By Chemene Pelzer, NBC News producer
SOUNKALA, Mali – "To educate a girl is to educate a thousand people," says Maimouna Samaké, a mother of six (including five girls). "If you put one seed of millet in the ground and rain comes, it grows and gives many seeds."
And now Samaké, one of 2,000 residents in this small village in one of the world's poorest countries, has a chance to see this prediction come true thanks to buildOn, an American non-profit organization that is building a school in her community.
|Chemene Pelzer/ NBC News|
|Maimouna Samaké and her five daughters.|
For 17 years, buildOn has been sending American high school students overseas to create schools in places where literacy and formal education are usually out of reach. The organization, which has built about 300 schools in Mali, Malawi, Nepal, Senegal, Nicaragua and Haiti, says its goal is to empower young Americans in mostly urban areas to get involved in their own communities while at the same time bringing literacy to children and adults in the developing world.
And with only about 70 children enrolled in Sounkala's current make-shift school, where mud floors, inadequate lighting, few desks and an absence of books make for a less than ideal learning environment, they certainly could use buildOn's help.
As a producer for the Today Show, I went along to Sounkala to see how one of buildOn's projects comes together.
Drums beat on arrival
The villagers in Sounkala were incredibly generous and hospitable to their American visitors. They opened up their doors to host 13 high school students from The Bronx, N.Y., immediately inviting the students to dance in a big celebration marking their arrival. They slaughtered cattle for meals, offered tea and offered their friendship.
|VIDEO: Kids helping kids in Mali|
Building the school was a cooperative effort between the students and the villagers. The day they broke ground to begin building the school, villagers gathered to sign a covenant, an agreement outlining the expectations of both buildOn and the community.
Since many men and women in the village cannot read and write – Mali's literacy rate is only 46 percent – most pressed a finger onto an ink pad and left their mark as a sign of their commitment to the project. They agreed to provide manual labor for the project, which amounts to about 30 workers a day for the 14 weeks it takes to build the school. They also agreed to send all of their daughters to the school, in equal numbers to the boys, once the school is complete.
"Ceremonially, it's a very important day, but it's even more important that we get this right," said Jim Ziolkowski, buildOn's president and CEO, who was on hand for the ground breaking.
"Basic literacy is the first step for communities to rise out of extreme poverty. Healthcare improves, sanitation improves, agricultural productivity improves. Foundation is the most important thing we do," explained Ziolkowski. "It's what the walls will rise up from. It's the base of the classroom, it's the base of education. So we're going to work together with the community."
|Chemene Pelzer / NBC News|
|The future of Sounkala, Mali.|
The Bronx students, unaccustomed to heavy lifting in 100 degree temperatures, were soon busy with pickaxes, shovels and wheelbarrows. And the village men began digging, making and laying down bricks, and cutting steel rods to reinforce the structure.
And while the constant sound of millet being pounded morning, noon and night was evidence that women's work never ends in the village, they helped out on the work site, as well. Grandmothers, mothers and daughters all showed up carrying buckets of sand and water on their heads to help the project move along.
Learning for future generations
I asked Samaké if she had ever been to school. "No, I haven't, and today I feel the regret," she said. "I feel regret because today I'm like a person who looks like a blind person."
With her six children ranging in age from 23 to a three-year old, Samaké wants a better future for her five daughters, including Ramatou, 12, and Mariam, 10, both sixth graders.
"When a woman attends school, she will teach what she learns," said Ramatou, who wants to become a doctor. "She knows how to take better care of her family."
|Chemene Pelzer/ NBC News|
|Maimouna Samaké's two daughters Ramatou and Mariam.|
After this school year, the girls must transfer to a school in a neighboring village. Their mother says this would be a burden on her family, but she would make the necessary adjustments..
"I want them to make money, and help their parents and siblings, anyone who relies on them," she said.
BuildOn initially helps build schools for first to third graders. If things prove to go well for three years, they return to help build another school for fourth to sixth grade, and set up evening adult literacy classes.
Ramatou and Mariam will not learn inside the walls of the highly anticipated buildOn school since they are already in sixth grade. But Samaké still recognizes that the new building will help strengthen her community. And she hopes that her youngest will attend.
Aline Dakauo, our Malian translator who is also the buildOn trek coordinator, was a source of inspiration for Samaké. "I will support all my daughters to get an education and be like you are," she told Dakauo. "I pray to God for that."
The school is expected to be completed in April, and students should begin classes as soon as May.
Until then, the building continues.
For more information about buildOn, please visit their website: buildOn.org