African Reflections (Mali)

Death on the Mountain
October 5, 2020
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African Reflections (Mali)

An Indelible Image

The Mali assignment finished, I headed off to the Bamako airport with Pierre, the good-natured driver who, upon learning I had spent the morning with the Salesians of Don Bosco, whispered that he, too, was a Catholic.  Pierre had been my driver for three evenings quietly sharing his collection of African hip hop music.  One song in particular, Time is Now, a duet by J. Martin, one of the more popular singers in Nigeria, and his Senegalese counterpart, Youssou N’dour, was beguiling and playing it now—he knew how much I liked it—I settled in and allowed Mali to see me off.  I would no longer judge the place and its people.  I would let it come at me and go through me.  And at that time, a serenity filled my heart and I felt a peace that had eluded me for so long.  In the chaos, noise and confusion, I found a semblance of inner order and let it wash over me. 

These Malians were just a people coping with a situation few of us could imagine—a lack of drinking water, garbage, pollution, raw sewage and a forbidden zone to the north where no traveler could go.  There was stark evidence of malnutrition in the city.  I cringed to see some stick thin children, their growth permanently stunted.  A Sikh employed with the United Nations provided sober testimony, “Bamako is paved with gold compared with what you find outside the city.  It is awful.”  His sunken eyes betrayed the strain from working under such conditions.

 For now, I leaned back in the car seat as we made our way through the Saturday markets of fresh fish and goats and yes, they were slaughtering a cow on the street–a first for me—then on and over the Niger River where small green islands parted the swift muddy currents.  

As to the morning spent at the Don Bosco School, I fondly recalled the young and enthusiastic Brother Theodore from Togo and Father Vicente from Valencia, Spain whose thirty something years in Africa had beaten down his body but not his spirit.  He was elated to meet someone who not only could speak Spanish but had come from Valencia, albeit California.  I had first seen the Don Bosco building upon arrival in the San Michel area of the city—its huge mural of Don Bosco gazing over the roundabout.  The Salesians were no strangers–I knew them from a high school retreat in New York.  For some reason, the familiar face of Don Bosco compelled me to inquire about the people within the imposing (by Bamako standards) pastel building. Certainly there was a story here.

But it was really no secret. Brother Theodore, in a fit of transparency, took me by the arm and led me on a tour of the complex where 433 boys and 16 girls are housed.  There was a simple chapel to be seen and many classrooms featuring vocational education.  A middle-aged Frenchman was teaching auto mechanics to a group of older boys.  He waved to me with some vigor.

Brother Theodore explained only 5% of the students are Catholic; the rest are Muslim.  Father Vicente added that relations in Mali between the religions was good–he had attended many Catholic weddings and funerals where many Muslims were in attendance and vice versa.  

“How can I help?” I asked.

Theodore explained the funding originates with the Salesian brothers in Spain.  He walked me over to a broken-down passenger van and pointed to the replacement vehicle they had received from Spain—an ambulance from Albacete, Spain.  Acknowledging that funds were tight, Theodore said they desperately needed two things—a tractor for the agricultural classes to replace the decrepit version rusting in the courtyard and a soldering/welding machine.  

“We could certainly use the funds for these two pieces of equipment.”  He summoned a subject matter expert for each piece of equipment and scribbled down the costs.

I did not commit myself but here was a chance to finance a simple soldering machine.  If the money got in the hands of Vicente or Theodore, I knew they would buy the boys what was needed. I promised to stay in touch.

The week provided me the opportunity to know the people of the NGO world a little better.  I had been in a discussion with a Dutch woman who, as a single mother, shared her hopes and dreams for the two young daughters she had taken in tow to this part of the world.  It ended in tears (she recovered quickly) as she summed up their challenges.  

The Country Director, too, was a strong French woman but, during the exit briefing, she briefly let down her guard describing her early NGO life and how, at a very young age, she knew this would be her calling.  She confided saying she is still motivated by her earlier experiences in the field with various nutrition programs but her voice trembled as she recalled losing several children in her arms to malnutrition.  She daubed at her eyes and apologized.  What does one say?

I’ve got it easy here.  It’s a short contract which gets shorter every day.  I merely put up with the inconveniences and challenges as they come my way—no elevators in the buildings so no option but to ascend the four or five floors on steps that are uneven, cracked and downright dangerous.  For lunch, I step over piles of garbage and stones on the way to the French style patisserie owned by a Malian expatriate just returning from Canada.  He proudly sweeps his arms wide and smiles, “What do you think?  Just like Starbucks?”  Well…

Across the street two little girls bounce off their mother’s lap as she sells bananas at roadside stand amidst the choking fumes and dust from a never-ending queue of motor scooters leaving a rust colored patina on their white dresses. They are mere inches from a two-foot-deep trench that is home to flies, insects and rats.  I peer into the hole and feel sick and scared for these girls. Impulsively, I slap two shiny coins on the fruit stand as the little girls grin widely.  We wave to each other on and off for a whole block, a fun game, before making it back to the Save the Children office. Saddened by what I’ve seen, I climb the five floors of uneven steps to the office above without thinking.  Strangely now, I miss those children…

Every night I cocoon myself in a mosquito net and must ensure I have access to clean water.  But I am a foreigner, a voyeur, peering into an alien world and only getting it half right, if at all.  What I see on the Boulevard leaves me speechless until I turn the corner and see something cleaner, more organized, less chaotic. The boy in the bus staring at me until a thumbs up forces a wide grin—have the two of us intersected in the universe at this time for a purpose?  Will our paths cross again?  Should I care?

But one thing becomes evident.  The longer you stay, the more difficult it is to leave.   As Mali’s ambiguity disappears in the rear view mirror, I can only ponder what comes next. What will Niger be like? Tragic? Hopeful? I’ll write soon…

Bamako, Mali

December 10, 2016

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