“We Have Come to Read the Books”

Originally posted: November 23, 2011

Sarah Smilkstein ’11 dreams big.

Before graduating from Scripps College, she envisioned opening a community education center in an impoverished neighborhood in Mali.

“Poverty, desperation and, above all, ignorance, fuel the hate and destruction of groups like Al Qaeda and pull at the fissures of Malian society,” wrote Smilkstein, 22, in her proposal for a $10,000 Davis Projects for Peace grant, which she won.

“Education has the power to combat these evils.”

Smilkstein’s determination has paid off. She wrote in a recent blog entry that the library she worked tirelessly to bring to fruition in the Niamakoro neighborhood of Bamako, Mali, has opened its doors. Men, women and children eagerly visited the library to read the French books lining the center’s shelves.

“Possibly my favorite moment of the week came in the afternoon when one little girl, Aminata, who is clearly the ring leader of the class, showed up at the library door with 20 more first-graders behind her and declared, ‘An na na liburu kalan,’ which translates to, ‘We have come to read the books,’” Smilkstein wrote on her blog.

A Scripps College summa cum laude graduate, Smilkstein majored in politics/international relations and French before leaving the United States for the African continent earlier this year.

Mali’s official language is French. Smilkstein, in an online interview with Scripps, said she originally considered going to Madagascar, but after researching how women are treated in Mali, she decided to go there instead. Newsweek magazine recently rated Mali as the fifth worst country in the world to be a woman.

“It is hard to be a woman in Mali. Coming from my upbringing and Scripps education, the fact that it was relatively acceptable for a man to grab my arm and not let go until I agreed to consider his marriage proposal was very hard to get used to,” said Smilkstein, who was awarded the college’s Padelford French Award earlier this year.

A native of Portland, Ore., Smilkstein was also awarded a $250 Napier Fellow from Pilgrim Place, a Claremont retirement community.

She encourages other Scripps students to step out of their comfort zone.

“Mali is not for everyone, but I would say, ‘Challenge yourself,’” Smilkstein said in the online Scripps interview. “No matter where you go, do your best to stay flexible and open minded because an open mind is truly your best friend.”

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