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Madame Dembélé Mariam Sidibé is the founder and Director of “Muso Danbe” a life skills center for orphaned and handicapped young girls in Kayes, Mali. Muso Danbe means women’s dignity in Bambara, the predominate local language of Mali. Mariam, the mother of six children, has always had a desire to help those less fortunate than her. Early on she saw the need to provide trade skills to orphaned and handicapped girls because of the difficulties they face in Malian society. One of the most important roles a Malian woman must play is of wife and mother. Since family and community traditions are passed down from mother to daughter, orphaned girls often lack critical domestic skills such as cooking, child rearing and family etiquette due to being separated from their mothers too soon. Handicapped girls are considered less desirable for marriage because it is believed they can neither have children nor do housework because of their physical limitations. Mariam knew that without marriage or some other means of providing for themselves, these girls would be forced onto the street as beggars or prostitutes.
Although Mali is a poor country, some trades can bring in good money, such as cloth dyeing, tailoring and cooking. Mariam, a consummate cook and creative artist, began her center in 1998 and soon began to teach these girls how to cook, design and sew clothing, make soap and learn French. The center produces beautiful, high quality cloth ranging from rich bazin, to colorful batik to traditional mud cloth and indigo. Mariam has also proven to be a savvy marketing woman, seeking out promotion assistance from anyone who will help her from World Vision to the United States Embassy in Mali. In 1999, Mariam teamed up with Peace Corps volunteer Allison Williams (97-2000) to spread the word about her center and learn any new skills that could help her girls as well as her own family. Later that year, Allison sent Mariam to a Peace Corps/USAID sponsored project to teach women how to crochet recycled plastic bags into marketable goods. Over the five-day period, and without any previous training in crocheting, Mariam taught herself how to crochet and brought the skill back to Kayes where she promptly taught her girls. Within weeks, Mariam and her girls were producing coin purses and beach bags to sell to tourists. But she didn’t stop there; she also made dolls, chairs, pillows and mattress filled with the scraps left over from the other items. She even taught prisoners in the local jail to use recycled plastic bags to make rope instead of the traditional plastic rice bags.
In 2003, Mariam represented the cloth dyers of Mali at the Smithsonian’s annual Folklife Festival in Washington DC. All who stopped by her booth were impressed by the quality and craftmanship of her work. When asked why she works so hard she replies simply that she wants to take care of her family and because God is good and blesses all those who help others.