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Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Do You Really Know What Wealth Is?

Lesson 1 for "Music in the Fields"

Africa, Mali
Grades 6-8, Grades 9-12
Cross-Cultural Understanding, Environment, Health, Language Arts & Literature, Social Studies & Geography

Students will examine what it means to have wealth—a concept that turns out to be philosophical as well as economic—and examine the importance of music.

About the Story

The author reflects on life in rural Mali as a Peace Corps Volunteer among hardscrabble farmers. She writes of the resilience of the Malian people in the face of a harsh and often arid environment, the role that music plays in Malian culture, and the richness she experienced in a culture without the material wealth of her own country. And she records her admiration for Malian women who, she believes, hold the secrets to happiness in our world.

About the Setting

The Republic of Mali, in West Africa, has a population of more than 11 million. Almost twice the size of Texas, Mali stretches from the Sahara in the north to Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire in the south. The capital, Bamako, lies along the Niger River in the southwestern part of the country.

A country dominated by ancient tribal cultures, Mali has three major ethnic groups—the Bambara, the Fulani, and the Berbers. Although French is the official language (a carry-over from when Mali was part of colonial French West Africa ), several tribal languages are spoken locally, including Bambara, Fulani, Songhay, and Dogon. The majority of the population speaks Bambara.

In the 1300s, Mali encompassed an even vaster territory—much of West Africa—and dominated the gold trade across the Sahara. The city of Timbuktu, famous today for its remoteness, grew into a major cultural center at that time. The French colonized Mali at the end of the 1800s. In 1960, Mali gained its independence from France and today is an independent republic.

One of the poorest countries in the world, Mali has an annual per capita income of $245 ( U.S. equivalent). Only a tiny fraction of Mali's land is arable. The challenges of agriculture under these circumstances are exacerbated by frequent droughts. The country is not self-sufficient in food production, and hunger and malnutrition are widespread. Life expectancy is 46 years. Almost 90 percent of Mali's people are Muslim, and the culture of Islam permeates all aspects of daily life.

Unlike the United States, which generally experiences four seasons, Mali has two seasons—the dry and the rainy. As people have cut down trees for firewood and timber, and as livestock has grazed the withering grasses, the sands of the Sahara have spread farther and farther across land once fertile and vegetated, in a process called desertification. Desertification has affected not only the vegetation, but also the climate, creating shorter and shorter periods of rainfall.

Since 1971, almost 2,000 Peace Corps Volunteers have served in Mali, working to improve food production, water availability, environmental conservation, small-business development, and healthcare.

For further information on the work of the Peace Corps in Mali, visit the country-information section of the Peace Corps website at www.peacecorps.gov.

To examine the concepts of wealth in Mali and in the United States
To consider the role of music in culture


To examine the concepts of wealth in Mali and in the United States
To consider the role of music in culture

  • Parched: Dry, arid
  • Frantically: With great agitation and frenzy; madly; crazily
  • Antiquated: Extremely old; out of date 


  • 3-2-1 Reflection Worksheet (see link above)
  • Map of Mali (see link above)
  • "Music in the Fields" by Carrie Young (see link above)



  1. Prior to the lesson, collect a sampling of magazine advertisements for men's and women's fashions, automobiles, gourmet food, health products, travel, exercise machines, jewelry, and real estate. Photocopy the ads for distribution among the students, or project them to the class after scanning them or photocopying them onto transparencies. Initiate a class discussion about what these ads represent. Try to direct the class to a discussion of values, and then, specifically wealth. Ask the class to define wealth: Is it the accumulation of money? Of goods? Can wealth be the accumulation of something non-material? [Students might suggest health, friends, food.] Is wealth defined by sufficiency, or does it require excess?
  2. Read aloud the first paragraph of "Music in the Fields." Ask the students whether they think wealth in the United States is necessarily the same as wealth in another country. Have them defend their answers with explanations as to why or why not. What kinds of riches is the author referring to?
  3. Review with the class the background information about author Carrie Young and the history
  4. Have the class read "Music in the Fields." It would be helpful for students to have individual copies of the manuscript so they can refer in detail to the text.
  5. Have students break into groups of five to discuss and answer the following questions. List the questions on the board; make a handout for each group; or read them one by one, at intervals of a few minutes.
    • What are riches in the area of Mali where the author lived? [There may be several kinds. Students might answer: food; the ability to laugh and to make music in the face of hardship and toil and death.]
    • What are the riches that the author says "remain a secret to many people of the Western world"? [The secrets to happiness; the keys to laughter and music.] Who is the guardian of the riches? [The grandmothers.]
    • Does the author reveal the secrets of the Malian people? If so, what are the secrets? If not, why do you think she would not reveal the secrets? [Young never really reveals exactly how the grandmothers master the skill of achieving happiness in the face of hardship. Whereas she clearly admires the Malians' pursuit of happiness and music, she does not make explicit how they achieve these goals. It's arguable that the special ability of the Malians to achieve happiness under duress remains a secret to the author as well.]
    • What effect does music have on the Malians in the field?

    Ask the class to reconvene and discuss as a group their answers to these questions.

  6. Point out to the class that as different as the author is from her host villagers in terms of language, art, music, schooling, and many other aspects of culture, there are also many similarities. Students might want to suggest a list of ways in which the cultures share characteristics. Ask students to name the purposes music serves in their lives as you list them on the board. [Answers might include entertainment, religious services, patriotic observances, dancing, background "noise" such as in elevators and department stores, work rhythms (mining, historical chain gangs), marching.] Of these purposes, which do the students think apply to the Malians in the fields?
  7. End the lesson by asking students to complete the 3-2-1 Reflection Worksheet (see link above).  

Frameworks & Standards

Enduring Understandings

  • Richness can exist among those with few material goods.
Essential Questions
  • In what ways can those with few "riches" also be rich?
  • What role does music play in my culture?

English Standards: 2, 3
Social Studies Standards: I, IV, IX
National Geography Standards: 4, 10, 12, 14
For more information on the standards in Uncommon Journeys, see the Appendix (pdf—160 KB, linked to above).

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