In Africa Sometimes Silence Is More Powerful

An elderly lady in Mali taught me that sometimes it’s best to be silent.

I never remember being this thirsty before…. it was 43 degrees in the shade today, and we had planted another three drip irrigated gardens for some sweet elderly Samogho Duungoma women…. Digging in the crusty powdery soil, that had not seen rain in over 5 months now, the meaning of dry had morphed into a radically different meaning to me. The earth looked about how my mouth felt too, as I satisfied my deep need for more water by taking another huge swig.

But I am getting ahead of myself… Let me tell you a story in the day and life of a humanitarian NGO working among a very poor Islamic people in Mali.

I arrived in the village in the early morning. I stopped at my dougoutigi’s (the person responsible for me in the village. Like a host too) mud house, but he was nowhere to be found according to his wife. I thanked her, and I turned my attention to the horde of kids that always gather around a foreigner in Africa, saying things in French they just did not understand, so I resorted to asking each one of them how they were doing in Bambara, as I placed my hand gently on each of their heads. A simple touch can communicate so much more than my limited Bambara could at this stage of the game.

I decided to head out into the bush beside the village, were we were putting in a drip irrigated garden for the elderly, yet spunky little Madame Ballo. I hiked out to where we agreed to plant her a garden… and she already had most of it tilled up by hand, as she said she would. But I was alone in her small field.

I finally sat down on top of an irrigation bucket and wrapped a turban around my head,  because though it was still early, it was already getting very hot, and as a redhead, my skin and the sun have a conflicting relationship.

I looked around at the short stubby trees typical of the Sub Saharian Sahel, so different from the rain forest where my Africa journey began eighteen years ago. I listened to the sounds of the birds, but mostly the sounds were from the parched dry wind as it stirred through the brown, crispy, and long since dead vegetation that had not seen rain in at least five months.

However, here I was to plant a garden in this dust, after most agencies evacuated from Mali (Jan-Feb 2013), and breaking our newly implemented security rule of not making bush trips alone until the country became more stable. But the truth is I never felt less threatened than I do in this place. 

“Thank God for simple drip irrigation!”, I thought to myself as I looked around. I waited and waited with still no sign of my dugutigi, or Madame Ballo. By now I was laying on the ground, and started snapping a few pictures, and even took a picture of my shoe. One finds simple things amusing in the isolation of the bush, you have too. One learns very quick to enjoy the journey as it unfolds in Africa.  I told an intern one time;

“You’d better look around kid… enjoy what you are seeing and hearing, even at this hectic bus stop. Fill your life, eyes, and mind with images, pictures, sounds, interactions and conversations with the people all around you at any given moment. Because this is as good as it gets… Where we are going there is nothing any different, nothing more exciting than this…. It’s the people, that is what makes Mali amazing.”

As I looked around, I was very thankful I was even here today. Most agencies had pulled their NGO’s and staff out of Mali several weeks ago. Al-Qaeda had taken 50% of the country a year ago (March 2012). However,  ten months later,  on January 10th, 2013, they made an alarming and rapid  move to take the capital, and the south too.
If the French president had not immediately heeded the desperate call of the provisional Malian Prime Minister, it would be a different story I tell today.

The French President immediately ordered raptor jets to race over from Chad to try and stop the Al-Qaeda advance. While the west and Europe debated what France was doing, all of the country, even the Taureg in the north, who first staged the regional coup, were glad to have the Al-Quadea (and several other radical Islamic groups) take over halted.

Three separate times over a five day period we packed our bags to leave, with the final time being at 4:00 AM in the morning… We locked the door and Lynn and stood there, looking at each other, wondering what we were doing. I asked Lynn, “Do you really want to go? Do you really feel safer on the road than here… with people in our community we know and love and who look out for us?”
“No,” she replied.
We unlocked the door and threw our bags back in, calling our taxi friend and telling him not to bother coming. We holed up four three days.  The Arabic Koranic teacher around the corner thanked us for staying, saying,  “We will watch out for you, tell your parents back home.”

It was not easy to deal with the typical instant “Flight Response” of westerners back home. Many thought we should just run and leave. But we have more invested here than that. We reminded people that we are professionals at what we do. We are not tourists here, rather trying to help effectuate some positive work. We know the risks of being here, how to assess those risks, read the signs, and take reasonable precautions. Why leave… when 500,000 people are displaced and needing food in the middle of drought season?

How can you look them in the eye and say I’ll cover my butt, and leave yours at risk? Until you have had to do that, seeing the look of utter disbelief in their eyes, you will never understand.

Even CSIS sent one of their men on an eight our round trip to speak to our President in Prince Edward Island, Canada, wondering who we were, what we were doing in Mali, and why we are till there. In the end they were relieved to see we had no ulterior motives or connections in Mali, were genuinely pleasantly amazed at what a simple Canadian Maritime organization was doing for the Malian people at this very precarious time. This is our life, we have chosen it, and hiding when we are needed most is not an issue.

“Whatever happens, we’ll always manage to sort it out under the palaver tree or in the hallway.” (Old mans Words in Timbuktu Mali)

So yes, I was out here in the bush alone, and missed having Lynn today…. because that was one of the other security measures, Lynn was restricted to Sikasso for several weeks.

The women in the village love Lynn to death… the old village women threaten me with sticks for coming without Mama Hey-Lynn. But I explained it saying Lynn had to be in the office, and they understood. But they still shook sticks at me every evening as I left for home, warning me not to come back again without her. I did not know all they said in Duungooma, but the imagery communicated well enough.
Why do they call Lynn, Helen (Hey Lynn is how they say it) when they were told her name is Lynn?  Each day as we work together in the gardens with the women and I need Lynn for something, I say “Hey Lynn….. will you  come here for a second and……..” And despite telling everyone her name is Lynn it morphs into “Hey Lynn” (Helen) every time.

About ready to give up, I eventually saw a green winter hat emerge through the top of the brittle shrubs, and I could hear cracking and snapping grass as Madame Ballo worked her way toward the new garden.

We shared the usual three minute greeting. How are you, did you sleep well? How is your family? How are your children? Is there peace? How are your grandchildren? How is the village? How is the chief? How is your husband? And she asked me in return as well. I asked her in Bambara if she knew where my Dugutigi was and she did not. 

Rather than wasting more time, I began with no translator. Madame Ballo and I re-tilled the soil, digging silently side by side as we worked our way backwards down where the irrigation rows would be. She did not seem to mind the heat with her wool winter hat on,  while I was dripping in sweat. She’s pretty tough for a grandmother… She kept right up with me, What I did with brute force as a big man, she more than compensated for with her skill in the use of a dabba…. After sixty years of using the thing, she quickly and effectively  turned up the soil with far less effort than me.

Using no words at all and simple hand gestures, I showed her how to measure and cut the irrigation lines… we placed and then anchored them. We dug post holes together, to mount the two poles for the gravity feed water supply buckets… We took turns back and forth,  while one chopped the soil in the hole, the other reached in and took out handfuls of the loose soil. As I scooped dirt at her feet, I prayed for her, her family, and village. 

I gave hand signals to show the height and length that was required for poles and we cut and planted them, attached the drip lines to the main lines, the main lines to the filter, and the filter into the bucket water supply.

It was time for much water… before planting. Off we went with our four buckets… Madame Ballo and I had one in each hand as we walked single file to the stream. It must look funny: this big behemoth of a Canadian man, and this tiny little grandmother walking to the stream together for water. I scooped buckets of water out of the stream and handed them up the bank to her. And she smiled her half toothed smile…  And back we went with one of the mettle buckets leaking from a hole. I thought to my self how poor are you Madame Ballo that you water a garden with a bucket containing a hole? We filled the irrigation system.

Madame Ballo did a great job;  the silent demonstrations and hand signals worked their magic…The system worked perfectly. We walked the lines as we allowed time for the water to soften the parched soil. I showed her how to verify the drips, and pinch the lines to restore proper drip flow. How to flush the lines clean when they get sediment built up inside… Every other time I trained groups of women, I had used words…. translated by a translator to explain everything, with hands on explanations and demonstrations…. But not this time… I wondered how on earth this poor women will remember all of what she saw today…. But I kept hoping that my demonstrations, hand gestures and the odd Bambara word we both knew would turn in to something good, understandable and helpful for the health of this precious elderly woman and her family.

But I could tell she understood. As we planted the seeds on the irrigation lines together in silence, I noticed that as she planted each seed by the water drips… she was indeed verifying that the drip was actually flowing from each hole. If it was not dripping she pinched the lines the very way I had showed her in silence earlier…. and the drip would begin… She did this for the whole garden.

But let me jump ahead…. Of the sixy three families we have eating off of drip irrigated gardens (that is 600 people last term) the only garden I never ever had to go back to do a follow up visit to, was Madame Ballo’s family garden. I had to do repeated ollow up visits in every other garden….but not for the  Grandmother trained without words…

When I was in the village doing follow up over the next few weeks I would always ask Madame Ballo, “Are the drips working Ok?” … “Oh yes… If they don’t I just pinch them like you showed me.” “Have you been cleaning the lines?” “Yes.”  I asked how and she described the process to me, perfectly, through our translator. Every time I asked, she said, “It’s easy…. there is nothing to it.”. I never had to go back to her garden.
From Canada,  called a friend in Mali in June, I asked about Madame Ballo,  and he said she got a huge harvest of green beans.

Mr Soumalia, my village dougutigi and translator arrives just as we finished. Surprised, I think, that we went ahead and did it without him. He explained that he had been called to a village-wide meeting of the elders and head men. It seems that three Al-Qaeda rebels had passed by this village late in the night before with the police and army in pursuit….I drive this road 3 times a week. I had left the village too late the night before, too. and it was well into dark before I got home. They came down this same road that night.  With Al-Qaeda rebels from the north now making a run for the borders in the south, the police and military wanted all the villages to organize themselves to have young men watch the roads all night long and report everything. The Hunters of the region were all mobilized, as they are the few people in the bush with guns…. and they set up 24 hour watches on all the river crossings and bridges in the whole SE region of Mali… Whatever happened to the three rebels, I don’t know…. Probably don’t want to, bush justice is not a story to tell. But it is a story to be understood by all workers in Africa.

We said our goodbyes to the smiling Madame Ballo and went back into the village of Mouzia to do more follow up with fourteen other women in a huge community garden we set up for them. We installed more irrigation systems and did more of the same verifications to many laughs and giggles with the lively crew of women and grannies we had.

To be honest, I was a bit frustrated with this bunch. They had been less than diligent to this point. For several weeks now they were letting the lines plug by failing to do the quick and simple cleaning process. I took the chief of women aside, and we talked about the poor progress with this group. Madame Coulibaly, gave the women involved a good talking to. You have not  been called down until an African lady has called you down… I just kept out of the way as she did her cultural role of whipping these women in to shape.

Loving and helping these precious people is just the right thing to do. But as you now see, it’s not rocket science. It’s more about presence, time spent with, than papers and proposals. Get up every day and do something helpful with the local people. I learned many years ago that I accomplish little good from time spent sitting in an office.

Madame Ballo taught me that what I say (or write) with words is not really so vital to her after all. The real strength of humanitarians is found in doing, demonstrating, and spending time with someone.

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