Please come with me on a tour of the neighborhood in Sebenikoro, a suburb and poor cousin of Bamako, the capital of Mali. We will be tagging along with my friend Maly “Bibi” Sangho, director of the Ase Mali Orphanage. I arise while it is still dark to meet with her for prayer. She greets me at my bedroom door and asks me whether I slept well. When I reply in the affirmative, she tells me that there is someone in the house this morning who did not sleep so well.
Alima is in the living room. I met her yesterday at the home of her mother, who died suddenly that very morning. Dozens of women gathered to sit with Alima in her grief, while a few feet away, the kitchen crew stirred huge pots of rice and beans over the fires in the open air kitchen. I joined Alima and her friends in a crowded room while they quietly chatted in Bambara, a language unfamiliar to me except for the frequent word of assent and empathy I have picked out: Ah-wo. As Bibi’s friend and a bona fide pastor—the female version is unheard of here—I was asked to pray for the family of Bintu, Alima’s late mother. I pray slowly not because that is my habit, but because I am praying carefully in French. After the “Amen” and the response of “Amina” by those present, we sit a while in companionship and shared grief.
Later, when Alima escorted us away from the gathering, she confided in Bibi that this is the third of three crises in her life. The first was related to her small soap factory. Alima manufactures soap from good quality materials but charges a minimal fee so that poor families can afford it. She has enabled a few young women to start their own soap-making operations. She was the guarantor for one of them in taking out a large loan for materials. The young woman did not handle the supplies properly, so they were ruined. Now Alima is in debt to the bank, with no means to pay it back.
Crisis number two came through a traffic accident. Alima’s brother-in-law is a driver of a cambion, one of the large trucks that pass between cities in western Africa. Another man rides along as the “little driver,” fielding phone calls and communicating with suppliers, customers, etc. Trucking is treacherous in Mali for two reasons that I could see. The roads are riddled with huge, deep potholes in some long stretches. Those potholes might have something to do with the lack of weight limits resulting in damage to roads as well as top-heavy trucks overturning.
Alima’s brother-in-law and his partner were in an accident which killed the little driver (the partner). The main driver was found responsible and thrown in jail. So Alima’s sister and her children are left without support, not to mention the father in the family.
So, Bibi encouraged Alima to visit us for prayer, and she didn’t waste time in coming. We sat with Alima for about an hour, and I prayed for her. He situation seems impossible, but we called on God who loves and provides for us. We cried together. The two friends chatted quietly, Bibi assuring Alima that God can handle anything. She knows what she is talking about, having developed this orphanage from nothing, purely by the grace of God. Ah-wo.
The sun was shining by the time we said farewell to Alima and saw her on her way in a taxi. Bibi then invited me to go with her to deliver a piece of equipment to a neighbor. An old but functional wheelchair for Bibi’s use when she has trouble with balance was replaced with a better one. So we wheeled this one through the bumpy streets and around the corner, to the home of Saran. This old woman is blind and lame, living in a single room next to several neighbors who rent their own small spaces and share the same courtyard.
Bibi went past the other doors to peer into Saran’s room, a cheerful voice ringing out from the darkness. The neighbors gathered to help put Saran in her new conveyance, clapping with joy at this surprise for their friend. I prayed for the smiling old woman, and everyone gathered expressed their thanks. It seems that the neighbors take it upon themselves to care for their old friend, so they naturally shared her joy at her good fortune.
We were all smiles, too, as we left the little courtyard and its inhabitants. We greeted mostly children and teenagers on the dusty street, each of them polite in the exchange of “Ca va?” and “ca va bien.”
We stopped next at the home of one of Bibi’s best friends, Molobaly It is her mother’s home actually, and there were several women in the courtyard preparing lamb, onions, and rice for a baby shower this afternoon. Molobaly’s brother and his wife have a new baby girl. We sat in the courtyard with Molobaly and her mother Kumba, an outgoing, cheerful woman who has worked hard to raise three well-trained children. I was seated next to Molobaly and was asked to pray for her situation. She has been divorced for ten years, and her children are grown. Her daughters are going to college. She is lonely and wants to have a stable, happy life with a new husband, but that is hard to do at her age since all the good men are taken, as Bibi explained.
I prayed for Molobaly to find a husband who will love and support her, but also to know the love and support of God who sees her and understands. Bibi’s tears flowed freely as she interpreted the prayer for her friend. Molobaly raised her head after the “Amen,” drawing her hands over her face, and declaring that she feels much better. She offers many thanks, and walks with us partway down the street before turning back to help with the party preparations.
We head for home, but as we pass by a small shop, Bibi senses that we should turn in and visit the proprietor Nakorian. We are led through the tidy store to the back, and into a lovely courtyard and impressive house with steps leading up to a veranda. We are ushered into a large living room, where we are greeted by her husband, an elderly, smiling gentleman. We have no more than settled near him, on a sectional that could seat twenty people with ease, when two little granddaughters grab our hands and insist on taking us to see something. Their grandmother does not shoo them away, but instead encourages us to follow them.
We are led to a back bedroom to find a beautiful, tiny baby girl sleeping on the bed as her mother works nearby. I am asked to pray for little Vivienne, so I gladly gather her in my arms and ask God for health, a happy life, and faith for this tiny child. Her sisters are delighted with her, and Vivienne’s mother and grandmother are grateful too. At this point Bibi informs Nakorian that I am a pastor. Her reaction is typically incredulous: a woman pastor? She asks me then to pray for her husband, who is a devout Christian man even though she has remained a Muslim. So, we make our way back to where Alexander is perched daily, his books and implements neatly lined up next to him. He peers at me through thick glasses and smiles. He is pleased to learn that I am a Christian pastor, and happy to have me pray for his health and long life.
Meanwhile I keep returning to Nakorian’s face. She has such kind eyes and a broad, warm smile. She reminds me of my father’s cousin’s wife Eunice for some reason. I tell her that she has an American “twin,” and explain that Eunice means goodness. Ah-wo. This seems fitting, since Nakorian seems to have a good heart too. I am rewarded with another lovely smile.
Again we head for home, but we are not finished yet. A half block away is a family where there are two of the sponsored children who go to the orphanage for food and care every day. Another sad story: there we find little Isa, a baby boy born on Christmas Day. His name is the equivalent of Jesus, but I am told this is a coincidence. Isa’s mother died in a moto accident, leaving her bereaved husband and young daughters behind. Isa is named after her father, the baby’s grandfather. Again I get to hold a new baby and pray for a good life for him. The father’s name is Malamine. His previous job of repairing televisions is no longer relevant, so they are struggling with his unemployment. I encourage him to choose strength over bitterness every day. He seems kind and smart, and I think he understands well what that means, having already made this choice many times. Ah-wo.
Finally we return to the orphanage where we check on the children and staff. Bibi has to correct one of the matrons who has allowed a few children to run too freely in the neighborhood. She also instructs one of the men on staff to get pictures of several children for their sponsors in the U.S.
It has been four hours of hearing stories and praying. Bibi says that she didn’t plan to stop at all of those houses, but once we began praying, she wanted to keep going. She knows her neighbors and their stories.
I am humbled by the privilege of praying for these people. It is a small thing for me, but it is big for them. They are deeply grateful. I remind each one that God loves them, and God sees their needs.
What are the stories in my own neighborhood, among my acquaintances? Who is suffering silently behind each door on my street? Will I have the courage and compassion to ask them about their stories, and to pray for them? It is a simple enough task. It is simple, but it is big. Ah-wo.