On my way to the American Montessori Society’s conference in New York, I had the opportunity to present the Amman Imman project to an audience of 250 fifth grade students and their teachers at Lawrence Intermediate School in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, a town near Princeton. My dear friend from high school, Lisa Charles, got excited about the possibility of getting her students involved after hearing about Amman Imman when she visited me in January.
At first, Ms. Charles thought only a couple of classes would be interested and that we would have the presentation in the school’s library. But after she sent an email describing Amman Imman’s mission in the Azawak and the opportunity for student involvement, all the fifth grade teachers wanted to bring their classes. We were given the school’s auditorium, which doubled as a cafeteria, in order to fit everyone.
With the help of school’s personnel, Tuareg music was filtered through the room’s sound system. I wanted to create the atmosphere of a different place for students as they entered the large room. The display on the stage of three beautiful photographs from the Azawak brought a focus to the presentation that I hoped would catch the student’s attention as they filed into the room to sit on the benches around the cafeteria tables.
For me, this was the first time I had ever spoken to such a large audience, much less 250 10-year-old public school students. Each class filed into the large room, in a buzz of activity and excitement. I remained focused and calm, feeling a sense of peace around me with a confidence in the presentation I was about to make. As soon as I started to speak, explaining that I was about to tell them a story about 500,000 people who had no water, a silence came over the entire crowd. I had their attention.
I explained that the mission of Amman Imman was to save and improve the lives of the people in this region, the size of Florida, who had no water at all for nine months of the year, who shared contaminated and muddy water with animals for three months, whose children died because of this lack of water. I also told them the stories of generosity that define the nature of the people in the Azawak region, the people that welcomed our friend Ariane Kirtley into their lives like a member of the family.
A collective gasp rose from the audience when I told them that the people in the Azawak do not bathe for nine months. I asked them, “If you had only the equivalent of a glass of water per day, would you waste it on a bath?” A rising “noooo” came from the audience. When they saw the photo of 18-month-old Agoubiouly drinking from a bowl with water darker than hot chocolate, they whispered, “yuck”. And when we talked about how easy it is to cool off here in America during our hot summers, but how children in the Azawak have to travel on the back of a donkey in 125 degree heat with no sprinklers, no swimming pools, no water fountains, they understood.
The stories that Ariane brought us from the Azawak are stories that everyone can relate to, stories of family, stories of caring, stories of sickness. There are some things as Westerners we may not fully comprehend, such as what it is like to travel 30 miles on the back of a donkey to bring back some water for your entire family, or singing to ward off spirits rather than take a pill to cure an illness. But when it comes to the basic human needs that are sorely absent from the lives of the inhabitants of the Azawak, needs like adequate and clean water so that children can bathe, wash their clothes and have time to play, needs like health care so that when someone is sick they have a doctor they can go to, even ten-year-old children understand. These are needs that everyone who has access to them, whether they are a student in a large public school or a student in a small Montessori school, can relate to as important for healthy living.
I did not show them the pictures of suffering children that live in the Azawak region, children dying from lack of water, children malnourished from the lack of adequate food during the dry season. Ariane did witness these scenes in the Azawak and it affected her deeply, as she says, “I could not bear to take pictures of my sick and dying friends.” She could not exploit their misery. While the usual wisdom is that pictures speak louder than words, in this case the words telling about the sick and the dying, the hungry and the thirsty, the searching and the waiting for water, along with the striking pictures of children and adults living amidst a beautiful culture that needs to be preserved, speak loudly to the heart.
As the presentation came to a close, I told the students what other schools were doing to help and how I envisioned a network of children across America working together to help these children in a land so far away, children who deserved to play and learn just like them. I explained that children in America have an opportunity to connect with children in the Azawak through Ariane’s personal connection with them.
As the students and teachers left the room, I stood at the door thanking them for coming. Many stopped to ask questions and thank me for the presentation, saying they wanted to help. Back in the classroom, Ms. Charles' students were especially enthusiastic. Three students told me they wanted to learn how to present the project to other students. All the students liked the idea of A Walk for Water.
One girl touched me deeply. She stayed with me until the last person left the auditorium, and we walked back to the classroom together, as she expressed her understanding and passion. “These kids have no water, and we have to help them.”
“Our bodies are made of water”, she explained. We talked about how important water is for every human being. “It’s an essential resource”, she wisely reflected. “Of course, we need it.” She told me she wanted to tell others about the children in the Azawak region and help raise funds. I envisioned that participation in this project of caring could be an opportunity for this young girl to focus on something that feeds her spirit and passion, therefore supporting her self-worth even as she continues to pursue academic success.
Children are so caring. It doesn’t matter if they go to a public school, a private school or live in a remote region in Africa. What a beautiful thing to involve students, both those in Montessori schools and their peers in all kinds of schools, in a project of care that unites them in their essential humanity. How wonderful to bring a project to students that they can see through to completion, where they will be able to connect with the children in the Azawak as they get water, as their lives become healthier and reflect their beautiful natures.
This project builds bridges of understanding and connection broadly and inclusively from student to student, whether they are in a Montessori school, in a public school, in a home-schooling program, or any kind of school. As they work together to tell their community and the rest of the world about the needs of the people in the Azawak and Amman Imman’s project to bring water, the gaps of separation created by cultural differences, as well as school philosophies, shrink. As children around the world reach out to children in the Azawak, the essential nature of their humanity becomes a unifying bridge of connection. (all photos of the Azawak courtesy of Ariane Kirtley)