November 5, 2000
I was invited to go with a fellow teacher and her family to a Malian Christian family in a village about a half hour away from Bamako. As you turn off the main paved road (the road from Bamako is actually MUCH better than many of the roads IN the main part of Bamako itself), you start heading down a maze of narrow dirt roads/paths.
The house compounds are quite near each other, clustered amidst a vast area of savannah and some fields. The houses are small, many perhaps only one room. The houses are made of mud bricks. There are no glass windows, but there is a large metal door. Cooking is done outside. There is no electricity, but recently wells have been upgraded- mounded slightly with concrete and secured with a cover. These two factors have helped in reducing the amount of deaths due to children accidentally falling in open wells. Each house has a wall around its border, providing some privacy - and helping the chickens or other animals to stay in the yard. Sometimes there are several homes, inhabited by extended families.
Next to the house of the family we visited was a small chicken coop, again made out of mud bricks. Also present: an area for trash (sort of a compost heap), a small garden, and a shade tree or two. Most villages of any size have a mosque, however small and humble in appearance. Children could be found throughout the village, rolling a tire with a stick, playing soccer, or riding a bike. As usual, women and girls were more typically found working hard, preparing meals, - gathering food, washing clothes, etc.
The father of the family recounted his early beginnings in life. Like so many others in Mali, he had to deal with death at an early age. In fact, he never knew his father. Unable to provide for her many children, the mother dispersed her children to live with family members or others of the village. He was sent to live with the village chief. Like many in his village, the family held more traditional, or animist beliefs. A mission church settled in the area, spreading the Gospel in the native language of Bambara. The church also began to teach people how to read and write, a luxury not offered by the village. He took advantage of both, learning to read and write as well as learning more about Christ. The teachings appealed to him. All was well until one of his uncles converted to Islam. This uncle suddenly had no tolerance for Christians whatsoever, including his on nephew. At first the young boy did learn about the Islam religion, but soon realized that Christ was the One. Warned of the possible consequences if he did not recant his religious decision, the young boy held firm. One day he found his few belongings outside the house entryway, a direct message that he was to leave and go on his own - at the age of 10. Even now, the father and his family faces persecution (albeit sometimes subtle). They are the only Christian family in the village. The oldest son went and earned a degree in civil engineering, but can't find a job in that profession- the only jobs available are with the government, and they wouldn't hire a Malian Christian. The father is also without a job, and spends a fair amount of time providing food for his family by planting and harvesting fields of millet and other items. Plowing is done with simple plows and a donkey, but the harvesting is done by hand. Despite their many hardships, this family has extended its hand to people even more needy then they. When a child of a relative lost her parents, they took her in and adopted her. More recently, the family took in a large family (children and a widowed mother) who were homeless.
No matter how little food they have, Malian families always make sure that their guests have plenty to eat. For supper we sat on some benches and a small table, sheltered from the sun by a tin roof upheld by wooden poles - their family worship area. After hand washing, everyone gathered around the large bowls of food - some millet couscous, lentil beans, and some chicken smothered in peanut sauce. The mother began scooping heaping portions of the millet in two bowls. The rest of the food was heaped in the middle of each bowl. Gathering around one of the bowls, each person proceeded to eat by scooping with their right hand, eating the food that was in the area just in front of them. The sauce, when poured over the millet, gave the dry textured food some flavor and moistness. More helpings were provided until everyone had their fill. Just when I thought it was finished, they brought out a watermelon grown locally and began cutting it with a rather dull looking small knife. On top of the tender chicken and tasty sauce, we were presented with a large slice of watermelon to eat!
Shortly after all had their fill, we packed up to leave. Kind words were exchanged and photos were taken. Soon the sun would set; much needed to be done yet in the available light. Thanking all for their generous hospitality, we left the small village and headed back towards the sprawling village of Bamako. Although I've seen it before, this visit once again reminded me how people can be happy even though they don't have material things. Family and faith held this man and his family together and made it prosper. While he could have easily given up either as a child or as a adult, this man did not give up and held fast to his faith and family. How blessed we are in the US that we are not persecuted for our beliefs - that we are free to believe as we want! And the family's generosity, extending out a hand to the orphaned girl and a homeless family - when they themselves were poor and on hard times! Indeed, there are many things that I and others in a modem society need to work on. We can learn so much from people in poor, developing countries.