The Hope of the Azawak
Recently, I had the great honor to make the acquaintance of a remarkable young woman. Ariane Kirtley is spearheading a project to bring permanent water sources to a remote part of Africa. The people of the Azawak are the poorest people in the poorest nation in the world. Mainly nomadic Tuaregs and Woodabe Fulani, they live in the country of Niger in a region about the size of Florida. Long ignored by governmental and humanitarian aid organizations partly because their remote location is too dangerous even for aid workers, Ariane describes them as an abandoned people. For 9 months during the dry season, the people of the Azawak region have to travel almost 30 miles a day to the nearest well. Often small children are sent out on this mission on the back of a donkey and return home, sometimes after waiting several days for a well to fill up, with the equivalent of less than half a gallon of water.
Ariane grew up in West Africa and so has always had a great affinity for the African continent. She met the people of the Azawak while on a Fulbright Fellowship to study the health conditions of women and minority groups in the region. Her research assistant who was from the Azawak begged her to come to this particular area. What she found was a population of people that have to travel a two-day donkey ride to get the barest of medical care, and even more tragically have no viable source of water for 9 months of the year. Disease is rampant as children bathe in putrid, fecal-filled water as dark as hot chocolate - if they can find it.
Ariane's stories about her time in the Azawak tell of a people who welcomed her into their villages as if she were a daughter. Her "father" walked 12 miles the night she arrived just to bring her some meat to eat. Their kindness touched her and their plight broke her heart. Ariane told their story to aid organizations, like Care and Save the Children, begging them to bring water and health care to the region. She was told that the area was too dangerous even for aid workers to begin the process of sending help. It was a catch 22! It seemed that no one cared about these beautiful people. But Ariane's heart had been touched and she could not walk away.
Under the banner of The Friendship Caravan (an American 501c3 organization), she started Program Amman Imman with a goal of raising $280,000 by the end of this year to build two water sources in the region. Since June, she has raised $130,000. Even though she has not raised enough money to build the two wells she initially planned, she will be returning to the region soon to work with the entrepreneurs to begin the initial drilling for one well. But one water source in a region of this size is not enough. Two permanent water wells will not meet the needs of the 500,000 people who live in the region. So, this project is a pilot effort and the hope is that after one or two permanent water sources are built, the work of Amman Imman will serve as a catalyst for other humanitarian aid organizations, who will piggyback on her efforts and start bringing in health care and other humanitarian assistance, while she works to continue raising funds for many more water sources. Her long range goal is to build at fifty of these deep wells over a five year period to serve the basic water needs of 500,000 people.
When Ariane presents the project, she tells the stories of these people with a genuine love. She tells of "her children" that are dying everyday, her "sister" who died in child birth. She tells of illness and death and disease. But she shows pictures of their deep eyes, warm smiles and colorful clothing. Through the pictures and her stories, we feel the essence of these people. Her passion to help them speaks to the heart. She could not bear to exploit them by photographing their misery. But it doesn't matter that we don't see that awful reality. Through her words we feel their pain, and in the beauty of their pictures and the stories that she tells of their great love, we feel their essence.
I first met Ariane in October when she presented the project to the teachers of the Oneness-Family School during our weekly faculty meeting. Feeling her love, her kindness and her passion to help, she had all of us in tears. Now, we could not walk away. Ariane told her story to the 6-9 year old class and she presented the project to our Peacekeeper's club. We decided to adopt the project as our community service fundraiser.
Andrew Kutt, director of the Oneness-Family School, invited Ariane to the Montessori Peace Academy conference in Clearwater Beach, Florida, intending that her presentation of the Amman Imman Project would inspire Montessori schools across the nation to adopt the project as their own as well. She traveled 15 hours from her home in central France to attend the conference. The journey was exhausting and overwhelming for her because she'd barely had time to rest while back in France for that small amount of time. While at the conference, I felt compelled to help make her long journey worthwhile. I spent most of my time getting her set up, introducing her to people and talking to the conference organizers to be sure she had the best exposure to the most people. Along the way, I discovered a new friend, a sister, and I am so happy.
On Saturday night, Ariane and three students from the Oneness-Family School's Peacekeeper Club presented the project to an audience of around 200 educators. Ariane did the introduction. Then, the students movingly told Ariane's stories as the powerpoint presentation displayed the pictures of the people of the Azawak. The hand of love continued to massage our hearts when Ariane told more stories after the students finished, speaking of her connection to the people and what motivates her to bring them the water that they desperately need. Many were crying, deeply touched by the story of the people in the Azawak region of Niger and the compassion of this courageous young woman.
The response to Ariane from the community of Montessori teachers and administrators was tremendous. Along with a team of other educators, I will be working with Ariane to organize Montessori Schools across America and worldwide to join in this effort to raise money to build at least one of these water sources. Our intention is to raise at least $130,000 for one well in the name of Montessori schools worldwide. What an amazing experience for the students to become connected to the people of the Azawak through Ariane. She plans to go back and tell "her children" that children in America care about them and are going to help. Connecting students to an effort of genuine compassion and courage like this one truly prepares them for a future leadership of sensitivity, kindness, courage and action. It lifts them out of the small world of their local communities and connects them to people in a land far away. Through Ariane's project, our children in America have a chance to make a tangible difference in the lives of their brothers and sisters in Africa.
This is just the beginning of the remarkable story of Ariane Kirtley, the Hope of the Azawak. She is a simple human being, with a big heart and a big mission to save a people that she loves. I implore teachers and students to go to www.waterishope.org to find out more about the Amman Imman Project and how they can help. Further, dear friends, I invite you to join the Montessori community in this effort. Please let me know if you would like to be kept informed as the students of the Oneness-Family School and their Montessori peers worldwide educate the greater community about the plight of the people living in the Azawak valley of Niger and work together in this fundraising effort. You are most welcome to participate alongside of us. (all photos courtesy of Ariane Kirtley)