When he was in 11th grade, Ibrahima Kodio began to question his faith. Growing up in Mali, nearly everyone he knew was Muslim except for his parents, who taught him about Christianity. He began to wonder why he should believe something differently than others.
“I started to think ‘why am I a Christian when my good friends, all the others, are Muslims,'” Mr. Kodio said. “I thought that there must be something my parents were teaching me that wasn’t good.”
It would have been easy for him to stop searching for answers, to accept something just because it was the status quo. But he kept searching and reading. It was actually in reading stories about Jesus in the Qu’ran that solidified Kodio’s conviction that he should live as a Christian.
“Many people are not Muslim because of what is in the Qu’ran, they are Muslim just because everyone else is Muslim, because their parents are. And in the United States many people are Christian for the same reason,” Kodio said. “This is very dangerous. As Christians, we have the Bible and we should apply it to our whole life. We shouldn’t believe just because others do.”
Kodio, who visited Rockhurst Tuesday to talk to students, began his talk with the story of finding his faith because it has been so important to who he has become: a man trying to help children in one of the most impoverished parts of the globe to reach their full potential.
For years, Mr. Kodio longed to share his faith experience with his students as he taught physics and chemistry at a public school in Mali. However, talking about Christianity in public school is illegal in Mali, and he was not able to speak to his students about his faith.
“I would not be who I am without my faith, so I wanted to be able to share that with my students,” Kodio said. “It is not just knowledge they need, they need faith and education.”
To accomplish this, Kodio started Grace Private School, a Christian high school in the Mopti region of Mali, the second poorest region in the country. Now in it’s fourth year, the school has expanded to include middle and elementary school students in hopes that they will be more prepared to begin high school.
“The kids come because their families want them to have the best teaching available to them,” Kodio said. “But while they are there, we also teach them Bible stories. And the kids like that, they really do.”
The Grace School has already had success. Of the 13 students in the school who took Mali’s national high school entrance test last year, 12 passed. compared to about three in 10 students nationwide.
Throughout 2011 and 2012, which were marred by violence in Mali, as an African splinter group of al-Qaeda attempted to overthrow the government and institute sharia law, the school stayed open and received support from the overwhelming Muslim community.
However, there are many challenges to starting a school in one of the most impoverished communities in the world. The school receives no funding from the government and the students’ families don’t have the means to contribute any tuition. The students don’t have textbooks, and all of the material must be conveyed to them solely through lectures using a blackboard and chalk.
Kodio says that the school’s main concern right now is constructing better classrooms. Currently, the classrooms are made of weaved grass and need constant maintenance to remain stable. He says that being able to learn in a safer structure would help his students succeed.
Beyond the physical and economic limitations that the students at Grace School face, Kodio says that there is also a cultural struggle to promote literacy in Mali, which has a tradition of passing on stories and information orally.
“There is a saying in west Africa that an old man dying is like a library burning,” Kodio said. “When I was in ninth grade, none of my classmates knew what the word library even meant. They had never heard it before.”
Kodio says that for Mali to reach its full intellectual capacity, people must be able to read.
Despite the challenges, Kodio says that the children, and the people of Mali as a whole, are very happy. He says that in Mali it is common to see “big parties in the streets.”
“We have a proverb in Mali that says ‘a worm that eats from a bitter tree only knows of bitter food,’” Kodio said. “In Mali, people suffer, but this is what they know, and they are happy in this life. But if you see a better life, you know there is something better.”
He hopes to make that better life a reality for his students.