Today Jan 28, I am taking off from Mali to my home in Portland, OR. For now things are a bit calmer as my time comes to an end in Mali. As a native Malian myself, I already understood the struggles of the average Malian families in their day to day lives. However, I could not anticipate what difficulties would be added with the burden of war. This alone was the drive for us to create the 15 Families aid program in conjunction with my trip this year. But it was not only the joyful reaction of faces I witnessed in Mali from our 22 family recipients that impressed me, but those of you who thought of Malian people during this hard time. Though I was merely the representative of your good gestures in handing out the aid to these families, I benefited from witnessing their human responses. All I can tell you is, thank you all for making this trip a rich lifetime experience for me. It has been an emotional journey; the memories of my personal encounters with ordinary Malians and families will remain for eternity. Here are briefly the last 3 recipients of the 15 Families program I documented before I left.
Assitan Coulibaly is like a grandmother figure to the entire neighborhood. One can easily recognize her high-pitched voice greetings and sweet exchanges with people as she walks through the neighborhood. She loves people and seems to be loved by everyone. Because she is so uplifting and charming, her personal life struggles are hard to detect. When I had a sit-down conversation with Assitan, I discovered she has been suffering like any senior person at this time. Though she seems to be healthy unlike many others at her age, she worries about some of her grandchildren that are under her care. She said the 15 Family aid program will give her and her grandchildren a few moons of stability. Grandma Assitan sent her long list of blessings along with me for all the donors of this program. Later on that afternoon ,upon talking with others in the neighborhood and realizing that many have been touched by our program, she returned to renew her appreciation on behalf of the entire neighborhood. I am glad people like Assitan Coulibaly is one of our recipients. Her charming personality and encouragement to others truly helps make the burden of the day seem lighter.
The next recipient was Bakary Coulibaly a blacksmith in Soni Cegni. When I visited his family, Bakary’s wife told me that her husband had been under the weather for a couple of days. He had been working too hard and had lost the strength of his body. As a result he was in bed from fatigue. But when Bakary overheard my voice, he came out instantly holding the small album of photos that I had sent ahead to him from Ko-Falen member and goldsmith, Tami Dean of Portland. “Wague, it’s good to see you!! I thought you were not coming to Soni Cegni this year?” “Yes,” I responded, “but I changed my mind.”
He ushered us into his smithy hut and invited us to sit. Bakary noted that his fame was now widespread with the photo album Tami had sent him in appreciation for the time they had spent smithing together in his hut. He said that he and his wife have been having 5 to 10 visitors a day to see their new photo album. I congratulated him and his wife and presented the gift from our 15 Families program. He was sitting at the time next to his wife with their children crowded around them. Bakary was speechless and went into deep thought about the kindness Americans have shown once more. “Wague” he said “This level of kindness makes me embarrassed; how can I ever pay them?” I told him that his payment is not needed but to make sure there is plenty of food for those small children of theirs. He eyes filled with tears as he said “yes” back. In the end Bakary sent his sincere greetings to Tami Dean, the donors of the 15 Family program and the entire board of Kofalen. He encouraged Americans to visit their home in Soni Cegni soon. Bakary’s lifestyle of smithing is truly at the heart of the existence of the village, as he makes and mends tools of farming for all his community.
The last recipients are Tiemogo Ouattara and his wife Sadie Kone. They are both elderly and live by themselves. Tiemogo is the younger brother of my dear friend Soloman Ouattara known as “Vieux” Outtara, a WWII Veteran, who passed a year ago. When I visited the old couple they were seated under the veranda of their crumbling cement block house. At first Tiemogo and I chatted for some time about his deceased older brother; how much we all learned from him. Tiemogo looks and acts completely different from his brother, but they are truly linked by their regional tongue twisting words of Sikasso, Mali. After a moment of talk about his brother, he quietly said “Do di, Wague” literally meaning “give some first.” This indirect way of communication in Mali is a way to make a familiar person who does not visit often, not feel unwelcomed. Thus, in the meaningful sense, “Tell your purpose of the visit”. I responded, “How is your health?” Tiemogo looked upon me with his drooping red eyes and said “How do I look?” “What is wrong with you?” I asked. He responded, “Now you have asked the right question.” Since Tiemogo’s memory was not up to date about his own health, his wife Sadie interrupted him and told me about her husband’s diabetes and his high blood pressure. I then asked them if they have children of their own. “Of course, plenty. My brother had so many children with two wives.” “But do you have any of your own?” “Well that has been the problem.” His wife added, “There is no one left to help us.” Once more, I asked Tiemogo how old he was. He turned to his wife and asked, “When was it that my brother killed the python down at the stream?” “Eight years ago, I think,” said his wife. “I was 76 then,” said Tiemogo. “Well how old do you think you are now?” asked his wife. “Oh, I must be at least 78 now,” said Tiemogo. Then with our help, we held out 8 fingers for each year since the python, and helped him count from 76 those 8 extra years. “84 years old!” he beamed. An act of kindness is the fastest way to heal someone. When I presented the money from the 15 Families program, Tiemogo’s distracted mind came back to full function for a moment, as he recognized this gesture. “No one has done this for us for a long time.” Then he recited a long list of blessings to those who have thought of them at this time of hardship. I handed the money to his wife suggesting they see a doctor for his sicknesses. Instead they wanted to buy food, which we helped them do. However I still feel that Tiemogo needs to see a doctor for his conditions, and I promised to help them do that soon. In the end, Sadie his wife was so happy that she came to my house later on that evening to tell stories and sing songs as her gift in return to all those that were generous to them at this time.
My younger sister Haby witnessed the reaction of some of these ordinary Malians chosen for our 15 Families program. She said “Here in Mali, one would be foolish to thank yourself for doing a good job. But others are allowed to do that for you. I met so many Americans through my brother that I feel like I am one of them. So today we make an exception, which allows me to sincerely thank all of those that not only followed my brother to Mali, but also brought along their humanity and kindness. Also our sincere appreciation to those who have not yet been here, but their kindness has reached us.”