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From Here to Timbuktu

From Here to Timbuktu

Issue 59 August 2009

Imam Zaid Shakir tells Remona Aly about his moving journey and seeking to turn the desert green.


Imam Zaid looks a little drained, and he has good reason to be. Having toured the UK relating an intense eight day journey across northern Mali, the US scholar is thirsty for change in a region that is dry, dusty and in dire need of turning green. The respected and influential Islamic scholar, who is scholar-in-residence and lecturer at Zaytuna Institute has been working with Islamic Relief for some years, and when presented with the opportunity of heading up a mission for Mali, he took it without hesitation. Mali’s poor rainfall equates to a poor out-turn of crops for farmers, which in turn affects the livestock, and feeding of the farmers’ families.

Turning the desert green 

Under the tagline of ‘Turning the desert green’, the Mission for Mali seeks to create 200 acres of farmland for the local people to grow rice, sorghum, vegetables, and animal fodder. The farms will be irrigated by two water pumps, and will be shielded from the harsh desert wind by trees to protect the crops. The project hopes to reach 6,900 people. The Mission for Mali took Imam Zaid to Northern Mali near the historic town of Timbuktu. As an Islamic seat of learning and a former nucleus of an historic empire, its legacy makes the dismal situation there now all the more poignant.

Imam Zaid explains how Mali is closer to us than we think, “Many people who were captured in Africa and sold into slavery in what is now the US, have actually studied in Timbaktu. One story of Ayuub bin Sulayman, known as the Fortunate Slave, was an imam of his people and studied in Timbaktu. When he ran away and was eventually captured, he was asked why he tried to escape. He replied ‘I cannot pray in peace’. He had the soul of a free man. He wrote a letter in Arabic to his father, but the letter ended up in the hands of James Oglethorpe in England who had the letter translated in Oxford. He was so impressed with its eloquence, that he purchased Ayyub bin Sulayman’s freedom. Ayyub’s story encompasses Timbaktu, Britain and the US. We need to pay the debt we owe to our brothers and sisters in Africa.”

Imam Zaid walked in the footsteps of those he so passionately speaks of, in the villages surrounding Timbaktu. Overwhelmed by the generosity and hospitality of the people he met, he received the precious gifts of food and water from those who already had little, those people who he says “left an indelible mark on my heart”. Imam Zaid cites a recent UN study, reporting that the people of Mali are said to be the most optimistic people on earth. “Sometimes those who have less can look at the world form a very different perspective and truly appreciate what they do have.” He relates how his own upbringing furnished him with an insight to the people of Mali. “When I was young, my mother raised us by herself. We had one pair of shoes, but those were reserved for church and school, so there were times we went out barefoot. We would have to get the soles of our feet scrubbed each day, which were often covered with cuts and scrapes.

There was a time when that was a reality in the US for me, and it gave me insight into empathising with the suffering of others, and to appreciate what you have, and to want to extend those blessings to others to the best of your ability.” In a world where some people are wasteful of water, and others hold a drop as precious as gold, I ask Imam Zaid if it is now his challenge to move people to action back in the West, where we are more divorced from the situation in Mali. “I wouldn’t call it a challenge, I would call it a mission,” he replies, as I detect the slightest hint of a grin. “What challenges us is to eliminate the disparities between us. Then we will give unconditionally.”

When asked if there were any moments from his journey that stood out to him, Imam Zaid cites several, but even these are only a handful of his memories. “The terrain in Mali is challenging, so much so that our caravan of cars broke down and we had to stop. Suddenly, a man came out of nowhere, carrying everything he owned tied to a stick. He was shrivelled and parched, his water skin was empty, and he asked us for water. Then he walked off into the desert and disappeared. We encountered a man that you only read about. It was incredible. Timbaktu is still used as a metaphor for the middle of nowhere, even though it was a centre of learning. To see thousands of manuscripts in this historic place, this vast, literary heritage for which people came from far and wide to study Islam – it was extremely moving.”

Imam Zaid visited some of the schools in Mali, and relates the enthusiasm for learning he saw on their faces. “Here in the West we have all the resources – we have canteens, books, writing equipment, but we have children dropping out of school and underachieving. Yet in Mali, you will see a school that is made from grass and tree trunks. The children are sitting on a dirt floor, their faces often covered with dust, and they are thirsting for knowledge. To see that was truly overwhelming.” Imam Zaid also visited gardens where women are empowered to grow their own livelihood through vegetables and fruit which enables them to feed their families, their neighbours, and sell it in the market to buy food and medicine.

In the Gossi commune, the Women’s Income Generation Project relies on a water pump, funded by Islamic Relief, to pump water from the river to irrigate the fields. The woman responsible for the project, Khadija min Jadduija said, “The women’s project has changed our lives completely. The food that we grow not only provides sustenance for 24 families but also a vital income.” Imam Zaid was touched by what he saw, to witness the “pride and dignity these women have, the happiness on their faces, it’s beyond description.” Imam Zaid came back with his experiences, carrying them to people across the UK in a series of fundraising dinners in Bradford, Manchester, Birmingham and London in July. The tour aimed to raise at least £200,000 for water projects, and it succeeded in its goals. Yet more is needed in order to sustain it in the long term. During the London lecture, which raised £100,000 alone, Imam Zaid told the audience. “Children suffer from cholera, diahorrea, malnutrition. We don’t need you to be emotional. We don’t need you to shed tears. What we do need is for you to be passionate about donating to this project.” Taking the lead from this imam, turning the desert green is not about the challenge, but it is all about our mission.

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