An Interview with Barry Hoffner
After Dreaming About Going to Timbuktu…
An interview with Barry Hoffner
Karim: Barry, can you tell me about the work you do in Mali and how and when you got started doing this work?
Barry: Karim, as a teenager, I dreamed about going to Timbuktu, the place that symbolized “the middle of nowhere”.
I finally realized this dream roughly ten years ago on a bucket-list trip to Mali in West Africa to celebrate my 50th birthday. While in the desert, not far from the town of Timbuktu, I visited the small village of Tedeini and was invited into the tent of the head of the village to drink tea with him and his wife. I was very much captured by their culture, hospitality, openness, and kindness. When I asked them what their village needed most they both answered; “a school for our children”. Later that evening, back in the town of Timbuktu, a clear vision hit me: the vision of a school in that village funded by me and my family, as a way to celebrate my 50th birthday.
This began my amazing decade-long journey that is today Caravan to Class.
After spending a number of months organizing the project, I returned to Timbuktu about nine months later, late in 2010, to see the school built and children studying in it. It was after this visit that I resolved to move Caravan to Class forward to provide the same opportunity to many other wonderful children in this fascinating but forgotten place.
Since 2010, Caravan to Class, an all-volunteer non-profit organization, has built 13 French-based schools in rural villages around the fabled Timbuktu. When we build a school, we commit to providing food, school supplies, school uniforms and paying teachers’ salaries. We are passionate about the idea that “going to school” should be the fundamental right of all children.
Four years ago, we launched a Female Adult Literacy program for the mothers so that they can both know the joys of reading and writing in their local languages and be strong advocates for education within their families.
This program was awarded the Catherine Bertini Trust grant from the UN World Food Program USA for work in adult literacy. Finally, this year we added a new program, “Bourse Jackie”, which provides selective university scholarships to high school females from Timbuktu as a way to honor my dear wife, Jackie, who tragically passed away in late 2017.
This past February 2019, on my annual trip to inaugurate our 13th school construction project in the village of Nanga, the head of the village met us as our boat landed along the banks of the Niger river near his village. There was a plaque there, facing the river that publicized the school.
I asked him why he put the plaque there instead of where we usually put a plaque, at the school itself. He said “I want everyone who passes our village, along the Niger river, to know that the village of Nanga prioritizes the education of our children.” At Caravan to Class, our big dream is that our work will help create a “tipping point” where education for all children is seen as a fundamental right. This comment, by the head of the village of Nanga, shows that we may not be as far off from this “tipping point” as it seems.
What started as simply a bucket list trip turned out to be a lifelong passion that I could never possibly have dreamed of. While we can easily quantify the material help Caravan to Class has provided to so many children, mothers and other female students, the joy it has brought me is unquantifiable. It shows how unpredictable life can be and that no matter how overwhelming a goal may seem to be at first, if you take the first step, good things will likely follow.