Awn Be Se: "We Can"


Real Change, West-Africa Style

By Stephen Collins '74

Emily Goodnow ’09J wasn’t exactly a seasoned world traveler when she signed up for junior year abroad in a French-speaking country in 2006-07.

“I had been to Canada once,” said the Madbury, N.H., resident. “When I was twelve.”

She was preparing for a semester in France when her roommate and friend, Nancy McDermott ’08, encouraged Goodnow to get more adventurous, to indulge her interest in Africa whet by her father’s Peace Corps tales from the Congo. So, two days before the deadline, Goodnow shifted her sights south and applied to School for International Training (SIT) programs in Mali, Madagascar, and Morocco.


Whether the result of linear decision-making, serendipity, or West African juju, it would prove a life-altering detour. Fall 2006 study with SIT in Mali ran into a spring semester in 2007 working for Save the Children. A year later she would return with McDermott in the summer of 2008 as partners in a $10,000 Projects for Peace grant.

In her first semester Goodnow fell in love with the place and the people. By November she felt it would be crazy to leave just when she was beginning to understand the country and its challenges.

Her parents agreed she could stay—but only if she did something structured. “Mali has enough problems,” she recalls her father, Donald Goodnow, saying. “Don’t just hang around and be a freeloader.” Two days later she had a job as the director’s assistant at Save the Children, organizing the supply closet, translating documents, even writing a (successful) $400,000 grant for girls’ education. “I didn’t come home at all [that year]," she said. “My poor mother!”
Marcia Goodnow, Emily’s mother, said, “The Thanksgiving and Christmas landmarks were difficult without her, but I think everybody was happy to see her having such an incredible experience. ... We were thrilled to have her stay and be so focused,” she said, admitting that news of multiple bouts with malaria and typhoid was rough.

But that first year abroad was just prelude. Back at Colby Goodnow and McDermott (who spent fall 2006 in Cameroon) won a very competitive $10,000 Projects for Peace grant that allowed them to return to Bamako, Mali’s capital, last summer to start a empowerment program for a group of girls.

Projects for Peace is an initiative of Kathryn Wasserman Davis open to all students at more than 90 schools in the Davis United World Scholars Program. To celebrate her 100th birthday, in 2007, Davis offered 100 $10,000 grants for grassroots projects that students would implement that summer. McDermott and Goodnow won one of 100 grants awarded in the second year, and the selection process for a third round of grants is underway this winter.

McDermott’s and Goodnow’s program was titled Awn Be Se, which means “We Can” in Bambara, the local language in Bamako. The pair proposed convening girls in three neighborhoods and—through activities, discussions, and training—building the girls’ aspirations, business and leadership skills, self images, and sense of community and cooperation.

The work was particularly important in light of the conditions for girls there. Childhood education costs money and, for the most part, only boys go to school while girls do chores at home, Goodnow said. As young women mature, sexual relations often involve exchange for consumer goods, and sex education and HIV awareness and testing are often neglected.

Goodnow says she and McDermott realized that two white college students couldn’t just roll into town and say, “Okay girls. Now we’re going to discuss negotiations with guys,” she said. So they built a network of successful women mentors and local experts, and they partnered with Adda Diallo, a sociology major at the University of Mali.

Projects don’t always go as planned. After advertising a program for teenagers they had 80 girls and women from 3 to 55 years old show up for the first meeting. So, in addition to the core group that served 15 to 20 teenagers, McDermott and Goodnow started a group with age-appropriate activities and discussions for younger girls, and a third group offered vocational training in sewing and tailoring—the first formal education for some of the older girls. The most driven and successful of the seamstresses were hired as apprentices at the end of the three-week training, significantly altering their potential for future prosperity.

In their summary report, McDermott and Goodnow wrote, “... this summer, we saw these young girls—the mothers, leaders, and faces of Mali’s future—find new purpose, new dreams, and new inspiration in their lives.”

As gratifying as that was, it wasn’t all about giving. Asked how the experience affected her, Goodnow said, “I mean, it changed everything. ... It just changed my world.”


Colby Students' Projects for Peace

Accessible Information: Working Towards Peace by Designing and Advancing Peer Based Sex-Education to Promote Healthy Choices and Better Understanding for Gao Zhong (High School) Students in China
Melyn Heckelman '08 and Victoria Yuan '07

Alpacas and Llamas as a Conservation Strategy in the Highlands of Ecuador: Creating Peace through Animals
Christine Avena '08

The Afghan Scholar Initiative

Qiamuddin Amiry '09 and John Campbell '09

Awn Be Se ["We Can"]: A Project for Empowerment in Bamako
Nancy McDermott '08 and Emily Goodnow'09 

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