When In Mali, West Africa; Make a Great Deal Of Time For “Useless Beauty”

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This photo of the Samogho Bankkagooma Chief was taken on another occasion.

Frankly, there are times in life we need to shut up and listen, hanging on every word, savoring the conjured vision of each one of them. I’ve certainly found this to be very true in West Africa, but really, any life, anywhere, could use a good dose or two of this.

There are times in life we need to put down the camera, notebook, the paper “plans”, the agenda at hand, taking time to truly see what is before our eyes- permitting the living image to be indelibly burned into our mind, preserved for a lifetime.

My wife and I were in a Samogho Bankagooma village named Niaradougou. My son and a community development intern were with us. The Bankagooma language is dying, and sadly this village had already lost its mother tongue, speaking only Bambara now. Only the ancient chief and one village elder speak the Bankagooma language any more. It’s a sad story to tell about Africa. Some things are just so right about this place. Other things, like a dying language, are just so wrong.

We went to the court of the Chief and greeted him. As is common in Africa, we had to wait and wait for the village elders to show up for a meeting we had scheduled. It was us, the silent chief, and the two young men with us waiting for a long time.

“Spiritual direction begins when people are helped to walk more slowly, talk more slowly and eat more slowly.” (Francis de Sales)

As with all youth, and I was no exception, the African waiting game very quickly began to collide with the western culture of getting things done. Our intern eventually commented sarcastically, “What fun this is, and productive too!”

I said to him,

“Look at this ancient and fragile old man in front of you, kid. Let the image of this stately, but life worn chief burn into your mind so that you never forget him. You may never see anything like him again in your lifetime. He will probably be gone the next time you return, and much of the Samogho Banakgooma history, stories of their people, and even their language, will die with him.  This is a national geographic moment, so don’t miss it. If we accomplish nothing else today, we will go home the richer for being with this man, and seeing this living picture.”

So that is what we did. Even though four or five languages were represented among us, we had none in common. So we sat, silently, and waited for the other village elders. We permitted time for the image of this old chief to wash over us. As he sat on his low stool, with the backdrop of his mud brick hut, we memorized and mentally snapshot every crack and crevice of his weathered skin, and the shape of his grey beard. I see the image clearly as I write.

Sometimes we must remain silent, and look and listen so that we can take that needed long, intense, absorbing look at what is before us, until we slow down enough to see its real beauty. Unfortunately, most of us never actually learn this lesson until we get older,  despite the fact we have been told over and over. We have missed so many opportunities. Life is wasted on youth; at least mine. I don’t want to go back. From this vantage point, looking both ways, the second half of life looks best to me. It finally clicks that time with people is the best thing. People are beautiful, each possessing an amazing story.  Take time for some useless beauty… like the beauty of this old man in front of us.

“In our formative years, we are so self-preoccupied that we are both overly defensive and overly offensive at the same time, with little time left for simply living, pure friendship, useless beauty, or moments of communion with nature or anything.” (Richard Rohr. Falling Upward)

It’s where I feel I’m at these days.

“In the second half of life, it is good just to be a part of the general dance. We do not have to stand out, make defining moves, or be better than anyone else on the dance floor. Life is more participatory than assertive, and there is no need for strong or further self-definition” (Falling Upward. Richard Rohr. pg 120).

So today, I was perfectly fine to enjoy the dance, until, when, even if , the “work” ever begins.

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