Nicholas Hess is a buildOn Trek Coordinator who leads groups of volunteers on trips to build schools in the world’s economically poorest countries as part of buildOn’s Trek Program. Last January, Nicholas and a group of volunteers were celebrating the conclusion of a week of school construction in Burkina Faso, West Africa, when the restaurant they were dining in was attacked by a group of Al-Qaeda terrorists. The attack took the lives of 30 innocent people, including buildOn Trek Coordinator Ahmed Kere. This week, as we mark the anniversary of this horrific attack, Nicholas shared his personal reflection on the events of January 2016.
As a buildOn Trek Coordinator, I have the opportunity and privilege to meet and get to know amazing people living in diverse social and economic situations all over the world. Of all the conversations I have had during my tenure with buildOn, one in particular has influenced my word view and driven home the importance of the work that we do. It was a conversation of understanding and respect that stands in sharp contrast to the events of January 15th, 2016, and will forever shape my understanding of a senseless act of horrific violence I found myself wrapped up in days later.
I was in Mourpougo, Burkina Faso, a community roughly 120 miles to the southwest of Ouagadougou, the capital city of this West African nation. On our third night in the community, I found myself sitting on a plastic chair inside the mud walls of my host family’s compound. Martin, my trek ‘brother’ and buildOn translator, was crouching next to a pail washing his clothes, translating as a man named Nabayaogo Bukare, my host ‘father’ and a community leader, and I discussed life.
Nabayaogo told me how before we came to the community most people had never met a Westerner or white person. Before our trek group arrived, the community worried that they would be looked down upon, that we would judge them for what they did not have. Instead, he saw that we came into the community wanting to learn, wanting to understand. We worked alongside the community as we dug the school’s foundation, we learned about the people in the community as a whole and the individuals who were part of it, how they lived and how they spent their free time. We ate the same foods and learned about their way of life, as we shared our own culture. Nabayaogo was surprised that he and his community were treated with respect and as equals. I responded that we were all brothers and sisters in this fight, in fighting for equality, education and dignity. We sat in silence for a bit, both awash in the glow of solidarity, until my host father, acknowledging the power of our shared words, stood and excused himself.
Two days later, with that conversation still in the forefront of my mind, a group of Al Qaida gunmen entered the restaurant I was eating in with my colleagues and group of American volunteers. As this senseless act of violence unfolded, the lives of our friends Ahmed and Djibrila were taken along with the lives of 30 other innocent people. The attack and loss of our brothers shook the entire buildOn community to the core. Directly or indirectly, we all came face-to-face with hate and inhumanity. All of us in the buildOn movement were forced to make a decision. We can react with hate and anger, feeding the cycle, or we can challenge ourselves to understand and ultimately forgive.
For me, the decision was easy. I saw that the young attackers wore no shoes, just like my friends in Mourpougo, They were from communities in Mali, a country to the north of Burkina Faso, that face many of the challenges of poverty and illiteracy that Mourpougo does. Purpose and hope, which is necessary for us all, but particularly young men, dashed by minimal educational and economic opportunities. I can understand how the inequality and desperation can easily be blamed on ‘the other,’ how the promise of recognition, purpose and value can distort one’s perception of right and wrong. How Evil can walk in and recruit.
While I can only make assumptions concerning the origins of the attackers, I can say with certainty that those in Mourpougo, and those in all the other communities that we work with around the world, will not turn to hate. Their fight for educational opportunities have been acknowledged and realized. They have worked side-by-side in partnership, lived, connected and laughed with people from around their region and the world. In our partner communities, the bright light of education has begun chasing away the shadows of ignorance, fear and the concept of ‘the other.’
This is what Ahmed stood for, and what each of us, as part of the buildOn movement must continue to stand for. In memory of Ahmed, and for the larger sake of humanity, we sit, share and speak as equals, as brothers and sisters. We give and expect respect. We don’t only build schools, we don’t only do service, we build relationships, we build understanding. From understanding we create change.