The country of Mauritania is nestled between Senegal and Morocco on the northwest side of Africa. While two-thirds of the country is desolate desert terrain, life persists in cities and villages full of colorful culture and heritage.
Amadous Deme, ESOL teacher at Chattahoochee Elementary School, is from a village called Garly (sometimes spelled 'Garli'), sitting just on the side of the Senegal River. Though Deme makes a point to visit his village regularly, he has not been able to return to see his family and friends since 2018.
Deme grew up in Garly, a village of the Fulani tribe, and quickly ascended to ‘Elder’ status at the age of 12 because he was educated and could translate. While the national language of Mauritania is Arabic, Deme said that many people also speak French as a de facto national language, because the country was colonized by the French in the late 1800s.
Deme explained that the Fulani people are traditionally herders, but that they have been “chased by the desert and drought.” He said the Fulani typically liked to move from place to place to follow the rain, but have recently settled down in small communities to become farmers, growing crops such as tomatoes and okra.
Growing up, Deme said that life was difficult and remains so for the people that still live there.
“You see mirages all the time and … whirlwinds touch down all over the desert,” Deme said. “That’s when you know it’s hot. Nothing moves from 1-5 p.m. Not the people, not the animals, not even the birds and bugs.”
He said the only reprieve is during the “cold months” of December and January when the temperature dips slightly. Other than that, he said people will often go to the river to cool off.
Deme explained that there is no power or electricity in his village, and that finding water to drink is challenging.
“Everyday [in my village] is a struggle,” Deme said. “For the life of me, I don’t know how we make it. But that’s the only life they know. They wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
He said that while his village is lacking in material possessions and goods, they have everything in community support and love.
“When you wake up [in Garly], you see everyone in your family,” Deme said. “Even the goats, the cows, the chickens. Everything is simple there.”
He said everyone in the village supports each other like they are one tight-knit family, trading goods between each other so everyone is taken care of.
“We share everything we have because our survival depends on it,” Deme said. “That’s just our way of life.”
Deme said that in the Fulani culture, women take care of the families while men “do the hard labor.”
“But it’s really not fair,” Deme said. “Because as soon as the women wake up to when they sleep, they are always working. It’s unbelievable; it’s like they’re machines. They run the family and take care of the whole household.”
After moving to the United States, Deme expressed his awe for his people – for their resilience and tenacity for life.
“We have nothing there,” Deme said. “No food, no water, no anything. But I think when people have things like money, they can get spoiled, and when you have nothing, it builds character.”
How he ended up here
Deme became a refugee in the late 1980s after skirmishes began between Mauritania and Senegal, starting with the death of a citizen of Senegal.
“That was the signal for the Mauritanian government to get rid of the Fulani ethnic group in Mauritania,” Deme said. “Because we didn’t want … assimilation.”
He said the Mauritanian government killed tens of thousands of Fulani people, including his friends and family and deported even more to Senegal.
Ken Rutherford, a former Peace Corps worker, met Deme before a life-long friendship blossomed between the two. Deme said that Rutherford had “saved his life” by helping him escape his home country and move to the United States in 1993.
From his arrival in America, Deme said he lived “all over the country” including New York, Colorado and Florida. He said while he loved the public transportation offered in major cities, he was not as enthused by the density and business of large metropolises like New York City.
“I grew up in a small village, so big cities just scared me,” Deme said. “Like you know the city mouse and the country mouse? It was like that.”
Deme moved to Atlanta after hearing that the city had a train and was less crowded than Los Angeles or New York City. He worked in a church for about six years as he obtained his master’s in translation at Georgia State University.
It was in one class that Deme recalled a classmate telling him about a teaching position available in Dahlonega. They were looking for French teachers in Lumpkin County, and his classmate encouraged him to go to the interview.
“I went to the interview, and they wouldn’t let me go unless I signed a [teacher] contract right there,” Deme said, laughing. “I told them, ‘Well, I need to think about it and tell my friends,’ and they said, ‘No, no, you can tell them after you sign the contract.’”
Deme said that he ended up signing the contract and teaching French at Lumpkin County Elementary School, commuting between Dahlonega and Atlanta every day. The French program was shut down after a year, and Deme remembers the superintendent feeling “super bad about it only lasting a year.” He asked Deme if he would consider a teaching position somewhere else and he said “of course.”
Twenty years later
In 2000, Deme began teaching French at Chattahoochee Elementary School, transitioning to an ESOL teacher around 2008. He said that he is celebrating over 20 years at the school this year and that he adores the staff and students.
“When I first came here in 2000, [Forsyth County Schools] really welcomed me,” Deme said.
Amber Hoke, discovery lab teacher and gifted coordinator at Chattahoochee, said she first met Deme when he was her children’s French teacher. As she got to know him as a teacher and a friend, she decided to help him fundraise for his village.
“It started out with just my third-grade class,” Hoke said. “We would collect medications for him. But from there, we moved to the whole third grade, and then the whole school.”
Hoke estimated that it was probably the 10th time she has helped Deme with the fundraiser, calling it “Race to Fill the Case.”
Each time that Deme returns home, he takes a suitcase filled with over-the-counter medication such as Tylenol, children’s Tylenol and Tums.
“The only time they get things like ibuprofen or toothache medicine is when I come to visit,” Deme said. “So, it has become a habit here at Chattahoochee Elementary to fundraise to fill the suitcase.”
In 2018, the last time Deme was able to visit Garly, he was able to take three suitcases full of medicine, along with hats and shirts. Everything was donated by “the awesome champions” of Chattahoochee.
Deme specifically takes over-the-counter medicine home with him because he has witnessed firsthand the importance having them on hand.
In 1996, Deme said that his brother was bitten by a snake. Because the nearest hospital was hours away, his brother ended up dying from the bite.
“It’s things like that that are so easily preventable here [in America],” Deme said. “And we just don’t have that there. Hospitals are not close, and we don’t have any clinics.”
In past years, Deme has been able to ship the suitcases of medicine for free, courtesy of Delta Airlines. One year, he recalled a teacher who donated $200 for shipping, not knowing that Delta would take care of the cost.
“I tried to give her back the money,” Deme said. “But she said, ‘No, no, I want it to go to your friends and family.’”
With the $200, Deme was able to buy mosquito nets and distribute them to pregnant and nursing women in Garly. He said that malaria is the No. 1 cause of infant mortality in Mauritania, so the mosquito nets were “really such a big help.”
“We have a lot of mosquitoes,” Deme said. “In the daytime, there are house flies everywhere, but at night, that’s when the mosquitoes [come out].”
Continuing his mission
This year, the staff at Chattahoochee Elementary is hoping to fill three suitcases with medicine so Deme can take them this summer. He will not be able to stay for more than a month this year, because his wife and children will not be coming with him.
This year, Rutherford will be joining him on the journey.
“I am very excited to see him and return home,” Deme said. “My everything is there.”
While the “Race to Fill the Case” fundraiser is still on, Hoke said that the school needs to fill that final suitcase. As of right now, the school has been able to fill two cases, collecting donations from parents in the car-rider line and through donations given to bus drivers, since medicine can’t be transferred through a student.
Both Deme and Hoke want to continue to donate and uplift the Seven Mindsets.
They said that through the fundraisers each year, they see students upholding values such as “Live to Give” and “The Time is Now,” acting on compassionate impulses to help people on the other side of the globe.
“It’s just so cool to see the students get into [the fundraisers],” Hoke said. “And we hope that they’ll continue to want to support [Deme] and his friends and family in the future.”
For residents who would like to donate medicine or money in the form of a check, they are encouraged to stop by Chattahoochee Elementary School. Medicine and checks can be dropped off with the school secretary at the front of the building. All checks should be made out to Chattahoochee Elementary School with “for medical relief for Africa” in the memo.
Chattahoochee Elementary School is at 2800 Holtzclaw Road in Cumming.