement, battling against my normal afternoon power nap schedule, and just looking around and listening to the Bambara conversation that I could not understand, but could appreciate the sonority of. After the meeting we headed back to Seydou’s and had a fantastic dinner (though feast may be more appropriate, we are eating incredibly well; one example would be fish over rice and vegetables with all sorts of sauces, the fresh peanut sauce being a favorite, and fresh mangoes). We planned out the analyses we would do the next day. I went to bed, carrying on with gratitude.


The next day we entered into Djangoula Foulala and it was another incredible experience. Colored scarves flew through the air and more dancing and music replaced the seriousness of an average hard work day of grinding labor. We danced harder than the day before, and the heat was more intense than any other day.

Molly dancing with Chief’s Toungkara of Kita’s griot (family storyteller).

Molly dancing with Chief’s Toungkara of Kita’s griot (family storyteller).

After our greeting we broke out a base map and began asking some questions through a translator about circulation and flow and various features of the village. Chris, Jinny, Bintou, and I and numerous villagers gathered around trace over the map, held down by a water bottle and large wooden pestle. It was surreal to have one of the maps that we printed from school on the ground, in Africa, and being augmented with civilian input.

Later in the day we conducted analyses of the garden. As I melted under the hot African sun I thought about some basic analysis we had completed throughout the fall: “Where do you plow the snow in the winter?” almost sarcastically crossed my mind.

Jinny St. Goar (in purple top), Molly Burhans (in hat), Mme. Bintou Sissoko, and locals puzzle over base map questions.

Jinny St. Goar (in purple top), Molly Burhans (in hat), Mme. Bintou Sissoko, and locals puzzle over base map questions.

There is a novelty to seeing familiar objects, like an engineers’ scale, measuring tapes, or triangulation tools, in unfamiliar places, like the middle of a field in Mali. Jinny and I measured landscape features and their relative locations while Chris recorded GPS points and information about the trees in our study area. Shortly after we finished we heard cheers from the middle of the field—the well diggers had hit water, they estimated 10 meters under the surface. The ride back to Bintou’s brother’s was relaxing after a long, hot, and incredible day. I returned covered with enough dirt to probably shake a solid soil sample out of my clothing.

Now I am sitting near one of the few outlets, sitting on the faux-tiled floor typing. The sounds of the night are crickets, prayer calls over the nearby mosque’s loudspeaker, the occasional donkey bleat or chicken squawk, and a movie that someone just started up in the courtyard. Tomorrow Jonathon Ellison is supposed to meet us. He is a Conway alum and former faculty member who was the first person affiliated with the school I met, just about two years ago.

The reality of the dancing and all the people we met crosses my mind. Climate justice issues come to mind as I think to tomorrow, to two years from now, to the southward expansion of the Sahara. I think about the universal experiences we share, through all of humanity at some point: grief, hope, joy and the daily rising of the sun and its setting as the great world turns.


PHOTOS: All photos by Chris Hendershot, with the exception of the photo of Chris dancing, by Molly Burhans.