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A Photographic Visit to African Sky Partner Communities and Projects
April 5, 2014
by Alex Fylypovych

Lyle Hansen never had a formal goodbye.

A coup d'état in Mali in 2012 imposed the evacuation of Peace Corp volunteers, particularly those located in northern villages. Hansen happened to be among the evacuees. "I had lost my SIM card for contact information when we were evacuated to Ghana so I didn't have a way to reach my village, and they didn't have my American number because I hadn't anticipated leaving," Hansen recalled his desperation.

Intent on returning to his Malian host family, Hansen funded a photography project that would send him back to Africa, to those he now considers his dearest cousins and closest friends. A fellow Peace Corp volunteer linked Hansen with Scott Lacy and African Sky. Hansen was captivated by the nonprofit and refined his project to pertain to African Sky's altruistic work.

"I wanted to go and create these visual images that were captivating but weren't focusing on the negative aspects of Mali," Hansen said. He wished to document not only rural life in Mali, but also rural attitude in Mali. Most importantly, Hansen strove to capture optimistic aspects of Malian culture not mentioned in news reports clogged with the war and hostility sweeping the country. "I wanted to focus on the positive, on the joy that everyone expresses even though their life is pretty hard in rural Mali," he said.

A year and a half later, "It just felt like being back home again, somewhere that was familiar," Hansen said about his November 2013 return to Mali. Although nervous about how he would be received, especially because he felt his Bambara was rusty, Hansen quickly regained confidence in his knowledge of the language and was elatedly welcomed by his Malian host community.

Hansen's traditional Malian name Namakan Coulibaly, given to him while in the Peace Corps, carries a light-hearted cultural significance, "it's like a Malian ice-breaker," that allows for introductory jokes and conversations, he said. "And after that, it's like you are best friends," he said, adding that, "it seemed like everybody there was my joking cousin."

His photographs capture the smiles and enthusiasm of these joyful Malian people who send their children to school, increase literacy, and gain greater economic stability in part because of modest collaborations made possible by donations to African Sky.

Click to enlargeIn Disan, Bourama parts the lush, post-rainy season grass as he leads Hansen to the site of the next African Sky funded school. Eight thousand bricks have already been compressed and, as harvest ends, the crew prepares to make the next, and final, 2,000 bricks. Approximately 10,000 bricks are required for the construction of the school. The construction team plans on completing the school during the upcoming dry season, which typically lasts from January to May. The middle school will be only a short walk from the existing grade school, African Sky's inaugural project.


Brick & Brick Press
This is the result of the perfect combination of red clay, water, and a bit of cement. A team from the Mali community operates African Sky's brick press, imported from India in 2011. Ten thousand of these bricks are used to construct one African Sky school.


Markala Literacy Class
A woman peeks at the next page of reading in the literacy class in Markala. At least fifteen women attend each class, about three times a week for one hour. They typically learn either two letters or two types of pronunciation per class.

Snapping imaginary pictures of Hansen, the young girl entertains herself while her mother (right) participates in the women's literacy class in Markala. English teacher and African Sky Program Director, Tamba Traore, considerately volunteers his home as the location for the classes each week. In the background, the teacher (left) helps a woman read through a paragraph. The hiccups and awkwardness in learning to read and write are unifying factors in the community, as the women –always laughing and smiling– radiate such vibrant, good-spirited energy towards learning and literacy.

Peanut Butter "Party"
Picking out dirt from peanuts and brewing tea on the side has never been done with more joy than the women of Markala. Hansen compares spending time with the women, making peanut butter as a source of income, to getting together with friends for drinks; their enthusiasm and good humor make the work an activity rather than a chore. "A lot of jokes, a lot of laughter," are what bring these women together. They emanate pride as well, recognizing that they have their own income, independent of their husbands'.

Students in the Soumabougou school work in their laps, practicing their French "é" on chalk tablets. In its first year in operation, this three-room school house is filled daily with approximately 70 students from grades one to three. The 2012 coup d'état in Mali presented numerous challenges to the construction process, but the school is now complete, and the community hired a teacher that already teaches up to 70 students in a day. Typically, students spend their first two years of school learning Bambara, before they shift completely to French in the 3rd grade.

At 1:30 in the afternoon Malian sun, the school's design functions flawlessly. The zigzag walls are in fact windows set back off the wall. No direct light enters the structure, but rather bounces off of the walls, allowing light, and little heat, to enter the classrooms. The zigzag walls allow for cool air to circulate into the building, providing a fresh breeze for young learning minds.

Zeala Literacy Group
In Zeala, Another women's literacy group learns numerical literacy, simple addition and subtraction. They gather in matching fabric, representing not only their group ensemble, but also as a celebration of Hansen's visit. A wide age range of women attend the literacy classes, from teens to women in their forties. Elizabeth Traore, the teacher, built the Zeala literacy program in 2013 with African Sky Project Director Colleen Naughton.