Oumi built a school in Abidjan, her home town, last winter. The idea came to her when she realized that in the sprawling, crowded, poor yet lively borough she knew as a child, children might have running water and electricity (or still might not), but mainly were still, in their large majority, dropping out of school or not even starting. Eighty percent of the population is under 30 and well over half of these, more among girls, are functional illiterates.
She did not build it alone, obviously — she did it with Mr. and Mrs. Coulibaly and the team they assembled, including our son Ange and their daughter Eliane, and a few others. There are other daughters and there are other sons and they are all wonderful resourceful hard-working young people, but as these two were on the scene they wanted to help.
Oumi got the idea for this school because she was managing a small charity and did not know what to do with it because it had no money or almost. It makes no sense to give away money, she said, if it will all go away so quickly you will have nothing to give away or to show for the little you gave. Ange, who was working as a business consultant, observed that the money would go farther in Côte d’Ivoire than in Washington, D.C.
Moreover, he pointed out, if you teach kids or young people how to do things that are valuable and marketable, people will back you — they will want your school to grow. What you have is seed money.
Oumi’s sister, whose name is Fatou, seconded her nephew. She had an important job in financial affairs and she saw Ange as a serious young man, with prudent judgment but an eagerness to take some chances. Oumi and Fatou loved each other best amongst a clan of eleven siblings. Fatou suggested her sister meet Mr. and Mrs. Coulibaly, they would like her idea, she said, and would consider it from a practical angle. Come and visit, she said in January, which Oumi was planning to do already.
I stayed home, heard bits and pieces of what followed by way of phone calls. Mr. Coulibaly owned a building on the central street of the district Oumi had her sights on. It was not in use and when Oumi proposed turning it into a school, he thought that was a fine idea. Mrs. Coulibaly, who has a doctorate in chemistry and also is passionate about healthy nutrition, was an immediate convert. Nutrition, cooking, restaurant work, natural oils and beauty products — she already had a whole curriculum in mind.
The educational and municipal authorities welcomed it because with so many functional illiterates and unskilled, you do not say no to a vocational school, which Oumi, thinking of her own childhood here, thought was the most practical and feasible.
That was when Fatou, Oumi’s favorite sister, could no longer hide how sick she was. She told Oumi and Ange you must work closely with Mr. and Mrs. Coulibaly. I like them very much. They are good people.
As the renovation got underway, it occurred to Ange that the students should be taught to manage their own affairs. If you are going to teach them a trade, he argued, you should teach them financial planning, accounting, client relations. Even if they hire out, they should understand the world they are in. It is a world of opportunity, but it is a tough world. You must know how to take care of yourself.
His aunt agreed, but she was failing. Yet she gave so much advice and encouragement that they all thought she was on the mend. Oumi returned to Washington in April, with the idea she and I would be back in a few weeks and spend the summer.
But Fatou was much weaker than anyone knew, even her doctors. Oumi had scarcely got back when her best and favorite sister died. I thought my wife would fall into a depression so deep she would never emerge. It was even worse than when her mom died and I thought then I had never seen such sorrow. It was as if her heart was torn being torn out of her. What will I do without her, she cried, night after night? Who will talk to me?
Saying I will was true, but meaningless at that time, so I dropped it. There is love that cannot be replaced, even if in its own way it is just as fierce and lasting. But our son Ange had a better tack. Mom, he said, Fatou was going to be the president of the school’s governing body. You must take her place. You must come back as soon as possible.
She did and found everyone working with a focused purpose that got less grim as the place took shape. You could not forget the loss. You never do, not one day. It had been a dream. The dream had turned to duty and the duty was turning before our eyes into a dream that was real. How can I explain this? We were full of sadness and somehow we grew less sad. Or maybe the sadness made room for something that was not joy but was a kind of discipline. This was better than sadness alone.
There were hot months and then the rainy ones came. Oumi returned and then went back again, and I followed, stayed a while. The school opened, even though not everything was finished. That is all right, because schools are always unfinished, they are always beginning. There is a staff and students and applications and waiting lists. No one is idle and the kids — most in their late teens — wear smart uniforms with pride.
Ange and Mr. Coulibaly, working together, found they wanted to work on other projects, and Oumi and Mrs. Coulibaly found schemes and plans to talk about. They went into the countryside to look for farmers who thought of food as they did and craftsmen who worked in clay and wood and cloth and might be willing to take apprentices, or come to the city and teach. Oumi came back in time for Thanksgiving, already planning our next trip. But, said I; no but’s, said she, we have plans.
I perceived this as a kind of pilgrim’s adventure. Starting with an idea, it looks like we are in business, but the business is a mission. Will we stay true to our idea? You know, I told my wife, the Pilgrims thought they came to this new world, entrusted with a mission. The hardships and the troubles were part of the deal they made with their Creator and they succeeded, I guess — or failed — to the degree they managed to stay true, or true enough, to the gift he gave them by bringing them over here. Fatou’s gift was to lead you from a dream to something real, with the right people.
Two days before Thanksgiving, Ange sent us some pictures of more improvements in the school building, as well as the classes at work. And there was something else, too. Pictures of what looked like a big stretch of grassy space, woods around it. Bought some land, he wrote by way of caption. There were more pictures: chicks, by the scores and hundreds, maybe thousands. Chicken farm, he wrote. Business of Mr. Coulibaly’s nephew, expanding, needs partner. Solid investment. Perdue of Africa. Plus summer jobs for kids? What think? Go for it, I said. Basic. Real.
There are gifts that keep giving. You give them and get them in societies where people are free, free to trust their own dreams — free to keep faith in a sister who, as does Providence, guides and protects them.