Leaven intern shares memories on medial mission that changed many lives — including her own
by Katie Hyde
I have neither the wisdom of age nor experience to reflect upon the week I spent in Mali, West Africa. Every time I attempt to put my thoughts down onto paper, images flood my memory, flash before my eyes, crash into my brain: brilliant, toothless grins; dirty, naked feet upon scorched earth; and wind-burned and sun- worn hands held in mine.
I traveled to Mali from Jan. 3-15 with a team of 41 surgeons, doctors, nurses and volunteers to help the community through medical assistance and other volunteer efforts.
Our team traveled there with mosquito nets and bug spray, with anesthesiology equipment and thousands of pills, with scrubs and scalpels and surgical masks. We traveled with dresses made out of pillow cases and headbands with large colorful flowers and bottles upon bottles upon bottles of hand sanitizer.
We came home from Africa with cameras full of images, heads full of stories and hearts brimming.
I came home changed.
The one Bible passage that was always in the back of my head while I helped with patient intake or taught children how to wash their hands or spoke broken Bambara to good-natured listeners comes from the Gospel of Matthew:
“Then the king will say to those on this right . . . ‘For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited me in; naked, and you clothed me….Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me’” (25: 34a, 35-36a. 40b).
For two, perfect weeks, I met the least of my brothers and sisters, and they met me. Here are our stories.
For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat
He was so emaciated, wrapped in his mother’s arms, it seemed his ribs would almost poke out of his paper-thin skin.
The young boy’s problems began when he drank poisonous water and his esophagus closed up with scar tissue. That was 2010.
In the two years since, he nearly starved; barely any food was passing into his stomach. According to Dr. Tammy Neblock-Beirne, a general surgeon on the trip, when he was brought to the clinic, he had less than six months to live.
His mother walked into the clinic, cradling his listless body in her arms, and asked, quietly, for help.
By the end of the day, after Neblock- Beirne put in a feeding tube, light was back in his eyes and he was sitting up in his hospital bed, reaching out to nurses and doctors who walked in.
Ba was the first of many lives that Medical Missions Foundation changed in Mali.
Over five days, the team saw over 1,000 patients and performed 92 surgeries in Ouelessebougou, a small town 50 miles south of the capital city of Bamako. The hand washing team, which went school to school encouraging children to wash their hands, visited 17 schools and educated over 7,000 children.
Over our week in Mali, many hungry mouths were fed: from hungry volunteers and ravenous translators after a hard day’s work to starving children with swollen tummies from malnutrition.
I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink
There are many kinds of thirsts in Mali: for water, yes, but also for justice, for recognition, for respect, for equality.
And, as I saw in the three days I spent in the small village of Daganbougou, thirst for education.
Medical Missions Foundation purchased textbooks, notebooks, pencils, colored pencils, calculators and protractors for the children in the school of Daganbougou. We bought 200 basic grammar books and a variety of math, history and French books for the school.
When the children walked into school and saw their gleaming new books on their desks, their mouths turned up into incandescent grins. They immediately sat down and began drawing their dreams: a farmer, an astronaut, even a doctor.
For many of them, it was the first time anyone had ever told them that they could do anything if they worked hard in school.
Twenty minutes later, when class took a break and all the children were allowed to go outside, many fiercely guarded their new books, protectively placing them inside their new, black-and-blue drawstring backpacks before rushing outside for a game of soccer.
But some students didn’t go outside at all. They sat, sharing math books with their neighbors, excitedly working together to solve equations.
We encountered that same thirst for education later that night, when we sat in a loose circle outside of our mud huts with some women of the village. The only light came from the moon, stars and the occasional headlamp as we began talking about education.
Because many women in Daganbougou marry around age 14, most of them do not know how to read or write. When we asked if they wanted books of their own to learn, eight heads nodded simultaneously.
Though the women of Daganbougou work tirelessly throughout the day cook- ing, cleaning and rearing their children, they wanted to spend time each night learning how to read.
So we gave them a stack of basic French grammar books, and one small thirst was quenched.
I was a stranger, and you invited Me in
Our car slowed to a stop on the red dirt earth of Daganbougou. In the distance, the three doors of the school slammed open as children poured out, streamed down the chalky blue concrete steps and sprinted, arms flailing and chests heaving, to our car. They arrived, panting and clutching their sides, wearing worn orange shorts and frayed Royals T-shirts and white sandals long stained red by the omnipresent dust.
They welcomed us into their school, into their soccer games, into their families and into their homes.
Our first day in Daganbougou was a whirlwind of unexpected cultural lessons:
1. When someone makes you tea, accept it and sip loudly.
2. Always eat dinner, especially if the chief’s son has a chicken killed to celebrate your arrival.
3. It is acceptable to sleep in a lawn chair if it’s too difficult to fall asleep on the concrete floor. (We took full advantage of this.)
When we left Daganbougou three days later with tear-filled eyes, we each had a new family and a new home.
In the words of Zina, the chief’s son, “You are always welcomed here, in your home.”
I was a stranger, and they let me into their homes, into their hearts.
Naked, and you clothed Me
Nothing made the girls of Ouelessebougou smile brighter than when Notre Dame de Sion seniors Jessica Benninghoff and Rachel Fenimore and St. Teresa’s Academy senior Katie Beirne and I slipped hand-made dresses over their shoulders.
The dresses were made out of pillow- cases and decorated with pieces of fabric, but the excitement on each girl’s face was palpable. They trembled with excitement
as we tied the straps around their shoulders and told them in their native Bambara that they were beautiful. Immediately after putting the dresses on, the girls sprinted off to show their mothers.
In Daganbougou, many children wore the same outfit every day. Their shirts were covered in red dirt and holes. Some children wore shirts five sizes too big.
Medical Missions volunteers gave over 100 shirts to both children and adults of Daganbougou that said “Love Out Loud.” The next day, all students of the school were dressed in their shirts, some so long the kids wore them as dresses.
One key lesson I learned in Mali was right there, on the shirts: Love out loud. Love with abandon and with a full heart.
I cannot forget. I cannot forget the faces, hands, words and smiles of the men, women and children I met in Mali. I cannot forget the hungry faces or swollen bellies or pained eyes, just as I cannot forget the beautiful smiles, excited faces and appreciative words.
I cannot forget the least of my brothers and sisters in Mali.