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When former Indiana First Lady Maggie Kernan and I arrived in Timbuktu on February 25, 2001, it was in the dark of night and after a harrowing 11 1/2 hour drive across the Saharan desert in a beat-up 4-wheel drive truck. Our goal had been for me to wake up the next day, in Timbuktu, on my 50th birthday.

Amid the frustrating confusion of arranging for our hotel, there was one bright spot that night. A young 15-year-old boy, Ahmadou Maiga, approached Maggie and me and asked if he could be our tour guide while we were in Timbuktu.

Speaking in barely discernible English, Ahmadou offered to come and get us in the morning and show us around Timbuktu -- promising he could do it in just a few short hours. (Our time in Timbuktu was cut to the bare minimum after discovering that, because there were no flights out of Timbuktu the next day -- as promised -- Maggie and I were forced to have to make the same arduous journey back across the desert to the village of Mopti as soon as possible, in order for us to be able to spend one night there and then make the ten and a half hour drive back to Bamako in time to fly out of the country two days later.)

It was late, we were tired and beat from the trip across the desert, and desperately trying to sort out the hotel accommodations -- which included running water but no hot water -- so we agreed that Ahmadou would meet us early the next morning.

Sure enough, the next morning, Ahmadou appeared and was ready to show us around Timbuktu.

We had very little time for our tour because of our impending  journey back across the desert, but Ahmadou did such a wonderful job that he was the highlight of our visit.

It would have been easy to forget a 15-year-old boy whom we'd only met for a brief time in a small village so far away, and to which we most likely would never return in our lifetime -- but Ahmadou was not about to let that happen. Over the course of the next few years both Maggie and I would occasionally receive, at first, small postcards with broken English telling us how happy Ahmadou had been to have met us and to have been our tour guide in his beautiful Timbuktu, and then tiny envelopes containing small, neatly multi-folded, handwritten letters in broken English asking about how our lives were, and telling us that his life was good and that he hoped to see us one day in the future.

And then, a few years ago, I got an e-mail from Ahmadou sent to my personal e-mail address listed on the business card that I'd given him so many years earlier. That began a more regular line of communication by e-mail that allowed us to open a dialogue together, during which we learned more about Ahmadou's life in Timbuktu. Two years ago I sent Ahmadou a Macintosh laptop computer, a digital camera, and an iPod, making it even easier to communicate with Maggie and me by going to a local Internet café to e-mail us; Ahmadou and I have even Skype'd together on occasion. One of the conditions for the new camera was that he had to take pictures of his village and his family and send them to us -- which he did.

Ahmadou's dream has long been to become a tour guide, but he knows that his English language skills need to be the best they can be. And so, to that end, I offered to help send him to college where he could improve his English language skills as well as get a broad-based education. Our first attempt was to bring him to Indiana University last year. But for a variety of reasons, that did not work out as hoped -- not the least of which were his poor English skills.

Last fall, on the advice of my friend George Edwards, a professor at IUPUI in Indianapolis, who frequently travels around the world lecturing on international law and human rights issues, Ahmadou and I settled on his going to the University of Ghana where he would focus on English language studies for several months.

I'm proud and very happy to report that, this week, the university sent me Ahmadou's test results, and he's passed with flying colors, formally documenting his vastly improved English skills!  This means that we can now proceed to our next step of thinking about when and where Ahmadou will pursue his further education.

Now that Ahmadou and I can communicate more clearly with each other, it's even more exciting to contemplate what his future may hold. There are so many possibilities for a young man who just a few short months ago had never been anywhere outside his country, but who today dreams of a greatly improve life -- including the possibility of starting his own business -- based on a good education, hard work and dedication, and a passion for being the best he can be! And in the process, he'll help support his family while simultaneously making a contribution to his country. Our goal setting exercises are about to get even more exciting!

I'm looking forward to my continuing relationship with Ahmadou as he forges ahead in his life. And with luck, maybe one day Maggie Kernan and I will return to Timbuktu to see Ahmadou again, and to meet his beautiful family. I look forward to that!

NOTE: Photo above is Ahmadou and his Mamy (Grandmother), inside their home in the desert, Timbuktu, Mali, West Africa.

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Ahmadou's Family Outside Their Home in the Desert, in Timbuktu, Mali, West Africa

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Ahmadou's Test Results This Week.

 


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