When It Hurts Most…. Living With Mali In Your Heart

“More than 2.2 billion people worldwide are “either near or living in poverty,” says a recent UN report. The gap between the poor and rich is wide: the 85 richest people in the world have the same wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest.” (Quarter of world population ‘either near or living in poverty’ – UN)

The article pictures a young girl picking up a few grains of rice spilled in the sand by a humanitarian food shipment to Gao, Mali, West Africa.

I will never forget the day I first witnessed the like. It was in Abengourou, Ivory Coast around 1996. It was just off the main front street of Abengourou, across from the mosque toward the swamp that divides the town. I was walking down the back dirt streets, and there she was, just ahead of me, feebly getting into the ditch. As I approached, I could see this beautiful elderly grandmother was picking up potato peels someone had discarded in the ditch.

I nonchalantly greeted her as I passed. She looked up at me in surprise, with her one remaining front tooth clearly visible in that huge smile. I remember she wore a pink sweater. She greeted me in return, and I could see the embarrassment begin to settle on her humble face, though she tried to hide it, at having a white westerner see her scavenging.

Of course I began crying after I passed by.

I’m ashamed that anyone must do the like to get by- things like sifting a few rice grains out of road sand or salvaging potatoe peels from ditches.

Images like this haunt me and have broken me somewhere deep inside. Because they throw the worst the world has to offer humanity, smack…. right in the face. It’s impossible to be “normal” anymore. Frankly, it’s hard to give a shit about the small issues anymore. The institutions I’ve been part of my whole life spend so much energy on the small issues and I can’t take it anymore. 

There are times you are doubled over, unable to breath because of the painful stomach knot and tears that come from witnessing some human suffering.

Encounters of this sort expose how PUNY our offerings are among a host of people with a very hard life. We can do ABSOLUTLY nothing for most. Our presence and puny personal offerings will certainly stem no tide. We have to walk by so, so many.

Poverty has a face…. I see them in my mind every day. They have names too.

Let me be honest here…. Transitioning back and forth between Canada and Mali each year is very challenging.  No, this is an understatement.  It is down right exhausting and gut wrenching. The most emotionally draining experience of my life has been these constant transitions from one place to the other.  There are moments I want to quit this insanity.

However,  images of pink sweater grandmothers needing a little friendship, love and help with food for the family table drive me forward in this insanity we call humanitarian and community development.  

It is challenging to go to Mali.  However, it would be even more difficult not to go. Does that make sense?  The outer struggle to go, live, and then return in a season…. every year….  is nothing compared to the unbearable inner struggle of the heart I have if I do not go. 

I’m glad to be heading back to some people I love in Mali. Twelve more weeks. I can’t help the 2.2 billion…. but  I can help a few more pink sweatered grannies feed their families again this year.

The Invisible Humanitarian is emerging from the western haze again. I appreciate you walking with me again this term.

Love To Hear From You

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