For Burkina: Changing Lives Through Education
As they looked upon the modest stone foundation rising from the African dirt, Ben Hall ’12, Brittany Layton ’13, Will Stone ’14, and Olivia Snell ’16 were filled with an immense sense of satisfaction and gratitude.
The four had traveled to the West African nation of Burkina Faso to build a school in one of the most impoverished countries on Earth. As members of the nonprofit organization For Burkina, they spent a week in January living and working alongside the people of Mourpougo, a rural village about an hour’s drive from the nation’s capital of Ouagadougou.
Hall and Layton founded For Burkina in 2014 to use their design skills to give back to those in need. They settled on Burkina Faso as the focus of their efforts because the need there is so great—only about a quarter of the population is literate. For Burkina eventually grew to include 13 young professionals in the Springfield area, many with ties to Drury and the Hammons School of Architecture. Stone graduated from Drury in 2014 with a communication degree; Snell is currently a senior architecture major.
“We feel there is a transformative power in architecture,” Hall said.
After the foursome arrived in Mourpougo, hundreds gathered for a ceremonial groundbreaking for the school, and men and women alike pitched in as construction began. Along the way, the people of this poor, mostly Muslim village showed the four young Americans nothing but generosity and positivity.
“It was extremely humbling to witness the hospitality from our host families,” Hall says. “The families could barely feed themselves, yet they were apologizing to us for not being able to provide us with the amenities they knew we were accustomed to. Even in the midst of extreme poverty, they had so much joy and happiness; it was truly inspirational.”
With the project launched, it was time to say goodbye and let the villagers and members of a partner nonprofit organization, buildOn, complete the work. On the final day of their trip, the village chief blessed the visitors profusely, praying for a safe trip home.
The foursome would think of those prayers just hours later, as they found themselves in the center of a vicious Al Qaeda attack that would claim the lives of 29 people and make headlines worldwide.
The members of For Burkina and several colleagues from buildOn gathered for dinner on January 15 to celebrate their success and discuss plans for future projects. The location: Café Cappuccino in Ouagadougou.
Suddenly, a shot rang out. At first, they thought it might be a dropped tray. Stone knew it was a gunshot, but he froze in a moment of disbelief
“Then we heard a second shot,” Stone said, “and we all hit the ground. From there, we all crawled into the bathroom.”
Scared and unaware of exactly what was happening outside, the foursome and a few others remained quiet in the tiny restroom as the attack continued. Only the bathroom door separated them from the violence.
“You could hear the gunman had entered the restaurant and circled around aiming and shooting people inside,” Stone recalls. “You could tell because it wasn’t fully automatic fire, it was just one round at a time.”
They waited. They heard the shooters return several times. At one point some of the terrorists knocked on the bathroom door claiming to be police. They heard the attackers conversing, even giggling. But for some reason, they never entered the bathroom.
“We were trying to figure out if there would be a police response,” Stone says. “There was no police response. So we were kind of left on our own.”
Then, an explosion shook the restaurant. The temperature began to rise. They realized that the building was on fire. They had already been in the restroom for nearly an hour when smoke began filling the small space.
“I told myself I was already dead,” Stone says. “It made it a lot easier, actually, and from there I was able to think more rationally.”
“We had to make a choice,” Hall said. “Make a run for it, or stay in there and suffocate. So, naturally, we chose to make a run for it.”
It was a disorienting scene outside. They remained low to the ground in order to breathe, and were quickly separated as they broke into different directions.
Hall climbed through a broken window and took off running. He eventually ran into military personnel, who called the U.S. Embassy. In the chaos, Stone ran through the front door, Snell crawled through a window, and together they made their way into a nearby building under construction. They made their way to the roof, where they found a French couple hiding. With the couple’s help, the two were able to get the number to contact the U.S. Embassy. Within 20 minutes an armored SUV pulled up to the building. Stone, Snell and the French couple jumped in. Hall was waiting for them inside.
But for more than 12 hours, there was no sign of Layton. Her path out of the restroom had taken her into an alley, where she and another buildOn team member hid under a pile of debris throughout the night. Terrorists walked the area just feet from where they lay hidden.
“There were many moments during that night that I became nearly hopeless, simply anticipating the moment the shooters would find us and we would be shot,” Layton says. “I covered my ears for most of the night, not wanting to hear the shooters should they approach. I didn’t want to see the shooters because I didn’t want that to be the last thing I would see before I died.”
She remembers thinking: “If it was my time, it would be okay. All of my friends and family would know that I died doing something I was passionate about.” But that didn’t free her of her desire to live. “So, I continued to pray, ‘God please save me. Please send help. Please stop the shooters.’”
By dawn the situation was under control and Layton was able to reunite with the group. Within hours, they were on a flight back to the United States.
A Life-Changing Experience
Looking back, the For Burkina team members say it was the time they spent in the village, not the night in the restaurant, that had the greatest impact on them.
“It was absolutely life-changing,” Stone said.
Burkina Faso does not have a history of terrorist attacks. But attacks in West Africa, as in Europe, are on the rise. Still, the members of For Burkina say they will not give up their mission —and they say they will go back. They feel they made it out alive for a reason, and they want to continue to use the skills they learned at Drury to change lives through education. They always intended for their school buildings to help lift people out of poverty.
Now, they know their work has another goal.
“To dismantle fear and drive out hate,” Layton said.
“Education is so important. It empowers individuals,” Stone says. “It’s how you prevent this kind of violence. It creates an understanding of other cultures. It’s absolutely needed, especially in that part of the world.”