“The only two things that can satisfy the soul are a person and a story; and even a story must be about a person.” (G. H. Chesterton)
I have a story, one about fools. Shall we get drunk?
“An intelligent man is sometimes forced to be drunk to spend time with his fools.” (Ernest Hemingway)
I feel myself shutting down emotionally, pulling back from life here, as my mind, body, and soul prepare for the transition back to Africa. Before my actual physical body arrives there, I have already arrived in my soul and mind. This month is when I become so fully disengaged from life here, that I am already over there before I even arrive. It is tough.
I am wrapping up winterization of my boats, fishing gear, and preparing my home for our absence. Packing up training, irrigation, and water purification supplies or West Africa.
Is it possible to be excited, yet numb, ready to tell a story, but unable to speak it, all at the same time? My mind, emotions, and heart are full of these kinds of contradictions right now.
International workers are well experienced with the requests from local African acquaintances to bring back things for them. It can be overwhelming, and for many, disheartening. Some even begin to question if any of the locals really like them for who they are, or are they only tolerated as potential resource for materialism.
However, we must understand that this is a cultural thing, and that saying no to ridiculous gift requests should be given just as easy as asking (Picture one Malian asking another Malian the same question. That should be your response). It is simply a person taking a shot in the dark to see what you will say or do about it. I reserve gift giving for the deeper relationships in Africa, not the trivial ones, and as it is with real friends, all is kept in moderation.
Since beginning to work in Mali I have been asked for everything from money to build a two story dormitory, to providing motorcycles (Yes plural, times 10), laptops, and everything in between. Frankly, locals are totally dumbfounded by our minimal subsidization policy, the discrete way we execute projects, and the fact that we stick to it. Makes a good few men walk away when they see we are not shoveling out product, jobs, or easy gain, and I thank them for doing so, if that is what they have been hanging around me for.
Dependency is very widely spread in Africa. Obscene levels of money have been pumped into the structures of West Africa, resulting in some change, but not nearly the level we should be experiencing, and expecting. We created this dependency in Africa, and we continue to feed it with charity. It’s so rampant, no mater where you go in Africa, no matter how how remote, how untouched it is, the fact is we can no longer get away from the expectations we have created. I’d too had hoped that my transition from Ivory Coast to working in the least developed nation and people on earth would get me further away from it.
However, it arrived before me, and I find I must deal with it, though not in the same degree. Well, actually, I don’t have to deal with it, because I don’t respond to it much. I’m the bad guy among development workers. I’ve taken back garden kits from women who would not work to feed their families, and given the kits to women who would. They have never see the like. Probably does not earn me friends among those circles. But Man Of Peace Development is in Mali to develop food security. We are not wasting our time and investment with people who are not willing to work to become food secure, and leave the drip kit hang in their shed, like it was a freebie handout to horde. Lady, you may be angry I took the garden kit back, but if your anger means another Ladies children will no longer be malnourished, and thus developmentally stunted for life, I choose her children’s future health, free from the effects of infant stunting for the next 60 years of their lives, over your tender ego. Life’s a bitch for some people. Some people make wise choices, some do not. And I don’t mind being a bitch in food security, and community development either. Truth is, this has been done very discretely, with leaders in villages informed. What helps is we are not leaving the village altogether, merely changing who we work with in the village. This helps. Village leaders understand some people you can’t work with. Do we understand this as development workers?
I have three men who have been key to my survival and success in Mali. They are friends, not paid staff or co-workers. Their insight and wisdom has kept me out of trouble, alive, informed, with a roof over our head, and healthy. They are the poorest of the poor. Earning about $50 a month, though for one of them, that would be optimistic. The poor are my companions, not the middle or upper class.
They watch out for me. So much so they even guide me where to eat. As you know, we do not have house staff, and eat local dishes most of the time. One of these friends called me to a meeting with three elderly men who were concerned for our health, because my wife and I eat different than any westerner they have ever seen. One of the elderly men saw us eating at a street side vendor and told a few other old guys. They agreed they needed to speak with one of my friends to explain their concern. They called me in, with the purpose of tell me which street side food vendors we could from, and which ones to avoid.
“She is clean in reparation, that other one beside her is not. We even get sick if we eat her food.” they warn me.
One friend has asked for as much as $35,000 US investment. The other two, over the past five years, have asked for nothing. This is new to me. I have never experienced this before in my over 20 years of floating my boat in Africa. I will give all three a gift when I get home to Mali, as a thank you for watching my empty place.
My life has been in their hands. The hands of men who have little materially, but are full of trust, wisdom, and faithfulness. They have graciously chosen to extend it to my wife and me.
So, my Canadian friends, as I am slowly disappearing into a Malian fog. Therefore, over the next few weeks remember this. It’s me, not you.
I could arrogantly say I am getting some kind of “drunk” to go spend time with my fools in Mali. But the truth is, they probably are getting drunk to put up with me.
My story – We are off working with the poorest, and most neglected people on earth. It is a gift to have this life, no matter how challenging these transitions are.
Madame Ballo’s Story – She is a woman who takes MOPD’s partnership, and now works to feed her children healthily.
The other story – That other one, we tried, but she does not want to.
Such is life, everywhere, and even I, the Invisible Humanitarian, can’t change it.