Color Line

Dialogue with Alhouss Maiga

Country Director


Bougouni, Mali

April 2021

What connects us: our common goal to understand the depths of climate change.

What does buildOn strive to do?

Our organization’s mission is to break the cycle of poverty and illiteracy through service and education. It mobilizes students in the U.S. to transform their own communities through service, and communities abroad by building schools in developing countries. Here in Mali, we have built more than 350 schools, making it possible for over 40,000 young people in my country to learn and become literate.

We focus on children 8 to 12 years old who are out of school, either because they never entered the educational system or dropped out. We have brought nearly 16,000 children back to school. We also provide adult literacy classes that have helped about 10,000 adults become literate in their own language.

In every village where we work there is a Project Leadership Committee made up of 12 members: six women and six men. They work with our  field coordinator and identify children in their community who are out of school. If the children are between 8 to 12 years old, we place them in three months of intense classes so they can catch up to their age grade. Their exam results are sent to the Ministry of Education which approves what grades the children can enter. This is how we help our young people integrate into the formal school system. 

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your community’s work?

We normally build with six volunteer groups in each community. In each group there are 15 women and 15 men working one day a week: that’s 30 volunteers a day. Because of COVID-19, we have reduced our daily teams to 10 people of five men and five women. We wear personal protective equipment. We have installed hand washing stations at our projects. Because our timeline to build has slowed, volunteers decided themselves to increase their work hours to make up for lost time. Even though schools are currently closed, we’re continuing to build so we can be ready when schools open again. This is critical because children are falling behind. They can’t do school online because Mali doesn’t have widespread internet access.

The pandemic, combined with the current instability in Mali, has also affected our funding. buildOn used to bring treks, comprised of U.S. high school students and donors, to Mali. They would live with us in our villages and houses. They would become immersed in our traditions as part of a cultural exchange while working side by side with community members to build schools. This program stopped in 2012 after political and civil unrest in Mali. Funding tends to slow down when people can’t see us and the results of the work that we do. This means less money to build, and less schools. However, buildOn’s home office and funding partners are doing their best to keep our programs active in Mali.

How does racial equity and social justice intersect with education in Mali?

We have many ethnic groups in Mali and many social classes. We have seen the ethnicization of power, of social benefits. Specific to education, we see inequities between private schools and public schools. There is exclusion. At buildOn, we make sure that our teams are diverse. We include representation from all ethnic groups, genders, and religions in the community. These groups all come together: to build the foundation for their school, fill the floors with dirt, pour the floors with concrete, and more. At the end of the project, people who didn’t speak to each other before are now friends. The social cohesion is stronger because the school they built together belongs to the community, not just one group or person. All children, from all families, can come and learn.

Alhouss, Country Director at buildOn Mali, leading by example.

Young students in Mali at a new buildOn school.

A must read recommended by Alhouss on westernization in Africa.

When was a moment when you saw groups mobilize; what did they accomplish?

When I first started working in education, I worked with non-profits where we made mud bricks to build single classrooms in communities. One day, in a local village, someone told me that the single classrooms were helpful, but what the community really wanted was a permanent school. One made of cement bricks. A building that would last and enable the community to attract more qualified teachers, to provide better quality education for their children. So, I started looking for an organization to build permanent schools.

This is how I found buildOn, where we mobilize in bigger groups and build better schools. buildOn brings specialized construction and imported materials, as well as skilled labor such as construction supervisors, brick makers, window and roof makers, among others. The community comes together to collect local materials like gravel and sand, recruit unskilled labor to support the build, select the school site, and much more. When the school is ready, the government and local municipalities provide furniture and hires teachers. This is mobilization, at all levels, in action. 

What can people do individually and in their communities?

Build peace and tolerance within our own families. This peace and tolerance, as a way of being, it will ripple out at the community level.

What has been a defining moment in your life?

I studied climate change when I was a Rotary Peace Fellow at Duke University. It was eye opening. I came to understand that me, my village, my entire region, we were all victims of climate change. When I was a child, there were 100 kids in school in my village. By grade six, there were only nine of us. All the other kids and their families, they left because of hunger. They migrated north, as far as Libya, because they could not harvest. The river that used to flow disappeared. We thought the water had run out. Actually, it was a symbol of climate change. After my studies, I came back to Mali, and now, whenever I have the opportunity, I talk about the environment. We need to wake up to the impacts of climate change in our communities.

What are some of the best books you have read?

Two books by Malian authors come to mind. First: “Amkoullel, l’enfant Peulh” which translates into Amkoullel, the Fula Child. This is an autobiography by Amadou Hampâté Bâ. It is the story of his life, the traditions of the Fulanese people, his legacy of survival, and African wisdom. Second is “Sous l’Orage” which translates into Under the Storm, by Seydou Badian Kouyaté. It’s a novel about the westernization of Africa, what one should accept and not accept. These are both wonderful works of French African literature.

What brings you hope?

The children I’m working with. I know that we are preparing them for a better future. With education, they are empowered to make positive change – because the first piece of peace is education.

Learn More about Alhouss

Learn more about buildOn and connect with Alhouss on LinkedIn.

Read More Like This:

Color Line