Mali duo tour world to save blind school

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On most Saturdays, all that rises from the orange dirt coating the bare playground at Bamako's school for the blind is a 40C Saharan heat haze. The 129 pupils, many of them boarders, have gone home for the weekend or have been sent to stay with friends in the Malian capital.

But today will be a day unlike any other in the history of l'Institut des Jeunes Aveugles à Bamako. The institute - one of only a tiny number of schools for the blind in west Africa - is in danger of closing. To save it, Amadou and Mariam, the blind world-music superstars who met at the institute 29 years ago, are launching an international tour in the playground.

This is no Live8 or any of the other international benefit concerts where the star-studded steamroller so often obscures the human issues; it is a rare example of an African solution to an African problem. After Bamako, the pop-blues duo, who shot to fame last year with the album Dimanche à Bamako and the single "Je T'aime Mon Amour Ma Chérie", move on to the Brixton Academy in London next Saturday, then Melbourne, Los Angeles, Miami and San Francisco. They will play special fund-raising gigs for the institute in Montreal, Paris and Brussels.

"We are not expecting to raise money from the Malians," said Amadou Bagayoko, the 51-year-old male half of the duo. "People are not used to paying for music here, and money isn't everything. We will only charge 100 francs (10p) for tickets and we expect up to 5,000 people. We have got friends here, the French pop star, M, and local stars Amy Koita and Tiken Jah Fakoly.

"What we want to do is get the blind people singing and dancing, and give sighted people a positive image of the handicapped." Amadou, who met Mariam Doumbia in 1977 while both were members of the institute's Eclipse orchestra, agreed that African-initiated benefit concerts were rare. "Someone has to be first. Our music has always related to our handicap. From the start, we wrote songs aimed at encouraging blind people to be strong. So it is natural for us, now we have a team and equipment, to try to do more."

The couple are ambassadors for Sight Savers International, a British charity that supports the Bamako institute and runs several projects in Mali and elsewhere in Africa.

"I arrived at the institute in 1975 to learn Braille," said Amadou who lost his sight at 15 due to cataracts. "I was already a guitar player and Mariam, who is four years younger than me and had sung at weddings and naming ceremonies since early childhood, wanted to be a musician. She lost her sight when she was five, as a result of badly treated measles. We played together and we also fell in love.

"Blindness in Africa exists in many forms and much of it is preventable. Mariam and I would have avoided going blind if we had been properly treated. Our luck was being sent to the institute, which is a rare thing in Africa, even though there are so many more blind people here than there are in rich countries.

"Blindness has if anything been a gift to us. It brought us together and we have three children, all sighted. We have also been able to bring pleasure to people, and perhaps we are better musicians for being blind."

Moumouni Diarra, president of the west African country's Union of Blind People, lives at the school and is a former pupil. He says tonight's concert could not have come at a better time. "There's no grain left in the school's kitchen and we are not expecting our government grant until the end of June," he said.

Mr Diarra, who lost his sight suddenly at 23 through a congenital pigmentation condition, joined the school to learn Braille and go to university. "The year was 1985 and I spent my first week crying because I had not accepted my disability. Then things improved.

"Thanks to the institute and to a German charity, I was able to continue my studies using a Braille machine. At university, the institute regularly sent one of its masters to help me with my studies and explain to fellow students that the Braille machine was necessary, even though it made a loud noise."

He said about 60 former pupils of the school have, since its creation in 1973, progressed to prestigious jobs in the civil service, the law and in medicine. But the school is in financial straits.

"Only about 50 of our pupils have Braille machines and we are constantly short of equipment," Mr Diarra said. "We have had to ask parents to start paying for the boarding school, 15,000 francs (£16) a year. This is prohibitive to many and it tends to mean rural families cannot send their children here.

"We try not to turn anyone away because we know if blind Malians do not get access to education, they will grow up to be beggars." Fighting poverty through education is a main objective of Sight Savers International. The charity says 90 per cent of all blind people are in the developing world, and many sighted children, especially girls, are kept from school because they have to help blind adults.

Sight Savers is working to train and establish trades for 250 blind people in 40 villages in Mali. It is also helping to equip 30 pupils at the Bamako institute who have enough sight to use glasses and reading aids, rather than having to learn Braille.