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Mali: “I want to finish my education”

I wasn’t expecting her to say it.

“I want to finish my education, despite the troubles in my country.”

To be honest, when sitting down with Agai, a young girl displaced by violence in the north of Mali, I expected her to talk about her fear of the conflict, her ability to find food, access to water. But it was education that Agai spoke about and education that she’s clearly prioritising.

It’s midday and fast becoming a burning hot day; the rains seem to have done little to cool the air. The claustrophobic heat seems almost to symbolise the trouble simmering under the surface here in Mali.

Agai’s story

We pull up a rickety wooden bench and a plastic chair under a tree in the schoolyard. Against the noisy background of children playing, Agai explains how she ended up here.

“I am only 16 years old and married with a little daughter. Her name is Rakiefou and she is one.”

Again, I wasn’t expecting this, but on cue her friend brings over a bouncing baby and puts her on Agai’s lap. Is this your daughter I ask?

“Yes,” she replies, looking adoringly at her. She confirms the quick maths I have done in my head.

“I was married at 14 years old,” she says. I know this is not uncommon for many girls in Mali, but I have to try hard to hide my shock.

Another surprise

Agai Maiga, 16, stands outside her school with her daughter, Rakiefou, one

I ask more about her husband, if he was a farmer like so many in Mali. Again she surprises me.

“My husband is in the military,” she says. There is a pregnant pause, so I don’t ask more. I know this may have put her and her family more at risk.

“I grew up in Timbuktu, and that’s where we were living, but we had to leave.”

I know the reason why but I ask anyway – why did you leave? She looks directly at me and answers simply “because of the violence.”

She doesn’t linger on the point but moves quickly on. “We came by car to Bamako. It took us two days. We had some food and water with us, but I was scared.”

Trying to forget

I’m desperate to ask more – what’s it like in Timbuktu? The city was a famous world heritage site and is now infamous for very different reasons.

Did you directly encounter the armed groups? Do you think you’ll go back? Yet I get the sense that Agai is trying to forget, to move on.

Instead I ask her what she’s doing now and where is her family? What are her plans for the future? Again, Agai answers simply.

“I’m staying with my aunt in Bamako so I can complete my education. I think it’s important that I finish my education, even though there are troubles here. My husband is not with us. He has gone to Kayes. I’m hoping to join him there after I finish school. I really want to be a nurse, and I want my country to be peaceful.”

It strikes me that Agai is not focusing on the conflict, the fear or the fact that her family has been split up. She is focusing on the future, a future that will be impossible without her education.

As we speak, her name is called out. She leaves to quickly collect her package and returns, smiling.

“The education supplies are good; they will help me.” I feel so pleased that we’re helping Agai, even in the smallest way, to reach her goal.

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