How weird is it that you can enter a country with a certain perception of the people there who you’ve actually never even met, and two weeks later when you leave the country, you feel like you’re leaving home?
I remember the moment when it hit me that I actually wasn’t in my “happy-go-lucky-little-NZ-bubble” anymore. We were sitting on the plane from Morocco to Bamako. Our group was one of two groups headed to Mali. None of us Kiwis had seats next to each other, no one spoke.
As we sat in the plane, foreign Arabic music filtered through my ears and I realised that we had become the minority. I started to feel very small in this big world of ours. We were definitely not in Kansas anymore, Toto. This uneasy feeling in me grew to sheer terror – the type where you are literally frozen and your muscles tense up (flight or fight response... how ridiculous is it that mine is fight when I can barely even pinch someone enough to make them jump).
After we arrived in Bamako we drove to the ‘Nord Sud’ where we’d be staying for the duration of the trip. The car ghetto blasted rap music with lyrics that seemed to dramatise the dark scenery of the urban slums we were driving past. I remember the lyrics that the taxi driver happily bopped along to, 'Shake yo thong girl, shake yo thong' were some (classy). I could feel my heart pound faster. The intensity of poverty I saw outside my window was disturbing. I was experiencing feelings and a sense of uneasiness that I never had before. I could hear my heart beating in my ears and my temperature soared till I felt like my head was going to pop off. We had a close encounter with some of the sad actions people are resorting to in Mali on that drive. I didn’t sleep much that night.
The crazy thing is that I now actually see this first night as a blessing. I know, it sounds flipping weird, but I will explain. On that first night we were absolutely thrust into Mali and I experienced a sense of fear I didn’t know I had. But it also meant that my New Zealand perception that ‘the world is made of candy tra la la’ was popped. I was thrown right into this reality that without food, people seek desperate measures. It also meant when we actually met the people in Mali, we found they are the most inspiring, resilient and beautiful people you will ever be blessed to know... not sad, hopeless, desperate humans that we should take pity on. But that we should stand beside, hand in hand.
Our first day in Mali felt like baby-steps for me in realising just who these people are. I’m going to be honest and say that when we were given the opportunity to go for a walk around the town, my first instinct was to say ‘NO! Let me stay in my NZ bubble instead!’ But as we walked around and I watched families of five riding on one motorbike, boys selling plants and waving as we passed by and girls riding bicycles with their vibrant patterned skirts flying out behind them, I started to see the Malians for who they really are.
From there my love for these people grew by the bucket-load every minute. There was one day when I just could not stop being overwhelmed and humbled by their love. It was the second garden we visited. From the time we arrived in the village and were welcomed by the people, to the time we left as the children and parents crowded round the van, my heart became play dough in their hands.
We were taken for a tour around the garden and the ‘garden president’ showed us how this garden could be funded by people who care about them on the other side of the world and could grow in just one year to feed thousands of people. We stopped at a chilli bush and one man came up to us and offered us a chilli to try. At the offer the group around us cracked up, not believing that we would accept the challenge. We did. First Matt, then me, then Katie and as we all burst out our tongues from the spice of the seeds. They all cracked up laughing except one lady who was so concerned for us that she came to me with a leaf in her hand and gestured for me to rub it between my fingers meticulously. I had no clue what the point of it was, but after her concerned frown subsided, another lady told me that the leaf neutralises the spice so that the chilli’s won’t burn your skin.
It sounds so small and silly, but the way each and every person cared for us like family makes my heart overflow. I sat and picked chilli’s with this lady later. Her name is Jara. We’d pick chillies for short stints of time before she’d stop me and make me wash my hands in her bucket of water so my hands wouldn’t burn. How is it that Jara can care so much for me when she is the one whose future was seemingly uncertain before this amazing garden?
The day ended with thank-yous and goodbyes and there is one thing that the garden president said to us that explains the Malians perfectly. She said, “When you came to Mali, you left home. But you are home.” It sounds weird to say that I feel homesick from Mali, but when I hopped on the plane back to New Zealand I breathed in the last gulp of air from Bamako and had that sinking feeling when your heart feels heavy. (Cheesy Africa Reminiscing moment... get over it :p) I thought about how I had left my home in New Zealand and in just two weeks, Mali had turned from sad and desperate to laughing-caring-humbling kindness. Mali , to me, is home because the people made me see that this is what life is all about – having a community where strangers become family and we are there to help each other.
So I guess with 40 Hour Famine being here, I wanted to express just one way which these people have impacted me, with their absolutely golden hearts. Jara cared so much for me just by protecting my hands from chilli burns. I care so much for Jara that I want to tell her story in hopes that we can create these freedom-gifting gardens for thousands more just like her. Far out they deserve them!
SO Go Hardout the Hungry folks... and remember who ‘the hungry’ are!