Sunday, November 5, 2017

Notes from the Field

I was driving in downtown Bamako, the capital city of Mali, and stopped at a red light. Children with water bottles and squeegees ran up to our truck and the vehicles around us, pulled up our windshield wipers, and cleaned the windshields.

A little girl ran up to our truck. She had cocoa colored skin and long hair the color of a moonless African night. She was young, maybe five years old, but her face seemed old, lined with a determination and concern. “Her small face is too full of care for the carefree days of childhood,” I thought.

She was small, so small she couldn’t reach our windshield with her water bottle and squeegee, so small I almost didn’t see her.

Her squeegee was an extension of her thin arm but even together they couldn’t reach the glass. She squirted some water on the hood of the truck instead and scrubbed it back and forth with the squeegee. She struggled to squirt and scrub. She wasn’t strong enough to clean off the thick coat of dust that clings to everyone and everything during the dry season in Mali. She tried so hard. I watched her humbly squirt, scrub and struggle. My heart ached for her. I put all of the change from my pocket in her tiny, frail hand.

The light turned green. People in cars, trucks and mini busses behind us honked their horns, impatient to get somewhere, in a hurry to go nowhere. I revved the engine and eased out the clutch. Our small, aspiring window cleaner stepped away, back to her small place on the sidewalk, in the middle of many other small, aspiring windshield washers, waiting for the light to turn red again, waiting for another opportunity to try to wash a windshield, or the hood of a truck, waiting for a someone to give her some small change for her big effort.

Notes from the Field

This is the season for the picking and eating of mangoes. As I stand at the front door of our hut, I look out over the land before me and see thirty foot tall mango trees draped with thousands of yellow mangoes. They make the trees glow, as if the trees themselves are saints with rings of soft light around their heads. The mangoes hang on the trees as if they are giant drops of rain after a storm, drops of rain frozen in time as they fall off of the leaves and begin their descent to the ground.

I watch a child with a long hook ended stick, two pieces of bamboo tied together and used to pick ripe mangoes from the tree. From my writing place I see the stick dancing and weaving it’s way around the tree in search of the crisp, sweet fruit. Sometimes children climb into the trees and shake the branches until the ground thumps with the sound of falling mangoes. 

When a strong gust of wind blows, ripe mangoes fall from the trees to the earth. Groups of children scramble to the ground under the trees and search for the much loved fruit.

During mango season, women cut the mangoes and cook the fruit with peanut sauce and serve it as a meal. I love it!

My Malinke friends believe if you eat too many mangoes, you will sleep for a week. If you eat too many mangoes, you will do something for a week but it doesn’t involve sleep!

Even though it is the hottest part of the year, I love this time because it is mango season. This is one of God’s many kindnesses to us, to bring us the hope of mangoes in the hopelessness of the dry season. And this is one of my Malinke friends many kindnesses, to share their mangoes with me.

For this I am thankful.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Notes from the Field

Today a boy came to the mission. Several weeks ago, the inner part of his leg from his thigh to his ankle was burned in a fire. He comes to us for the cleaning and care of his wound. I am the one who cleans and cares for him.

He screams and cries as I wash the burn and apply the Silvadene cream a kind doctor left for me to give to burn patients who cannot access or afford hospital care.

I have heard people say, “Africans are so poor, but they are so happy.” The liberation theologian Gustavo Guttirrrez teaches us that the word ‘poverty’ has three meanings: solidarity with the poor, along with protest against the conditions under which they suffer; spiritual poverty, in the sense of a readiness to do God’s will; and real poverty as an evil - that is something that God does not want. My small friend is living in real poverty and it is evil. As tears roll down my cheeks as I see his pain and hear his cries, I know his poverty is something God does not want. There is no happiness in that kind of poverty. 

I make a promise to the small boy to work against that kind of poverty in the world for the rest of my life.

“What can I do to help him?” I thought.

After the treatment was done and he was resting beneath the thatched roof of the bamboo shelter, I went to my house and got a baseball cap for him, my favorite old, battered Detroit Tigers cap that I have had since I was his age. That cap has been all over the world with me. 

“I’ll give my favorite hat to my small friend.”

We know the mustard seed, when it is planted, becomes the largest of all plants. It’s branches become so big, well, the birds can sit in the shade on it’s branches.

Giving my favorite cap to my small friend is a small thing. It’s just an old, battered cap. But it was my favorite cap. And I gave it him because I love him.

I will always remember his smile when he put on that Detroit Tiger’s baseball cap.

Sometimes small things are big things.

Notes from the Field

Our mission station volunteered a truck, a driver and me to assist the Kenieba hospital with a polio and vitamin A vaccination program. My friend Kaba came along to help me communicate with the doctors. They spoke French and Bambara, I spoke a little French and a lot of broken Malinke and Kaba understood us all. He helped us understand each other.

We gave the vaccinations to newborn babies up to five year olds. I was responsible for giving the polio vaccinations to them.

As we were making our way from village to village in the remotest parts of western Mali  I felt good to be a small part of such a big undertaking as to eradicate polio from the whole continent of Africa. 

It is good to be a part of something that is bigger than me.

The name of the polio vaccination program is “Kick Polio Out Of Africa.” The symbol is a child kicking a soccer ball. Everyone loves the symbol because everyone loves soccer.

The polio vaccination were in small plastic bottles that looked like Visine bottles. Mothers lined up with their children under giant baobab trees. I squeezed two drops from the bottles under the children’s tongues to protect them from the dreaded disease.

Most of the children were terrified to receive the vaccination, and most of them were terrified of me! We were so far out into the bush, the children had never seen a white person before. As you know, white people have harmed Africa. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Albert Schweitzer and do something good for the people.

I hoped the children could see that in me.

Their moms had to hold them still and I had to squeeze their jaws with my left hand until their mouths opened and I could drop the vaccine with my right hand. 

Sometimes, I had to hold their noses and blow into their faces to get them to swallow the vaccine! “The cure can be more painful than the disease,” my grandpa used to teach me.

Not in this case, though. Polio is a powerful and fearful disease.

One little four year old girl was struggling against her mom and me with all of her might. Just as I got the first drop of vaccine under her tongue Kaba yelled, “Bakary (that is my African name) watch out!” A stream of pee came out from her little dress all over my sandaled feet.

I didn’t blame her.

“I love you,” I said in Malinke. She looked at me through tearful and defiant eyes. “You have a strange way of showing it!” she must have thought.

I hope my small moment with her with the polio vaccination under the baobab tree will help her live and remain a beautiful life for the world.

Notes from the Field

We walked to a village called Kenyandinto. Actually, we climbed up to it because it is on one of the mountains that surround Kenieba and for most of the way the path is straight up. We were joined by our friends Yambi and Suliman. Yambi guided us because Kenyandinto is his village, the place in the world where he was born. Suliman came along with us because he is new to Kenieba and wanted to climb the mountain to see the beauty of land.

We planned to leave at 10:00 A.M. but so many people for first aid we didn’t leave until 1:00 P.M. That meant we had to walk and climb during the hottest part of the day. During our journey, we noticed that Suliman, Robin and I were soaking wet with sweat while Yambi wasn’t sweating at all. He was carrying our backpacks, canteens and his bag of clothes on his head! He had been climbing up and down that mountain all of his life and he can make the journey with little or no effort at all. He didn’t even drink any water while the rest of us gulped down whole canteens full before half of the trip was done. Going home again makes you swift and strong.

As we climbed the steep path I was astonished by the sight of millet and corn growing on the side of the mountain. I can only imagine the difficulty of farming on a steep incline, the aching in your back and legs at the end of a long, hot day. Yet the millet and corn were there, growing tall and coloring the mountain a young, strong green.

I was also astonished by the sight of children guarding the crops. Here in the Kenieba circle, it’s the responsibility of the children to keep birds from eating the ripening millet and corn. In the early morning, mid afternoon and evening you can hear them playing their “balifondingolu”, wooden xylophones the sound of which scares away the birds. The clinking and clanking sounds make me think of the small guardians, the little children who spend their days like little monks in their solitary fields under the Malian sun. What do they think about on those long, lonely days? What are their hopes and dreams?

Notes from the Field

At around 3:00 P.M. we arrived at Kenyandinto. We were greeted by people who were working in the village instead of in their fields. “Ilu ning sege,” they said, which is the Malinke way to say hello to people who are passing by. It literally means, “I see you traveling. You must be tired.” We went to Yambi’s family’s courtyard where they offered their best chairs for us to sit in, water for us to drink and peanuts for us to eat. 

From now until the end of my life I will always think of my Malinke friends when I see a peanut because peanuts are one of the main staples in their diet and one of the most important gifts of their hospitality. The humble peanut from my humble friends reminding me to always give my best to everyone.

There is no pump from which to draw clean water for the village. When my friend Mike Krahwinkle was digging wells for the mountain villages he tried to drill there but the ground is too rocky and water is just not there. The village collects it’s water from streams that run through the mountain during the rainy season. The people have a difficult time with water during the driest times of the dry season. They have to bring in water from far away. 

Robin and I are afraid to drink the water from the streams because our stomachs haven’t built up a tolerance for the microbes that live in it. We strive to be as hospitable as our Malinke brothers and sisters but we don’t want to invite those microbes into our stomachs!

I explained our fear to Yambi. He asked three of his young sons to take three containers on a two mile hike to a neighboring village with a deep water well and bring cool, clean water to us. It is difficult to carry gallons of water on your head over rough terrain but the boys were content to help us.

I am always humbled by the people’s willingness to take care of us.

There is a small group of Christians in the village. In the Malinke language, a Christian is called a “Yesu karandingolu” which means “student of Jesus,” a good definition, I think, of what a Christian should be. The Christians meet on Sunday mornings and Tuesday nights to sing songs, study the Bible and pray together. 

Only a few people in the village can read, so the readers are the natural leaders for the group. They always pray that people will learn to serve each other joyfully and know God’s love in the deepest of ways.


We met together with the Christians as fellow “students of Jesus”. As we sang to the best and rhythm of the drums I felt peaceful. I looked into the faces of my Malinke friends and saw the face of Jesus. “Jesus himself is with us,” I thought, “Loving us and caring for us. He must be enjoying this as much as we are.”

Robin taught us from the first chapter of the book of James in the New Testament about perseverance in the face of suffering. To hear her teaching in her broken Malinke made my heart feel whole.

We all prayed and it was wonderful to talk with God together.

To close our day the village had a big celebration for us. A drummer began to play a giant drum and women and children began to sing and dance around us. Dancing is one of the great ways people here express their joy. They asked Robin to join them. After a long day of hiking she joined them in their expression of joy and danced the Malinke dance with them. They asked me to join in but I was content to sit and watch and smile. I felt their joy in my heart. It was the perfect close to a good, good day.

We closed ourselves into Yambi’s mud brick hut that he gave up for the night to us. I listened carefully and heard some whimpering babies, bleating sheep and hushed talking of old men and women. I felt the cool night air blowing through the open windows. I smelled the smells of the fires that cooked the evening meals and the straw that made up the thatched roof over my head.

I knew I was in Africa.

I was thankful.

Notes from the Field

I have always wanted to be a doctor, and I have become one at our mission.
Actually, I am more like an Army medic, treating people with minor injuries and sicknesses, sending those with more serious illnesses to our hospital in Kenieba. 

Mostly, I treat laborers who are working in the fields around the mission when they cut themselves with their hoes. I also treat babies, making a rehydration drink for them to drink when they have “runny tummies” and giving children’s Tylenol to them when they have a fever.

My good friend Musa was the doctor until the first of the month. He is the day guard on the mission compound. He just joined a guard service from Bamako (the capital of Mali) and they requested that he only guard and stop doing first aid work. 

Musa is very knowledgeable about treating injuries and sicknesses. He is my teacher, helping me learn how to help people. He is especially good at treating burns.

A book entitled “Where There Is No Doctor: A Village Health Care Handbook” is also my teacher.

Prayer for a Village

Dear Lord,

I wish I was a doctor. I would heal sick people. I would remove diseases from their bodies. I would prescribe medicines to help them feel better. Yes, I would heal and help.

I wish I was a farmer. I would grow peanuts, millet, corn and rice to give to hungry people to eat. I would teach people to work and care for the land and feed them for a lifetime as well as for a day. Yes, I would grow and teach.

I wish I was an engineer. I would dig deep wells and build big pumps so every person could have cool, clean water. Yes, I would dig and build.

But, I am not a doctor or a farmer or an engineer.

I am only myself.

Here is my heart. Please use it to love people.

Here is my soul. Please use it to befriend people.

Here is my mind. Please use it to teach people.

Here are my hands and feet. Please use them to serve people.

I am only myself, Lord. 

But here I am.