By Barclay Martin
Imagine you’re in a typical suburb, and one morning you spot 30 young people, from another country, wearing matching t-shirts and walking into your subdivision. One approaches you and says, “I can see how you’re struggling.
Every Saturday, you take this machine, push it back and forth over your grass, only to find the grass has come back the following week. Now, our time is short, and we must return home tomorrow, but today my friends and I are pleased to bring you a solution from our country, which is why we are presenting you and each house in this subdivision their very own…goat.
But before you say anything, just know that we are pleased to help our fellow human beings, and we have received far more than we have given from this trip.
And as you stand on your front step, watching goats running wild through the col de sac, imagine what you would say?
In 2010, I took part in a medical mission to Mali, West Africa, where I conducted art workshops with the communities while teams of volunteer nurses and doctors ran life-saving operating rooms and clinics for those most in need of care.
The week was full of creativity and imagination, and art supplies were circulated through schools across the town of Ouelessebougou. But what I had forgotten to ask was what they actually needed.
At the end of the week, I asked one of the physicians how I could make the impact of my next trip to Mali more sustainable. Without hesitating, he said “this week, I have served a line of patients almost 3,000 people long. If you can find a way to encourage hand washing with soap in this community, that line would be cut in half.”
Hand washing with soap is one of the most affordable and powerful practices to prevent diarrhea and pneumonia, which collectively claim the lives of an estimated 1.7 million children every year.
The next year, I returned to Mali and sat down with public health workers who taught me something critical: “In this place, there’s a thread of folklore that says if you wash your hands with soap, you’ll wash away your wealth. This has contributed to Mali having one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world.
So we began doing hand-washing workshops throughout the schools of Ouelessebougou through skits, dance parties and laughter. During the week, Tieblecoro, our 22 year-old translator, pulled me aside and said, “what is happening here is important for my community. Can you help me to do this so that when you leave, I can continue?”
I said, “Absolutely.”
At the end of the week, I gave Tieblecoro the last of my West African francs and said if he wanted to continue, to go to an Internet café, sign up for an email address, and write me an email. When I got home, there was an email waiting for me.
This was the beginning of the Wash Project.
Tieblecoro took over leading the presentations in schools, and as momentum grew, he wrote me with a new problem: “Our project is becoming successful, but there are still so many children here who don’t have the chance to go to school, and what about the adults?” I asked him what we should do. “I think we should have a soccer tournament.”
If we have a tournament with real soccer balls, and referees, then the whole community will show up – at halftime we can tell them about hand washing with soap.” And in that moment, The Wash Cup was born – a tournament that has grown so popular that it now lasts for three months and draws thousands of people to it each year.
This all happened because I asked Tieblecoro, and he in turn, asked the community. Because we asked about how best to purchase soap, we now have a women’s entrepreneurial development cooperative, who makes all of the soap for the 18 participating schools and 7,000 students. Because we asked, the women whom Tiebecoro calls “the soap ladies” are now making their own money — and the decisions about what to do with that money — for the first time in their lives.
Because we asked, the girls in Ouelessebougou told us that they wanted to play basketball instead of soccer. Because we asked, they now have a tournament of their own, in a place where activities for girls are limited.
I could have brought lawn mowers to Mali – I could have brought solutions from my own perspective, but instead, I learned to bring questions. And those questions brought forward leaders. And those leaders have brought me further than I could have ever imagined.