Joe and Tara visited Mali in February and were honored to host a few American guests for an eventful week, including the celebration of our team of community health workers, and their amazing accomplishment of not having lost a single mother or child in their care in over 5 years (read more on that here). Below is another special experience from that trip.


Getting to Lassa requires a bit of a climb. Like Sikoro, it is north of Bamako, where the hills turn into cliffs. It is a different landscape.

On our way to visit a savings group, we started with a call on the village elders. Traveling with more Americans than usual, they received our small delegation graciously in a thatched-roof building that is surely often occupied by important community meetings and discussions.

Seated on the ground on an animal skin, the eldest offered very warm and customary greetings. We offered a traditional gift of kola nuts. Interpreting the exchange for our guests – Bambara, French, English – English, French Bambara – makes it feel more profound and ceremonial. Receptions like these are an honor and a social performance of respect – and I will never tire of them. I’m unsure if Mariam, or the rest of our team, share my enthusiasm and awe. They always represent Mali Health with the immense Malian graciousness that is gratifying to this Southerner to watch.

Accompanied by two of the elders, we continued a bit farther up the slope. Noting very large piles of firewood (and suddenly realizing the lack of trees), they inform us that the production of charcoal was the primary revenue-generating activity. The informal economy is how most of those living in peri-urban communities, especially women, get by. They tell us that Lassa used to be like a rainforest – a small oasis above the city – but the dust the characterizes the rest of Bamako now seems to dominate here, too.

But as we continued, mango trees began to appear and grow in size. When we turned the corner to where the group was seated, we encountered one of the largest mango trees I’ve seen in Bamako. Mango trees provide very welcome shade here along the edge of the Sahel; thousands of women’s groups meet beneath them across the continent every day. They are amazing trees – thriving in even the harshest of conditions.

Again our small delegation is welcomed graciously, this time with song. We observe the opening ritual of the meeting – the diligent taking of attendance, reporting, counting, and recounting of the amounts saved in their two accounts: one for health expenses and one for income-generating activities.

One at a time, every woman rises and brings her contribution, 100 FCFA, or about $0.18. The status of loans is reported. The funds are counted, recounted, and reported to the group to be held in the collective memory. At the beginning of their next meeting, the group will be asked how much should be in the accounts. The funds will be counted and the numbers will agree.

At the conclusion of their savings activities, we are welcomed to ask questions. This Director, eager to report back to our wonderful supporters, asks a few (rather standard) questions:

  • How many of you have used the health fund for yourself or one of your family members? About 80% of hands go up.
     
  • What kind of things do you take the non-health loans for?  Women share that here in Lassa, they are gardeners. They buy inputs and tools for their gardens with the loans. Things like fertilizer, small tools, or seeds they don’t save themselves.
     
  • What can we as Mali Health do to better support your group?  They want support to form a cooperative too… word travels fast. Though we are testing the cooperatives in only two communities – not at all close to Lassa – the other 5,000 women in Mali Health savings groups are watching closely.
     
  • Great – we would love to help you do that. If you had a cooperative, what would you like use the funds for? To send our children to school, they say.

Hmm… no mention of health. I say as much to Mariam and she nods – but she’s already two steps ahead of me. I ask her if I might ask about the health center, how do they find the service there? How is the quality of care? We have worked with the health center here as an advisor to another community project, but we just added the CSCom in Lassa as a full quality improvement partner a few months ago.

Thanks to our partnership with OSIWA (read more about that here) we are expanding our participatory quality improvement approach – this time with a particular emphasis on women’s participation at all levels. These are some of the very women who we will be relying on to provide their feedback and leadership – to participate actively in the improvement of the health center. Mariam knows what is coming, but gives me the go-ahead.

  • Could you tell me about your health center here in Lassa? What has your experience been like? What do you think of the quality of the care you receive there? A few women weigh in, saying they are satisfied with the care. Many have taken their children there and have received effective treatment.

I turned to Mariam – are they just telling us what we want to hear? Do they know we want to hear their real experiences? Mariam smiles at me, knowingly, as if my understanding finally catches up to hers. We discuss that the time is late and I say that we can just let it go. But, it would be nice to encourage them to share more. Their experiences are essential for us and the health center to hear and understand in order to create change. We want them to know how important they are, but is now the best time to have this discussion?

As I discuss with Mariam, the group becomes restless. We have already taken up too much time – they have households to manage, children to mind, and meals to prepare.  Having stopped interpreting our side discussions, I’m worried I’m boring our guests who are not accustomed to the dryness and heat.

But then Mariam turns to Gaoussou, the dynamic Director of our Community Capacity Building department, and says a few things in Bambara. Though her Bambara is excellent, she usually prefers to speak in French and have Gaoussou interpret for her – another process I enjoy. This time, she speaks directly and deliberately to the women in Bambara.

Mariam tells them she knows there are issues at their health center. She explains why they are so important, not only to us, but to their health center and community. She describes our strategies for sharing feedback from women with the health centers and that we need more women to become leaders in the community association that manages the CSCom to help advocate for better care.

Though we have just taken them on as a full quality improvement partner, Mariam knows the center well. She gives the names of all the personnel – including the new director. She conveys to the group that she knows what happens there – she knows what they know.

One of the visiting elders weighs in.

 Listen to her words, she knows your health center perhaps better than you – why don’t you share your experiences?

After a brief pause, one woman starts pouring out her story – sounding more urgent and frustrated with every word. After hearing about the importance of delivering at the health center from her savings group, she was finally able to convince her brother to let her take his wife to deliver at the health center. Despite going into labor in the center, her sister-in-law was never attended to. She delivered, without being touched by a single provider. She vows to never return to the health center.

Other women weigh in with similar stories of neglect, lack of respect, or poor-quality care. They say that when they take loans from their group, they take extra so they can pay for the transportation to take their children to another CSCom nearby. They avoid their own health center if they can.

Throughout their testimonies, Mariam nods, again knowingly. Their experiences are why we started our quality improvement work in the first place. What is the use of helping women overcome the barriers to accessing care if the care they receive does not help them? This is why our approach of addressing both access and quality is so important.

Mariam thanks them for sharing their stories. She says it is because of their experiences that we are now working with their health center to improve. She reinforces once again that they are a very necessary part of the process and that we will continue to support them and the health center until they are truly satisfied.

We close our meeting with exchanges of gratitude all around. We take a group photo under a branch of the grand mango tree.

Lassa savings groups and the Mali Health team under a large mango tree.

Though very aware of the time we have consumed, but not wanting to leave them after such an enlightening visit, I very timidly ask Gaoussou if I might just see one of the gardens they mentioned? Maybe take a photograph of one of the cultivators in her element?

We are again graciously ushered up a hill, through the barriers that keep out renegade goats, chickens and children and into beautiful, lush gardens. Yams, peppers, tomatoes – as far as the eye can see. I’m told that nearly every woman in the savings group has a garden and they sell their excess produce in the markets. No more charcoal.

While many families we serve come from rural areas where cultivation is the mainstay, there isn’t much room for gardens in densely-packed peri-urban communities. Lassa, situated along the ridges above town, has a bit more room – so the women are growing.

After more thanks and farewells, I’m still processing the lessons this group taught us, but mostly feeling very proud of our team. As we descend from the gardens, the elders share that instead of cutting trees, the community is now working on replanting them. Between the trees and the gardens, they have already noticed a difference in their climate.

They say the rains, which started to pass over Lassa into the next valley when the trees were all cut, have returned.