Spirit Story

The first shall be last

By Jocelyn Bell

I met Mariama Idi in rural Niger eight years ago. She taught me a hard lesson about generosity. She may even have given me a glimpse into the Kingdom of God.

At the time, I was on a writing assignment with World Vision Canada, gathering stories about malnourishment in the West African country. The pieces I wrote would be used in fundraising campaigns, bringing the human angle to a large-scale hunger crisis.

Early one morning, our small crew arrived at a care centre where children were being treated for malnourishment. The weekly clinic hadn’t opened yet, but about 200 women in colourful scarves had already begun to queue with their babies.

I casually interviewed a dozen or so women, looking for one or two with compelling stories. Some of the grandmas nudged me toward the prettiest mothers in the group — usually a bashful teen cradling her first baby. I wanted someone with a bit more confidence and life experience.

Mariama Idi beckoned me over. She looked me directly in the eye, smiled and took charge of the conversation. She was at the clinic for the first time with her one-year-old son, Bassirou, the youngest of four. We quickly discerned that we were close in age — she was 30, I was 31. “We are sisters,” she said with a smile and a steady gaze. I sensed pride and perhaps a challenge. I liked her. “Yes — sisters,” I quickly replied.

The clinic staff gave Idi some nutritious food for Bassirou and encouraged her to return regularly.

We followed them back to their family compound, about 15 minutes away. As she built a fire and made porridge for her children, I asked about the family’s food security. Idi told me they grow millet to eat, and produce other grains, nuts and beans to sell. Grinding millet is hard work — women’s work — hours of pounding with a mortar and pestle for a bit of usable flour. A millet-grinding machine would make life a lot easier, she said.

As the day wore on, the topic of the grinding machine — a $500 to $1,000 piece of equipment — surfaced several times more. I tried to clarify my role: collecting stories that inspire donors to pay for programs like the clinic. Further, World Vision staff (and freelancers) are not allowed to single out individuals for special gifts.

When we said our goodbyes, Idi asked once more for a grinding machine. Again, I said no. She then took my hand, pressed several coins into it and closed it. I immediately protested. She looked me in the eyes and said in her direct manner, “This is so you can buy milk.”

I stammered a thank you and then darted back to the vehicle to see if there was anything I could offer in return. I came back with a package of cookies. It was pathetic. Driving away, the local staff laughed at me: “Buy milk? She thinks you are too skinny!”

Were the coins a gesture of friendship? A joke at my expense? Or were they a rebuke? You have not been generous with me, but I can still be generous with you. I may be poor, but you are poorer.

Though we called each other “sister,” we never actually stood on equal ground. As the first-world sister, I had all the advantages of wealth, health, education and opportunity. But with one deft gesture, she grabbed my hand and swiftly ushered me to the back of the line. 

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