Flying Kites in Sebenikoro

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A child flies a kite made from discarded plastic bags.  Toddlers stretch their arms toward me, their eyes begging for me to pick them up.  A never-ending drum beat advertises a wedding celebration a few houses away.  Scores of people gather in a neighboring house for the six-month-anniversary prayer gathering to remember the deceased, the women cooking huge pots of rice and beans over charcoal fires.  Barefoot boys play soccer in what looks like a deserted lot strewn with half-buried rocks.  The traffic consists of donkey carts, women carrying oversize bundles on their heads, and students chattering or driving motos as they pass by on their way to the vocational school next door.

It is mid-afternoon, and these are my experiences on the first day of my return visit to Ase Mali Orphanage in Bamako, Mali.  It is situated in Sebenikoro, one of the poorer quartiers on the outskirts of the capital city.  I have come to see my friend Bibi, who runs this orphanage through prayer and donations, without public funding.

Ase Mali Orphanage, Bamako, Mali

There is a church in Iowa that has taken the orphanage on as their project, securing sponsors for 140 children and raising funds for specific needs in addition to that.  They have poured their hearts into this work, and they have been generous at every turn.  Their second annual delegation left a few days ago.

It is a tricky relationship.  While there are kite-flying and soccer playing children, people who work and study and mourn and celebrate on every continent, the cultures in Iowa and Mali differ with one another in significant ways.  Communication falters predictably.  Accountability and methods must be ironed out.  Patience is critical on both sides.

My relationship with the orphanage is simple: I am a friend and supporter of the director, period.  By contrast, the congregation has jumped in with both feet, and they are learning as they go. Victories are photographed and enumerated in grateful prayers to God.  Mistakes and misunderstandings are painful.  This is the messiness of cross-cultural ministry. What the project will look like in five years will be interesting to see.  For now, God’s provision and guidance are unmistakable.


But Bibi was here, loving and feeding the children before anyone noticed.  Slowly, people
with financial means in France, Britain, and other countries found their way to a project tucked far behind the street-side, ramshackle stalls of a city and country struggling to survive.  They have opened their hearts and their wallets to feed and care for the children here.  The work will go on, thanks to Bibi, thanks to God who is showing her and her supporting friends in Europe, Iowa, and Africa how to nurture these petits who are oblivious to their nation’s place on the global GDP charts.

Like the child who picks up a plastic bag and sees material for a kite, Bibi and her friends make a life for these little ones out of what they have at hand.  God has multiplied their efforts.  It is working.

Meanwhile, the goats range over the garbage in the street, apathetic to the wedding or funeral observances, or growing children, or dreams of soccer stardom.

Tomorrow, if the wind is right, I expect to see that kite again.

In the Labyrinth But Not Alone


“Be still, and know that I am God.”  For many of us in ministry, this can be a challenge.  There is so much to do!  But if I take it to heart, if I turn from the clamor and haste for quiet moments in God’s presence, I find that I cannot do without the silent, slow pauses that restore my heart.

Some years ago I was introduced to the experience of walking a labyrinth for spiritual renewal.  This tool appears at first glance to be a maze; however, it differs from a maze in that the path always leads to the center and then back to the exterior.  One cannot get lost in a maze.  Its purpose is to slow us down and focus attention to the present moment for the sake of openness to God.

I had to follow the winding path to the center on a few occasions before my inner gremlins could be appeased and unhurried openness to God settled into my spirit.  Although I do not practice its use often, whenever the image comes to mind, it delights like a precious secret that makes me smile.  It symbolizes the gift of God’s abiding presence that never leaves me; I have only to slow down and allow myself to be aware of it.

When I served as a chaplain in a nursing home for the elderly, I got a lot of daily exercise walking the long hallways back and forth.  One day as I made my usual fast-walking, task-driven way down the corridor, a recent practice in a labyrinth came to mind.  My imagination leapt at the idea, juxtaposing the two so that I could regard the maze of hallways as my own labyrinth.  Was it possible that I could recognize God’s presence and experience renewal even in the midst of my responsibilities?  Could my spirit become more settled and alert if I slowed my steps and relaxed into the present moment as I was beginning to learn to do?

It became a helpful perspective in a place where physically slowing down was imposed upon the residents, like it or not.  I learned to be more present to them, a kinder listener, a better friend to them.  It became my practice so that as I greeted each resident and staff person, mentally I was in the labyrinth with them, conscious of the trinity of presence: myself, my friend, and God.

These days I am taking instruction in spiritual direction.  Currently we are exploring the interior landscape with Gerald May in his book The Awakened Heart.  He encourages his readers to be open to a word, an idea, or an image that God might have for us, a key to unlock a door so that the “little interior glance” of Brother Lawrence can happen at any moment of the day.  This glance calls us back to love, to peace, as we allow ourselves to acknowledge God’s presence in the moment.

So I asked God for a word or image.  It is not something to be achieved or discerned; it is given.  If it does not arise, it is not necessary in this time of my life.  No worries, then.  Simply be ready to receive it if it comes, I told myself.  God is good, and knows what I need at each point in my life.

I am in Mali, West Africa, as I write this, visiting our Luke Society director Indielou Dougnon.  We first stayed at the mission guest house in Kayes, acclimating ourselves to our environment of western Africa.  We have heard the call of the muessin several times a day mixed with the braying of the ubiquitous donkeys and the voices of the children in the school next door.  We went down to the river bank to ride a pirogue, a sort of African gondola that took us across the Senegal River to the market.

It is a typical African market: the tangy smell of human bodies mingled with the sour odor of fish on display, the suffocating exhaust fumes from the motos.  It is noisy, bustling, alive.  It is hot, the air heavy in the interior stalls.  The vendors call out to us, “Venez ici!”  Come here!  I can’t be distracted or I will get jostled hard by someone hurrying to bring supplies to one of the stalls.   I don’t allow my eyes to linger on any of the wares unless I am serious about buying them, lest the vendor draw me in with a hard sell.

Suddenly a word comes to me in the midst of it all.  “Labyrinth.”  Yes!  I have not thought of it in years, but it instantly rings true as the image God has for me.  My companions and I are deep in the maze of the market, but we will not get lost.  When God is with me, I am always on my way to the center for intimate union, or to the exterior with renewed energy and purpose.  But most of the time is spent on the way itself, and rarely is it a solitary enterprise.  Those I encounter are in it with me, albeit unaware.  I am aware of God’s presence there.  I can see each one with the eyes of compassion and love.  God is as present with me amid the pulsing, clamorous market as in the private, precious moments alone with God.

Indielou takes us out to his clinic in Aite the next day.  It is a bumpy, winding, three-hour ride through the sahel.  We observe the dessicated millet stalks, defeated by drought.  We discuss the distinctive behavior of goats and sheep.   We smile as we finally spot the familiar hill and water tower of the village.  Indielou leads us on a tour the well-kept facility where we appreciate the professionalism and pride of the staff.   Yes, God is here too.  The love of Jesus shines through the dust of an African village as the people are treated for malaria, giardia, diabetes, dehydration, and numerous other maladies.


Later in the day, Indielou drives us to Aasoum, a settlement where his friends Fatimatou and her husband are the only Christians.  The people greet us warmly, the children eagerly posing for photos and then giggling at the result on the screen of the cell phone.  Smiles are the only language we can speak with them, but Indielou is in his element.  He often visits his friends in Aasoum on weekends when it makes more sense to stay in the bush than to go home to Kayes.

As he drives us back to Aite, he honks his horn along the way at people he knows in each hamlet.  We stop to pick up an elderly couple who, along with their family, have loaded up the donkey carts with all of their possessions.  It is moving day, because there is no more water where they were.  No problem; they can hitch a ride with their friend.

I am in Indielou’s labyrinth.  His, too, is populated with fellow humans in need.  He reveals God’s presence to them.  His smile, his care for their health, and his friendship are the keys that open their lives to God’s love.  His dedication to following the dusty, bumpy path among the Fulani, Soninke, and Moors of west Africa inspires me to keep the interior glance active wherever each day takes me in my own labyrinth.  God is here, among the people.  My way is not hindered by those I meet, but is enriched by the God who loves us all.