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UP CLOSE: From Africa, with love

Teacher from Timbuktu, Mali visits the Adirondack Timbuctoo

March 30, 2017
By ANTONIO OLIVERO - Staff Writer ( , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - After Madame Hawoye Fassoukoye departed the tiny side door entrance to the 19th century home of abolitionist John Brown, one step at a time she lifted her borrowed boots high above the immaculate snow.

Fassoukoye tip-toed awkwardly following the March 14-15 snowstorm deluge of more than 3 feet of snow the week prior here at this abolitionist homestead nestled in the snow-capped High Peaks. She wore a purple, black and gold dress made in her native Mali, though its beauty was hidden underneath a long black winter coat. Looking up sheepishly, she asked for forgiveness for her graceless maiden voyage wearing this foreign footwear.

"It's the first time I'm wearing boots," Fassoukoye laughed as she trudged through the snow on the farm.

Article Photos

Madame Hawoye Fassoukoye of Timbuktu, Mali observes Brendan Mills, manager of the John Brown Farm State Historic Site in Lake Placid, as he teaches her about how the Brown family lived in the 19th century during a tour of the Brown homestead on Thursday, March 23.
(News photo — Antonio Olivero)

Back home in Timbuktu, Mali, late March temperatures fluctuated between a low of 65 degrees and a high of 98 degrees. For Fassoukoye, on her second-ever trip to the United States, this was the first time she'd ever experienced snow like this. Since climate data has been kept since 1950, her home, the historic riverside city on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, has never experienced temperatures colder than 35 degrees.

Despite polar opposite climates and nearly 4,500 miles of separation, Fassoukoye's homeland and Lake Placid are forever tied together historically thanks to Timbuktu - or Timbuctoo, depending on how you spell it.

Here in the United States, the African city's peculiar name grew through decades of 20th century American folklore, its meaning evolving into signifying a distant and inaccessible location. Phrases such as, "as far away as Timbuktu," became part of American slang. The idea of Timbuktu was almost mythical.

But Timbuktu is the furthest thing from mythical for Fassoukoye. And here in the Adirondack Park, "Timbuctoo" also holds a very real historical significance, as it was the name of a central location of 120,000 acres of land set aside by prominent upstate reformer and philanthropist Gerrit Smith in the mid-19th century. It was given to 3,000 black New Yorkers in 40-acre lots, as owning land worth at least $250 qualified them to vote at that time.

During this country's first American century, one which was plagued by the debate of slavery, this development in the remote Adirondack wilderness was a major victory for equal rights for African Americans. And on Thursday, March 23, Fassoukoye learned of its story for the first time when John Brown Farm State Historic Site Manager Brendan Mills walked and talked her through Brown's home over the course of a half-hour tour.

"Through what I have seen right now, I've learned a lot of things, like the history of the Browns," Fassoukoye said after departing the abolitionist's homestead. "Now I know where this name Timbuctoo comes from, where the settlers were. This is kind of an eyewitness (experience). I've seen it with my own eyes and will report it (back home)."

The historical tie of Timbuktu, Mali and Timbuctoo here in the Adirondacks inspired the executive director of John Brown Lives, Martha Swan, to host Fassoukoye as a visiting teacher during a whirlwind day across the Tri-Lakes that Thursday. Swan and Fassoukoye began with a stop at Paul Smith's College, where Fassoukoye spoke to students, then she was off to do much the same with Cara Atkinson's French students at the Lake Placid High School.

Fassoukoye and Swan pulled into the parking lot behind the Olympic Center just a few moments before the bell sounded for Atkinson's early afternoon French class. The duo hurried into the building as Fassoukoye admired the view of Cascade Mountain and its snow-white "7" slide - a view much different than any she'd seen before.

Once Fassoukoye and Swan sat down inside Atkinson's class, a group of fewer than a dozen students interacted with her, some in French, before transitioning exclusively to English. The class was comprised entirely of girls, and the conversation quickly evolved into life, school and opportunities for women in Mali. It's what the students were intrigued about. And on a day where Fassoukoye learned about the history of the civil rights movement here in the United States, she was eager to share her knowledge of the equal rights movement in her home country.

"An educated woman is an educated nation," Fassoukoye told the students. "Teachers are leaders of change, and in change I believe we can teach morality."

Fassoukoye is an English teacher in Mali's capital city of Bamako, a far distance to the southwest from her native city of Timbuktu, which is closer to the edge of the Sahara Desert. While speaking to Atkinson's female students, Fassoukoye stressed how lucky Lake Placid's students were. She described her school back home as having only two computers, in administrative offices. In her classrooms, she said there have sometimes been conditions void of tables and chairs, students having to sit on the floor at times.

As she wrapped up her speech to Atkinson's students, Fassoukoye explained how she viewed the goal of her trip was to learn about the differences in the United States and tell her own students about it through photos, whether it be the climate, native animals or curious footwear.

Yes, Fassoukoye was here to educate Adirondackers about her homeland, about how her country's flag's colors are green for agriculture, yellow for gold and red for "the blood of my tears" shed for independence from the French, as she phrased it. But through her own capturing of an Americana and Adirondack Timbuctoo, her students would never see, Fassoukoye hoped she could move her home country forward, even if by just a little bit.

"I'm taking many, many, many pictures," Fassoukoye laughed as she spoke with students. "Even if it's just a bird that's flying, to show them the diversity of the world."



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