Ambulance for Africa: UW-Whitewater professor, students plan service-learning trip

    May 19, 2014

    The memory is raw and painful.

    The busy intersection. The crash. The feeling of helplessness that haunts him even to this day.

    For Hassimi Traore, an associate professor of chemistry at UW-Whitewater, the tragedy of his friend's death will always remain an emotional scar.

    It happened on a Sunday, more than 40 years ago, in Burkina Faso -- the landlocked country in Western Africa -- in a small village of 5,000 people called Dedougou.

    Traore, 12 years old at the time, was returning from the flea market on his bicycle. As he approached one of the busier intersections in town, he saw his friend, Bureima Coulibaly, driving a moped in the opposite direction.

    "He was like an older brother to me," Traore said. "Just a really nice guy, smart, handsome. He was remarkable."

    As they passed one another, they waved and exchanged smiles. Moments later, Traore heard the crash.

    "I stopped to look around," he said. "People were screaming and running. Then I saw him."

    Coulibaly had been hit by a car; his injuries critical. In Burkina Faso, that usually means fatal.

    The country is one of the poorest places on Earth. Traore grew up with no electricity, no running water. Infrastructure is nearly nonexistent, and so are emergency services. As Traore and others tended to his friend, he realized they had no way of getting him to the hospital, which was a three-hour drive away.

    "I kept wishing I was rich so I could help him, but I was poor. As a child it was devastating for me," Traore said. "I promised that one day, if I had the opportunity, I would do something to help others."

    That opportunity would present itself years later. Traore escaped the poverty-stricken future of many African children. He received an education, moved to the United States, earned several college degrees and became a faculty member in the Department of Chemistry at UW-Whitewater.

    One day in 2010, as he was driving near Stoughton, Traore spotted a vehicle parked near a fire station with a sign on it.

    An ambulance. For sale.

    "I called the owner, and said I wanted to buy it." Traore said. "We sat for an hour on the back of the ambulance and I told him my story. He offered to sell it to me at a reduced price and with a payment plan."

    Around this same time, the UW-Whitewater Student Optimist Club was planning a service-learning trip to Burkina Faso to deliver medical and educational supplies. Kim Adams, the group's adviser and assistant director of the University Center, saw the potential for an incredible community effort.

    "I made the commitment that we would make sure to get that ambulance to Burkina Faso," she said. "Hassimi was so excited and it just lent a whole new energy, life and dimension to the service trip."

    The logistics and costs of getting an ambulance from Wisconsin to the middle of Africa proved daunting.

    Over the last year, hundreds of people, businesses, and organizations have supported the project through a fundraising campaign. UW-Whitewater Optimists hosted a trivia night. Community Optimists held a rummage sale. Even Whitewater High School's post-prom event contributed funds.

    Nearly 100 bins of supplies -- everything from toothbrushes to soccer balls to computers -- were purchased using the funds. The ambulance's tires, windshield, batteries, fuel line, lights, siren, front brakes, keys and compartments are new.

    "I can't express my happiness," Traore said. "The university is my second family. To see the students and community support this project is incredible. It has touched me so much."

    If all goes as planned, on August 15, four UW-Whitewater students, Kayla Engmann, Mika Kennedy, Mary Marren, Megan Stevens, will leave for Burkina Faso. Candace Chenoweth, director of the Center for Global Education, and Dawn Kiernan, Whitewater EMT, will accompany them.

    Traore will meet up with them after he picks up the ambulance and supplies at a shipyard in Ghana, and drives 600 miles to Dedougou.

    The journey will take him through African wilderness and security checkpoints guarded by suspicious local police.

    "It will feel like driving 100,000 miles," he said.

    When he gets to Dedougou, Traore plans to visit his friend's gravesite.

    "I will tell him we can save lives now."

    -- Written by Jeff Angileri

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