This morning, Madu walked the one kilometer path from his village to my house at the mission station. He is married to Sirima and they have two children – four-year-old Sira, who they call Bonnie, and two-year-old Musa, who they call Papa. He told me that Papa had burned his hand and wrist in the morning cooking fire.
“Do you have any medicine for a burn?” he asked.
There is a hospital in our small town on the southwestern edge of Mali, but it’s small staff of doctors serve a large population of people without the use of technology, electricity, or even running water. Many times people come to me for help and healing before they go to the hospital because I have free first aid supplies, a generator, and a deep water well. I consulted my ragged copy of Where There Is No Doctor and turned to the section on the treatment of burns.
- “Did the burns cause blisters?” I asked.
- “Yes. It’s a bad burn.”
- “We can take some supplies and this book and go together to see if we can help Papa.”
- “That’s good. Thank you.”
He said “thank you” in his humble, broken English and I answered “you’re welcome” in my humble, broken Malinke and we started off back down the path to his village.
As we stepped into Madu’s courtyard, a large group of people greeted us.
- “Are there any problems here today?” I asked.
- “No, there aren’t any problems today.”
This was a part of the customary greeting that is shared by everyone on every day in rural Mali. On this morning, however, there was a problem and though I couldn’t hear it in the pleasant tones of their voices I could see it in the concerned looks on their faces.
Sirima was working. Malinke women always seem to be at work. She was preparing the food for the afternoon meal and was carrying Papa on her back in the way of African women with their babies. With large, sad eyes he pressed his cheek against her shoulder and hung his injured hand loosely at his side. I patted Sirima’s arm and looked at Papa’s hand. Most of the skin had been burned off of his wrist and lower arm. Some skin was hanging from the wound.
Madu and I prepared soap, cotton, scissors, and sterile gauze pads. Sirima held Papa while we cleaned the wound. I washed the hand and wrist with soap and water. Madu cut away the dangling skin with scissors. I coated the gauze with antibiotic ointment and gently placed it over the burn. Madu wrapped an ace bandage around the gauze. By helping each other, we helped Papa through his pain and tears and we helped each other through our own doubts and fears.
Five days later, two beautifully dressed elderly women came to my door at the mission. Madu’s mother, Sira, and his “Na n’ding,” his father’s second wife and “little mother,” Fenda, were standing before me. Sira is an old woman now. She is the matriarch of the family but still plants, works, and harvests a field of groundnuts every year. She is experiencing the advanced stages of Parkinson’s disease so her work is hard. Fenda is old now, too. One time I passed by her field while she was working. I looked at the sweat glistening on the muscles of her arms and her back and saw the kindness and age in her eyes and smile.
- “Good morning, Bakary. We brought a gift to you to thank you for helping Papa.”
- “Wow! Thank you so much. How is Papa today? Is he better?”
- “Yes, he’s much better. No infection came. He’s going to be okay!”
Their gift was a meaningful gift to me, a large bowl of groundnuts, groundnuts that Sira had grown in her field. Sira and Fenda had harvested them, baked them in an iron pot over an open cooking fire, peeled them from their shells, and prepared them for me to eat.
Those groundnuts are a symbol of my Malinke friends and our relationship with each other. When you plant a groundnut in the rocky soil, it grows out of the ground as a deep green plant with bright yellow flowers on top to tell the farmer that the fruit is in the earth and ready to be harvested. And there stood Sira and Fenda, two deep, bright African women who nurture their family and their friends with love and endurance in the depths of the two-thirds world. As I shared my groundnuts with everyone around me, I realized that I was offering myself to help and to heal my Malinke friends and my Malinke friends were offering themselves to help and to heal me. Maybe the path to civility and peace can be found somewhere along the path from my house to Madu’s village.