A Writer Writes

[Peace Corps Volunteers often have experiences that follow them throughout their lives. Such was the case with Habib Diatta, who came into Leita Kaldi's life in 1993 to tell her he taught at a school with 800 students and no latrines! She helped him to find funding and develop the project himself, in collaboration with local villagers, to provide sanitary facilities for his students. Habib didn't stop there. In his rural school with no electricity, he dreamed of providing computers and training to schools throughout Senegal. When he was recruited to a university in Indiana, he realized his dream, founding Wings for West Africa, a non-profit organization that ships computers to every corner of Senegal. Nearly twenty years after meeting Habib, Leita is compelled to share his story.]

Wings for West Africa
by Leita  Kaldi (Senegal 1993-96)

“At our school we have eight hundred students and no latrines!”

Habib Diatta spoke softly, with a rasp to his voice.  He lowered his eyes as he spoke, then raised them to look into my face.  His eyes were dark wells between furrowed eyebrows, intense, purposeful.  His full mouth might have been pouting, if his jaws had not been locked. Tall and slender, his shoulders sloped with that Senegalese male grace so suited to dancing.

“Can you help us find a way to build latrines?” he asked.

I tried to imagine eight hundred kids, an army of kids at the town of Diofior’s middle school, kids who walked hours from surrounding villages to attend school, a school where there were no latrines.  Did they all troop off into the fields at recess?  Or did they slide out of their classrooms surreptitiously, one by one, hoping nobody would see them sneak into the bush.

My toubab voice whispered inside my head.  “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout buildin’ no latrines.”  I’d been in the village of Fimela for six months.  Fimela, in the Delta Sine-Saloum, a place where the Sahara meets the Atlantic, where baobab trees etch spidery shapes across the horizons, where the Sérère people dwell, people who fish in the lagoons and open ocean, people who live on isolated islands, practicing  Pangool - ancient animism -  the last stronghold in Senegal against Islamic jihad, a place that people from other parts of the country feared for its latent occult powers. Now, however, it seems that jihad is not an issue, as most people are Muslim. Leopold Senghor was an exception, the grand poet and first President of Senegal, who was raised Catholic in nearby Djilor.  The people were the most beautiful I’d ever seen, especially the women, willowy tall, fine featured, almond eyed, silky skinned.  The men weren’t bad either.  I never tired of staring at them.  As I was staring at Habib.

“What would you like me to do?” I answered.

“Find money to build latrines for the school,” he replied simply.

Here it was; the perpetual assumption that I was a fountain of funds.  “Toubab! Cadeau!”  But Habib interrupted my cynical thoughts:

“I’m not asking you personally.  I know what Peace Corps Volunteers do, and I’m asking you to help us find a resource, a way to get our latrines.”

I didn’t really understand what this young man was asking me to do.  I didn’t know who he was, if I should trust him, if he was trying to shake me down, if he would throttle me and search my little house for money and stuff.  But I didn’t feel at afraid of him.  There was a reassuring gentleness in his face.  He held out his hands to me, elegant hands with long fingers and smooth skin; not a farmer’s or a fisherman’s hands.

“What do you do?” I asked, “and why do you care about the kids at the school?”

Habib jolted forward.  “Oh! I forgot to tell you.  I’m a teacher.  I teach English and French.  I’m the student council sponsor.”

I smiled.  “Well, that explains why we’re not speaking in Sérère or Wolof.  You speak English quite well.”

He chuckled.  “Yeah, I try.”  The “yeah” sounded American.

“Well, I’d be glad to help you, Habib.  God knows it’s a necessary cause … eight hundred kids with no latrines … I don’t even want to think about that.  I wish I had enough money to give you.  But perhaps I could help you to get it yourself.”

His brows creased.  “How would I do that?”

I wasn’t really sure myself, but looked away, out the window, searching for an idea.  “Let’s have a Coke while I think about this.”

I walked into my tiny kitchen, furnished with a hot plate, a rickety table and two chairs, a Peace Corps water filter and several plastic basins.  I kept drinks in one of those basins which I half filled with well water, hoping they’d stay cool, which never happened for more than a few hours.  I plucked two warm Cokes from the water and poured the foaming liquid into glasses.  By the time I set them down in front of Habib I had an idea.

“Habib, do you ever go to Dakar?”

“Oh yeah, my parents live there. I visit them quite often. I was born and raised there. Teaching is what brought me here.”

“Great!  I hate going to Dakar.  Ten hours of bush taxis and all that hubbub in the city.  Not for me.  Tell you what.  Next time you go to Dakar, you could go to the Peace Corps office and ask them for an application for a Small Project Assistance grant from USAID.  I’ll give you a note saying that it’s for me.  We could start there, trying to raise money for your latrines.  You know English well enough to fill out the application, though I’ll help you with it.  You’ll have to come up with a budget for the project, and raise 25%, I think, among the villagers, to get the grant.”

Habib looked at me for a long moment.  “You mean you want me to do all that?  I thought you might apply for a grant for us.”

“I think you can do it yourself, Habib.  Do you want to try?”

“Yeah!,” he agreed.  “I’ll try it.”

*          *          *

A few weeks later, I was sitting on a bamboo chair outside my house in the evening, watching the sun pour liquid gold over the darkening tree tops, when I heard a knock at my gate.  Habib stood there, smiling widely as he greeted me.  He was wearing a handsome cotton shirt and neat, belted slacks; a brief case dangled on a strap from his shoulder.

“I got it,” he announced excitedly.  “The application.  I even started filling it out.  They were very nice to me at the Peace Corps office.  Wow!  It’s like being in a little piece of America over there, isn’t it.  All those American people!”

I supposed that would be my impression, too, if I were Senegalese. He looked rumpled and dusty after his long trip from Dakar.  He proudly pulled out the application from his briefcase and handed it to me.  He had filled out most of it in pencil, including figures for labor and materials, a budget that he had already worked out.  Villagers would fulfill their 25% contribution by in-kind labor, some materials, such as sea shells and sand for building blocks, and some cash.  I corrected a few grammatical errors in his proposal in pencil, and handed it back to him, telling him he was good to go, as far as I could see, that he could fill it in with pen and take it back to Dakar.  I loved it; he was doing the whole job.

It took a month or so for the money to be transferred to my account, but the villagers had already begun work, clearing ground in front of the school near the road, collecting crushed seashells and sand to mix with cement that they would purchase with the grant money.  A technical assistant from USAID arrived to advise the villagers on the proper construction of latrines, while students were taught how to properly maintain them.

Habib invited me to have lunch with the other teachers at the school.  They lived together in an old house with many small rooms, each containing a cot, a small table and whatever other piece of furniture the teacher might be able to afford.  They all came from other places, and had been assigned by the Ministry of Education to Diofior.  Habib showed me around and introduced me to half a dozen teachers sitting in the courtyard, where women were preparing ceeb u jeen, the tasty fish and rice dish of Senegal. The women wore brightly colored wrap-around skirts, T-shirts and patterned head wraps, below which tiny gold earrings twinkled, while delicate bracelets slid clinking up and down their slim wrists.  One of the teachers was a petite young woman with a sweet face and shy expression.  Her name was Korka; she was Habib’s fiancèe.  We all sat on a mat around the bowl and dipped up the spicy, oily rice and chunks of fish that had sizzled in hot peppers and tamarind.

Conversation lagged while we ate.  We leaned back only when the bowl was nearly empty, and satisfied burps punctuated the silence.  After a while, one of the profs boiled water for foaming green tea, and the young men began to talk about their work, their families, their ambitions.  Habib longed for computers in the school, which seemed like a far-fetched dream, because there was no electricity in the village.  Unfazed, he insisted that one day there would be electricity and computer classes, and he wanted to teach them.  He had taken a college computer course that had planted the seed of his ambition.  He had learned Windows and Office programs and bought technology manuals from the United States and France.   As he spoke, his brows pleated with intensity.  I doubted the viability of his wishes, unable to imagine that such progress would come to this backroad town for a very long time.  I didn’t say anything, though, because to dash dreams is to dash hope.  I didn’t know, however, what a powerful dreamer Habib was.

*          *          *

Work began on the latrines.  I expected a lot of noise from the construction site, but when you have no machinery and are building by hand, shoveling and mixing cement, forming blocks, then laying them in place to form walls, the sound of hammering and sawing is rare.  People worked in the evening, after returning from their farms, women fetching and hauling alongside their men, children running and tumbling around this unusual activity, as if it were a fair that brought all the village people out.  The buildings went up slowly, but people persevered until one after another latrine was built: six latrines on one side for boys, six on the other for girls. Finally, the bright sunny day arrived when the last touch was applied to the project:  a hand-painted, round sign on the wall facing the road that read in a circle of letters,   Association des Parents d’Eleves de Diofior. In the middle were the flags of Senegal and the United States with the caption in large letters, SENEGAL USA.

The village chief presided over the grand latrine opening ceremony, standing next to Habib, who looked on proudly and followed the chief’s speech with his own, expressing on behalf of all the teachers and students their gratitude for this essential sanitation facility.  As I stood there grinning, he turned to me and declared that this great achievement would not have been possible without my help and that of  Peace Corps and USAID.  I responded that I had done nothing, actually, but just offered the people a way to do it themselves.  At that moment, I was so overwhelmed with pride and joy, I felt ten feet tall.

But that’s not the end of the story.  Within five years electricity came  to Diofior, and Habib got donations of used computers to set up his class from two friends and a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer at Intercultural Dimensions, a non-profit organization in Boston.

“I started at my own school,” Habib told me years later, “teaching word processing.  I trained one or two teachers at each school, and they trained other teachers and the students. They were very curious. It was my life. I remember spending the night at the school.”

Then in  2002,  following an invitation from a University in Indiana to talk about technology in West African schools, Habib was hired to teach and coach soccer in Indianapolis mostly thanks to a longtime friend and exchange partner Kathy Lattimer.  He brought Korka, who had become his wife in 1996, to live there.  He  teamed up with Kathy Lattimer, who had travelled to Senegal with a Peace Corps group in 1998, when she first met Habib.  Kathy encouraged Habib’s dream of providing computers to Senegalese schools, and together they set up Wings for West Africa, a non-profit organization that started delivering computers and other technology tools to Senegal in 2001.  Habib sent me the web site he designed.  When I saw it, tears welled into my eyes as I read my name there.  “Years ago a Peace Corps Volunteer named Leita Kaldi came to Diofior.  She taught me how to develop a project.  She opened the path for me.”

“Years ago a Peace Corps Volunteer named Leita Kaldi came to Diofior.  She taught me how to develop a project.  She opened the path for me.”

The Indianapolis based school district’s technology department donated older computers, as did some churches. Word of mouth also helped the project grow. The Ice Miller law firm donated all of the legal services to get the nonprofit organization off the ground.  Kathy and Habib used her two-car garage as a warehouse to collect computers, other technology equipment and even boxes for shipping for their one shipment per year. Today, Wings for West Africa’s  computers have reached every corner of Senegal.

Recently,  I received a surprise phone call from Habib.  He was at Disney World in Orlando with Korka and their children.  Though I could not drive over to see them, I was very touched that Habib had remembered me.  I remembered my doubts about his ambitions that day in Diofior, when I thought his greatest achievement would be the building of latrines.  I had underestimated the great ambition, determination and vision that would unfurl into wings for Habib.

Wings for West Africa has three goals:

To promote and support education in rural schools in West Africa — beginning with Senegal.

To create educational and cultural exchanges between American and African school.

To  foster respect for the environment by recycling used computers and keeping hazardous materials out of landfills.

How to help

To donate computers or other equipment, contact Kathy Lattimer or Habib Diatta. Send e-mail to wafwings@wafwings.org or call (317) 407-8289.   Visit their Web site, www. wafwings.org

Leita Kaldi Davis worked for the United Nations and UNESCO, for Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard University. She worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years, became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal  from 1993-96,  then worked for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years. She retired in Florida in 2002. Kaldi published a memoir of Senegal, Roller Skating in the Desert, (amazon.com/Publishamerica) and is working on a memoir of Haiti.