Ahead of First Lady's Visit, A School's Facelift
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: 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: 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.
REBECCA RHODES: 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 would 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.
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.
DEMBE BUNDI: 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.
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: 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.
SIDEKE JEKDE: 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: 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.
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: For NPR News, I'm Addie Goss in Bamako, Mali.
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