Ahead of First Lady's Visit, A School's Facelift

Laura Bush has just completed a tour of Africa, stopping at a school in Bamako, Mali. The U.S. Embassy there helped to spruce up the school before her arrival, making it more amenable to a photo-op.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Here's a behind-the-scenes look now at another VIP visit, one we don't often get to see. First Lady Laura Bush has been traveling through Africa. On Friday she stopped in Mali, one of the poorest countries in the world. She visited the Nelson Mandela Elementary School in the capital, Bamako. The school is supported by the African Education Initiative launched by President Bush in his first term. Reporter Addie Goss tells how, for two weeks leading up to the visit, the U.S. embassy helped the school prepare to show its gratitude and loaned it equipment for a temporary facelift.

(Soundbite of children singing)

ADDIE GOSS: A classroom full of third graders greeted Mrs. Bush at the Nelson Mandela School, and the kids wore matching traditional outfits. Outside, in a cool, shady, tree-lined courtyard, new buds grew on the trees. The gravel was fresh with dew.

None of this is out of the ordinary for a White House photo op, but Bamako just isn't this pretty. Heat, dust, and smog normally make the afternoons here unbearable. But after weeks of work, the Nelson Mandela School felt like an oasis.

(Soundbite of hammering)

GOSS: It was Thursday, only 24 hours left before the First Lady's visit, and a work crew from the U.S. embassy was installing electrical outlets in two classrooms.

The next day, the outlets would power the fans to cool Mrs. Bush and the rest of the crowd. But like most schools in Mali, the Mandela School doesn't have enough money for electricity, so the power cords from these new outlets led out the windows to a mobile generator the embassy brought over and hit out back.

Rebecca Rhodes is the project manager for the Teacher Training via Radio program, which is entirely funded by President Bush's African Education Initiative. For two weeks, Rhodes has worked with White House security and communications crews to make the school picture perfect for the First Lady's visit.

Ms. REBECCA RHODES (Project Manager, Teacher Training via Radio): So Mrs. Bush's limousine and the limousine of Mali's First Lady would come through the door there at the front of the school, and then she will walk down this lovely gravel that we have just put down.

GOSS: About the gravel, USAID bought it so that the First Lady wouldn't slip on the mud in the courtyard. The gravel just covers the portion of the courtyard Mrs. Bush will see. And the trees, the bushes, all of the landscaping looked incredibly green in a country where people can walk miles each day to get water.

Ms. RHODES: The trees have been trimmed. They've also been watered. They're looking a lot happier. It just looks more spruced up. It looks very pretty compared to the way it looked a few weeks ago.

GOSS: Dembe Bundi(ph) is a high school teacher who works with the Teacher Training via Radio program. During the week before the First Lady arrived, he watched the slow removal of plastic bags, peanut shells, and paper trash from the courtyard. On Tuesday, he saw an embassy work crew tear out two of the kids' water spouts because they were in the way of Mrs. Bush's entrance. He was also struck by some selective repainting on the walls surrounding the school.

Mr. DEMBE BUNDI(ph): Only the entrance door has been painted new, because that's where everybody gets in. But the rest of the wall, it's dirty, and you have all this American gangster boy kind of graffiti on the wall, and nobody seems to care about that but just the entrance door, to me which is so interesting.

(Speaking Foreign Language)

GOSS: Bundi's main job last week was to teach a group of third graders from Nelson Mandela to sing a welcome song to Mrs. Bush.

(Soundbite of singing in foreign language)

GOSS: The song is in French, the colonial language of Mali. Today, French is still the language required for any high-level job in this country. The song only has six lines.

Mr. BUNDI: On the way to school, let's get together. On the way to school, let's get better. Teachers, male teachers of Mali, let's get together. Female teachers of Mali, let's get better. So these are the words.

GOSS: But it's taken Bundi four days of constant work to teach the third graders these words because they don't really speak French. They speak Bamanka(ph), one of many native tongues in Mali, and under the Malian curriculum, they just started taking classes in French this year.

As for facilities, the Nelson Mandela School was exceptional even before the U.S. embassy started working here. Mandela inaugurated the school himself, and it's received foreign aid several times since. It's made of concrete with an insulated roof, while Malian schools are more often mud brick with tin or straw on top. Sideke Jekde(ph) is the employee of the U.S. embassy who sent the work crews over to the school. He reflected on the rush to fix the place up before Mrs. Bush arrived.

Mr. SIDEKE JEKDE(ph): She will see everything except real Mali, I'm telling you. Will you ever take your guest to places you don't want your guest to see?

GOSS: American sources at the embassy say the school was refurbished to allow Mrs. Bush to be comfortable and focused on the substance of the event.

Aside from the Mandela School, Mrs. Bush made just two stops in Mali - the president's mansion and the house of the U.S. ambassador. The whole visit was over within hours.

Yesterday morning, I returned to the Mandela School with teacher Dembe Bundi. The courtyard was once again covered in trash, this time water bottle labels and doughnut cartons from the First Lady's visit. Bundi(ph) looked at the scene and shook his head.

Mr. BUNDI: Mali is a poor country. We're not ashamed of saying it. We're poor. But despite the poverty level, we still want to impress the West, which to me is pointless. If I am poor and sleeping on the dirt and you're coming to visit me, let's hang out on the dirt, and maybe I'll have a better chance to get some help from you.

GOSS: We went into the classroom that had been electrically fitted. The embassy had removed the fans, the furniture, and the generator the same afternoon the First Lady visited. Even the outlets had been pulled out of the walls.

For NPR News, I'm Addie Goss in Bamako, Mali.

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