Dancing in Mali

Almost three decades ago I was sent to Mali to support a cross-ministry initiative to address girl’s education.  After working with a team of high ranking government officials from three different ministries in the US, I was sent there to spend another month with them during the month of May.

It cannot be overstated that Mali in May is brutal. The temperature soars well into three digits (130+ degrees) and just breathing is a challenge that steals your energy nearly zapping any interest you may have in living!  The slow transition from dry season to rainy season electrically charges the air while the ever present sweat enfolds your body like a heated blanket. Finally, at it’s phoenix–everything explodes, the skies open with a deluge of rain that transitions the Sahel from a dry parched dessert into a rainbow of acre upon acre of brightly colored blooms.  Honestly, it’s a scene to behold and experience!

As the days plodded along each warmer than the other an offer of a change of pace making a day-long visit to several villages seemed like a godsend. Marian, an amazing woman frankly who was the deputy minister of women and children’s affairs–wanted me to go see some villages she’d been working in for the past five years on a CIDA-funded project. With the trip all arranged to visit four villages I headed off excited about my day’s agenda.

The last visit of the day, a village of about 3000 people,  highlighted a discussion with me to advise them on how to start a primary school in their community–the final goal on their community development plan–without government funding. They had already established a local maternity and baby well clinic that was wildly successful. Since it’s inauguration not one mother or baby had been lost in childbirth. Birth weights had also increased and overall health in the village was significantly improved. The village also piloted experimental pit latrines with ventilation pipes, cement floors and privacy. It is with great joy that I can confirm they worked! They were clean, had no odor nor a swarm of flies circling around you as you did your thing. Impressive!!

My visit with them began with a 7-gun salute on the drive into the village to signal where we were on the road. As we entered the village I was welcomed with traditional male dancers. Most of the men wore brightly colored draping robes.  Others only wore loin cloths with their bare skin painted in colorful geometric shapes. They were decked out in an assortment of garish masks some covered in tooled brass and feathers while still others sported a gauzy turban wrapped around their heads. All of them were on stilts at least 6 feet tall.  The lead dancer wore a heavy burlap cape completely covered with black feathers who beckoned us to come closer waving us towards chairs in the center of a clearing. Their costumes and dancing were mesmerizing yet tinged with trepidation. The dancing was powerful and rapid. The music was loud and discordant. The heat was oppressive.

An older woman grabbed my hand and led me to the row of chairs facing the villagers. I was seated at the far end while village elders, Marian and several designated village women who managed the community project filled out the remaining chairs.

We watched more dancing some on stilts while others were more gymnastic like highlighting the men’s ripped bodies, strength and agility. One particularly dynamic dancer was a young man dressed only in a loin cloth who squeezed a drum between his legs in a ceremonial dance meant to showcase his virility. He gyrated around not more than a foot from our seats muscles bulging as he beat his drum. It could have been my imagination but I could swear it actually got hotter as he danced.

When the dancing ended the village rapporteur amused the crowd regaling them with all kinds of sage advice and stories of the work they were undertaking—things they knew already but spiced with the wit of their rapporteur which made the well-known stories seem new and exciting. After the ceremony in which I was overwhelmed with a host of gifts–cigarettes, avocadoes, papayas, eggs, and betel nuts highly prized for their hallucinogenic properties–those of us sitting in the half circle of chairs took part in the customary ritual in which they passed a cup of incredibly thick potent tea. The person at the far end of the line of chairs took a sip and then passed the cup to the person sitting to his right who took a sip and then passed it on to the next person.  It was with a bit of foreboding when the cup finally got to me that I gingerly took my sip from the shared cup. With the formal festivities  over, the women leaders guided Marian and me on a lengthy tour of their village proudly showcasing their recently built maternity ward, well-baby clinic and latrines.

At the close of our village tour we were led to a table groaning under the weight of the bounty of food they prepared for the guests. I’m a vegetarian–had been for nearly three decades–and it was particularly challenging for me as they put first one, then another and eventually a third piece of chicken on my plate. No way would I offend them by refusing their hospitality because I didn’t want to eat their chicken. So, I ate it (and not only the memory stayed with me for a full three days!)

It was one scrumptious dish after scrumptious dish until we were nearly bloated from all we had eaten. After the weighty meal, Marian and I were taken to the chief’s hut where he waited to greet us. Women were generally banned from entering his inner sanctum where all the village decision making takes place. We were surprised when  tradition was shunned and we were told to enter the most holy of places. Also,  contrary to local custom, the chief insisted we leave on our shoes–a tremendous respect bestowed upon us. However, lest you misunderstand–all the pomp and circumstance was really for Marian. She was the visitor who had earned their respect and gratitude.

When our chat ended the chief  waved his hand towards a sheep being led into the room. It was a gift for the toubab (white person) visiting their village. A sheep!  What was I going to do with a sheep–I was in a hotel? I did NOT want that sheep. First off, that sheep represented a major piece of community equity.  Although the village seemed prosperous enough, nonetheless, despite not being rich my personal wealth compared to their collective wealth just made it totally unacceptable. There was just no way I could accept such a valuable gift. I must also confess the thought of a three-hour drive back to Bamako squeezed into a hot car already full to capacity with people plus a sheep was overwhelming. A smelly sheep in a steamy hot land rover pounding and bouncing over the pot-holed roads? No way!

My mind raced as I considered how I could politely refuse his gift.  I profusely thanked him for his very generous offer. I told him I wanted to honor him and his villagers for all the extraordinary work they had done to improve the well- being of the women and children in their village. I told him wanted to gift back their valuable gift. I asked him to host a celebration soiree and eat this sheep in their feast. He nodded his graying head in approval between puffs from his shisha urn accepting my offer repeating “C’est bon. C’est bon.” This is good. This is good.

When our meeting with the chief finished the sun was lowering in the sky but the heat still radiated in waves from the parched earth. We trudged back to the clearing where the villagers waited. On our walk back, Marian pulled me aside and nonchalantly told me “Uh Diane the villagers are waiting for you to dance for them.”  I gasped “WHAT?  I DON’T DANCE. I HAVE NEVER DANCED. I DON’T KNOW HOW TO DANCE.”  Brushing off my vehement protests she said, “You must. They are all waiting for you.” With that she pushed me forward and the expectant crowd encircling the clearing opened up for me to watch me dance.

I looked around at the men, women and children waiting in high anticipation to see the toubab do her solo act. The lead dancer placed the heavy HOT black cape over my already sweaty shoulders and placed the garish mask atop my head.  I was fully aware of how ludicrous I must have looked. In unison the drums beat, a man strummed on a local string instrument called a Kora made out of a calabash and the women chanted in rhythm to the drums. And they waited.

Feeling totally out of place and embarrassed to the core, I lifted one foot and then the other slowly. I made my way around the clearing and after what seemed like an eternity of me clumsily plodding in front of them, I grabbed the nearest elderly lady and then another and pulled them into the circle to dance with me. Almost immediately after I pulled them into this celebration with me, first all the women and then the children swaying in step to the music beating loudly joined the circle alongside us in our celebration of women dance.

Sweat ran down my back and legs as the dying sun beat down on me making me woozy and parched. After a few minute, I carefully made my way to the sole baobab  tree in the village in hopes of a bit of shade where a wrinkled elder was also taking advantage of the shade. Eventually I stood at his side leaning against the mammoth . He stared at me but said nothing. Finally after minutes of intense scrutiny he said “You danced.”

I nodded my head in agreement and responded, “Yeah, I danced but not very well.”  Again, he steadily and silently gazed  at me for a few moments and then very slightly nodded his head in agreement, “This is true. But you danced.”

It was like a lightning bolt struck the ground beneath me.  In those few words he said everything. “But you danced“.  It was an epiphany moment–and something that’s guided me for decades. My simple act of dancing even poorly did more to cross our cultural divide than all the talking I could have done. That remote village embraced me in something that was important in their life and culture.  I feebly grabbed what they offered.  Not very well mind you but that really didn’t matter.

I have contemplated that simple exchange for a long time and the longer I do this work, the more I appreciate it’s the simple things like that that we do which makes a huge difference in our ability to work together.  Frankly, it’s often less about our technical capacity and skills we bring to the discussion about opening schools or taking care of babies and more about making the simple steps (dancing or otherwise) to meet them on their turf and then share what we know.

That moment, that experience was made all the more meaningful with something that happened on the drive back to town. The rains came and the desert bloomed.

So, I learned an interesting thing today. It’s about the regional differences—or dialects—and the way people pronounce words and the impact this has on learning to read. You have to hear the sounds or phonemes that are used to “make up” words in order to read them. Now, don’t confuse that with the letters in the alphabet. For instance, there are 26 letters but 40 phonemes in English out of approximately 70 or so phonemes in all the alphabetic languages in the world. For instance, /th/  is a phoneme—a combination of the letters /t/ and /h/ that forms one sound—not two.

Phonemes belong to alphabetic languages which are those in which there’s a letter shape-sound relationship unlike a language like Chinese that’s predominantly character-based. For what it’s worth—the majority of the languages in the world are alphabetic. Character (or analytical) languages you just have to “learn“—you have to memorize the shape and then what that particular shape means. In contrast, in an alphabetic language you learn rules of phonics that help you “sound out” letters to make words–you blend, segment sounds, then do the same with syllables. You learn onset and rime–a whole mess of rules that aid you in making sense out of print..

BUT, don’t confuse sounding out those words with reading all the same. Reading means you understand what you’re sounding out. If that word you’ve just decoded is not in your working vocabulary—it don’t make a bit of difference—you ain’t gonna know what it says so it’s unlikely you’re really reading with understanding!!  And that folks, is what it’s all about: understanding. Making meaning out of text (and not just written words but illustrations, tables, graphs–you know all that sweet stuff you find in reading material).

But, back to regional dialects. So, if there’s a “certain” way to pronounce a sound—does that mean that someone who uses a non-standard way of pronouncing sounds is going to have a problem learning to read? The answer to this is maybe.

I grew up in the SE corner of Michigan. There was a strong influence where I lived from families who had moved from the hills of Appalachia to work in the automobile factories of Detroit. Locally, they were referred to in a somewhat derogatory way as “ridge runners”. One of the things they brought with them and freely shared with other folks (thank you very much) was the way they pronounced sounds—particularly the vowels. And there were some pretty remarkable phonics-defying differences too. For instance, in my area we said “crick” for c-r-e-e-k.  Someone asked me once, “When you see the word “creek” in a book—how you recognize it? How do you “see” it?’”

What a silly question! Of course, I saw a stream that flowed through a meadow—bubbling and sparkling along the way. What else would I conceptualize in my mind? But, I must humbly confess, that  the way I said that word based on the rules of phonics was all wrong. I also had (and still do to this day) difficulties delineating the difference in the vowel sounds. For instance, the words “sail, sell, and sale” I pronounce in the same way unless I’m really paying attention. To be honest, I’m not sure if I can even make the distinct sounds in isolation for those vowels.

So, my interesting factoid? People who accommodate the differences in regional dialects ToggleTalk. And even though I pronounce the words in the same way–particularly if I’m not paying attention–I mentally recognize that they are distinctly different. This means I ToggleTalk. The technical term for Toggletalk is called code (or dialect) switching. But I suspect you’ll agree that’s not nearly as catchy as ToggleTalk.

Historically, this ToggleTalk thing has been a hot issue in education in the US in the battle over Black English Vernacular (BEV) and standard American English (SAE). A landmark Supreme Court case many years ago decided that BEV was a legitimate dialect—if not language—that followed many of the linguistic structures of African Bantu languages. And in terms of starting kids who used BEV when they came to school—they were entitled to a teacher who could navigate their home language and could start them off in a language that made sense to them just like other ESL students.

It’s not a point to be taken lightly because the way you perceive of yourself is hugely impacted by your language. It’s part of your “cultural capital”—and like real capital has some pretty impressive buying power when it comes to going to good schools or getting good jobs. Being able to ToggleTalk is a really important skill to have if you belong to that group that doesn’t do it the “correct” way.

More recent research on this in the US and in other countries shows that over time it’s better to transition to a more standardized way of saying things than forcing a different pronunciation on young children when they start school. So, teach the sounds to the kids the way they talk at home–slowly transitioning them to the pronunciation and syntax that’s considered “standard.” Failure to do that raises the stakes the kids themselves will fail. And given what we know about the need to mastering reading by grade three and graduating from high school—ToggleTalk is not only cool–it’s essential.

I was given speech classes when I was in elementary school. They really wanted to change the way I talked I guess. I think my two sisters had speech classes too. Not only did we have this regional thing to deal with (the same as all the kids in our area), but we also had home issues that impacted the way we spoke.

Our father wasn’t a native English speaker and our mom came from New Jersey–a place where they have this very strong and rather strange TWANG. So, I was doomed for pronunciation issues given my families on both sides had “weird” ways of communicating—at least from my perspective anyway. I well remember listening to my relatives who lived in NYC and the way they talked. Everything about being there was like being in Mars. Like who says “wader,” you know that stuff you drink and flows in a crick?

My mom would really be happy right now. I don’t think there’s anyone who is a bigger fan of Hillary than my mother. When Hillary ran for president in 2008–everyone in the assisted living facility where she and daddy lived had no doubt who mom supported.  Meal after meal she’d share her views and talk with anyone who’d listen (well, frankly pretty much forced everyone to listen) why Hillary was the best candidate.

It was a very sad day in April of that year when Hillary pulled out of the race to the west wing and the oval office. I well remember the day she despondently told my older sister, Barb, and me—“Well, I have nothing left to live for…Hillary’s gone.”  We both reminded her of all the people in her life–daddy, her daughters, all her grandchildren–who loved her and brought meaning to her life.  But truth be told –it really didn’t seem to make it’s mark or a difference. She was not to be consoled.

From that point forward her health rapidly declined. With complete dismay we saw her lose that love for life and take charge attitude that was the foundation for our family. And the closer we got to the November election it seemed like the more she disengaged from all that was going on around her.

I’ll never forget the day I got a call telling me mom had taken a turn for the worse and would probably not make it through the weekend. I was working in Haiti and the last flight had left for the day. I was scheduled to leave early the next morning and held a constant vigil with God begging Him to let me say good-bye to my mother. The weight of my grief nearly crushed me when Barb called in the wee hours of Saturday morning sobbing out that horrible sentence–”mom died.”

But she also shared with me the story of mom’s last few hours and final act. Mom knew she was dying and true to form there was one last thing she had to do before she left: she had to cast her vote for the presidential election. Mom believed in the responsibility, indeed the obligation, of participating in the political process. Her view was if you don’t vote you don’t have the right to complain. And even on her death bed, mom was going to exercise her political right and make her voice and vote count. She told the hospice social worker sitting at her bedside–she wanted her absentee ballot.

The facility staff frantically searched through her things as mom labored to hold on. Shortly after noon they finally found her ballot and she cast her vote. Right; responsibility; obligation satisfied she drifted into a coma and slipped away.  Although I can’t say for sure I would bet anyone what she did–wrote in her favored candidate’s name–none other than Hillary.

So,  Mom it’s seven years later and she’s back. This time maybe she’ll win. I just wish you were back too- to celebrate your victory.

There’s a lot of facebook discussion about an article I posted about the recent plane crash in Switzerland. The saga is unfolding and each day brings greater clarity about what happened—but not necessarily why.

From what I read it’s pretty clear he was a troubled young man who desperately needed help. It would appear that recent (and not so recent) events in his life kicked him over the edge. Sadly, it also appears that in Germany–like SO many countries of the world–help for those who are emotionally distressed and suffering from depression falls short of what is needed. I do not sit in judgment here just stating a fact.

Part of the failure to receive the needed help is because those closest to the person either don’t recognize the symptoms or are in denial about the depth of the problem. And so much of the path to help and recovery demands self reporting and honesty about what one is feeling and doing. Sometimes even the person suffering from depression has difficulty defining what is going on in their own lives.  All they know is they don’t “feel good” and it’s hard to find joy and reasons to keep going. Trust me…I know this on a very personal level. Depression is a plague that never fully goes away. It’s always there behind a closed door waiting to jump out and surprise you as you unwittingly open the door and let it out to play with your mind and soul.

But that’s not really the point. There was something that drove him to do what he did. But even if it was just a suicide/murder prompted by underlying emotional issues and nothing more–nothing philosophical—does it “count” as terrorism? I don’t have any clear answer on that.  And on one level it’s just a question of semantics.

Having said that, from where I sit, I think it’s probably clear that for all those passengers flying on that plane who had plans for the next day and loved ones to meet, life to savor and meaningful events going on in their lives and a FUTURE—in the time when they realized something was wrong until it ended—the terror must have been beyond imagination. In my view if that’s not a form of terrorism what is?

So, what is the take away from all of this?  Learn what the symptoms are of depression–a terrorism in and of itself. Get help for yourself and those you love. Don’t be afraid to get involved. Depressed people NEED involvement from those meaningful people in their lives. Listen to your gut and don’t be afraid to take a stand.  You never know who lives you may lose if you don’t.

Howdy again….

So for anyone who followed me (and anyone who cares)  “I’m back!!”

I’d stopped blogging (I’ll explain why sometime) so long ago that when I went to log in I’d forgotten both my login AND password. Security issues with wordpress meant they couldn’t help me b/c I couldn’t provide them with the information I didn’t know. DAH..that was of no help.  But thanks to a very smart son (thanx Jonny) we’re ready to go steaming ahead again.

Lots to talk about and much to share. I think the world has significantly fallen apart and I have gone through SO MUCH personally I’m curious to see how this all will affect what I write about and how I share my thoughts.  So…stay tuned for more of MY world.  Coming soon to a website near you…

I’ve had two experiences in my life where I feel as if I was living out stories of the Bible. The first happened during the first few weeks after I got married.  My new husband and I were excitedly heading to our new home in Newfoundland where we were going to be brand spanking new primary school teachers.  The trip to our new home was our makeshift honeymoon.  However, unlike most folks it was highly unlikely we would ever be able to take a second honeymoon to the same spot.

Why you ask?  Well, thanks to a Canadian National Railroad strike our second to the last leg of the honeymoon trip from Oshawa, Ontario—the overnight ferry boat ride from North Sydney, Nova Scotia to Port aux Basques, Newfoundland –was on hold.  We arrived shortly after the strike began and like so many other folks waiting to make the voyage set up camp along the highway that led to the port where the massive ferries were empty waiting for the cars and passengers that would soon (hopefully) fill them up.

We were situated near the front of the line which pretty much ensured us a spot on one of the first ferries heading out across the straits unlike thousands of those unlucky folks behind us who were backed up for miles along the highway. For one thing, this meant we were near enough the docks we could use the public restrooms and haul water back to our campsite making life much easier. This offered a bit more comfortable situation for us unlike those unable to find lodgings in the overwhelmed hotels in the area. Expecting a prolonged delay we pitched our tent the first night despite our slim hope the strike would soon be settled.  But one night dragged into two and two into three. Foolishly each day we gathered a bit more from our car and trailer and carried it up into the tent.

My husband and I tried to amuse ourselves and pleasantly spent our time we were held hostage while the union fought it out with the management of the railway system. We visited the sites of North Sydney, read in the tent, played cards or threw around a Frisbee in the empty area where cars would normally line up awaiting their turn to board the ferry.

Rumors abounded among the stranded passengers.  Everyone knew someone who knew someone who knew someone who had an inside track to the negotiations taking place behind closed doors. People huddled together sharing their tidbits about what was happening, when the strike would end and the ferries would again be shuttling people back and forth between the mainland and the big island. We listened to as many of them as we could—and then contemplated all that was said and eventually came to our own conclusions about the veracity of the various rumors.

Despite the whispers the end of the strike was near—on the evening of third day we headed to our tent—pitched on the side of the hill of the last cloverleaf on the TransCanada highway that routes cars on the last stretch of highway that leads to the Atlantic Ocean and Newfoundland beyond.  We’d been hearing the same comments ever since we’d arrived and were quite convinced the end was not in sight.  We heard on the radio they were at a stalemate and surely the radio would be more accurate than all these folks waiting in a non-line to board the ferries.

It’s hard to describe what a “knock”sounds like on a canvass tent. It’s more of a slight kind of quiet flopping or flapping noise. But despite how quiet it is that’s exactly what awakened us several hours later when a Canadian Mountie knocking on the side of our tent woke us from our sound sleep.  We could hears cars whizzing by on the side of the highway and his words—“You need to move your car and trailer. It’s in the way. The strike has been settled for hours.”

We quickly gathered up what seemed to be mountains of junk that littered the tent, pulled the tent down, hauled our belongings down the hill and stuffed our belongings into the back of the car. We soberly watched the cars that had been backed up for miles behind us speed past us to secure their place in the lines that were quickly filling up.

Had we not been like the five foolish virgins in the Bible who failed to keep awake while waiting for the bridegroom to come we would surely have been on the first ferry to head to Newfoundland.  But we weren’t. Nor did we make the second ferry.  It was with a great deal of chagrin as we waited for our turn on the third ferry when on a walk down the empty highway that we discovered a few of our precious items precariously hanging on a sign on the side of the road where our makeshift campsite had been. The stuff had apparently fallen out from the tumbled mess in our arms as we hurriedly tossed our belongings into the car. As we gathered them up they were a somber reminder of our foolhardiness in hauling so many of our belongings into our temporary home on the side of the road.

What did we learn?

Lesson Number One:  Don’t ignore all rumors; sometimes they might be true.

Lesson Number Two:  When you’re in a makeshift campsite on the side of a major highway—stick to the essentials and don’t fill your tent up with anything but necessities.

Lesson Number Three:  Always be prepared for the unexpected.  You never know what may happen next.  Don’t be caught off guard.  For, if you are caught off guard—you might just miss your boat—and the next time it might be the ONLY boat that’s going where you need to go.


So, after that rather embarrassing experience I led a relatively circumspect life and didn’t need to be reminded by a Bible story on how to lead a well-meaning and judicious life.  Well, not until God called me to remind me about a promise I made him many years before.


I was in college when I met Bob. Besides being one of the smartest people I know he seemed like a genuinely nice guy.  And when we began spending more time together I increasingly realized he was the kind of person a girl would like to hitch her wagon to.  But you know–you gotta be sure about these kinds of things and in a moment of contemplation I talked to God about him.  In the course of our conversation I told Him that if it worked out that we (me and Bob)—well, I would make a commitment to God that I’d go anywhere He wanted me to go.

Now, when I made THAT promise I was really thinking of places like where I grew up.  You know—places that had running water and electricity and grocery stores and hospitals.  Nothing fancy–just the essentials—a typical run-of-the-mill kind of American town.

I meant my promise and in my view—my move to Newfoundland pretty much fulfilled that promise to God. Going there certainly had been a challenge for this middle class American girl.  I had to cook on a wood stove and during the winter running water was definitely a hit and miss commodity. The outhouse that welcomed me upon our arrival was more than daunting as were the toilet plunger that held the window in place in the only bedroom in the house that was ours and the horses. More than once we asked ourselves why there was a lonely commode in corner of the bedroom. It wasn’t connected to any septic system that we could tell.  And those were just a few of the oddities in the tiny little house that sat up on a hill overlooking the bay that we would be calling our new home.

The one and only grocery store in the nearest town 20 or so miles away carried most of what I wanted but their reconstituted milk took a good deal of getting used too, bananas were a new thing to that part of the island and were not always available and the nearby tiny clinic on the other side of the bay in Bloomfield seemed to be state-of the-art but ONLY if you didn’t have anything seriously wrong. Although I don’t recall the name of the doctor, I do remember he was young, short, dark and handsome and liked to play basketball with Bob and the other exercise-conscience young men in the area once a week in a nearby school gym. That commitment alone made him stand out from the typical Newfie. But the marauding horses—the BIG horses who openly grazed everywhere around the bay area where we lived were certainly enough to call into question more than just my Christian experience over the time we lived there. 

So, notwithstanding my promise with GOD I’d go ANYWHERE—I figured I had more than met my commitment with the already exhibited sacrifice I’d made to move to the wiles of Newfoundland far from my family and the kind of life I was familiar with.  God and I were even in my view.

But God saw it differently and I was soon to learn He had other plans for me.

Two and a half years after leaving Newfoundland things were really starting to come together. First, we had our beautiful baby girl, Heather, and 19 months later our bouncing energizer bunny Danny blessed our household too. About a year after Danny entered our lives we made the decision to take the REALLY big step and buy our first home. By this time we’d moved to Oshawa, Bob’s hometown, and we’d found the perfect place:  an almost new duplex in a neighborhood with several family friends living down the street. As a 3-bedroom split level one of the extra special features of the home was a partial basement below the main living area.  This area was a child-sized wonderland that offered more than enough storage space for their hoarder mom in addition to plenty of room for the kids to ride their tricycles during the cold winter months.  It also had a little nook we turned into a child-sized reading corner and play house much to the delight of both Heather and Danny.  Life became even better when we purchased a portable dishwasher for mom which we squeezed it into a space beside the refrigerator that definitely turned my tiny kitchen into my little side of heaven.

But, as I said, God had other plans. It was two months after we moved into our new home that Bob got a call from one of the Vice Presidents of the SDA church headquartered in, at that time, Takoma Park, Maryland. Almost a year earlier Bob had met with one of the church leaders visiting our home church. Bob eagerly expressed his earnest desire to go to Africa as a missionary. Fluent in French, and more to the point—a living, breathing being who WANTED to leave his hearth and home to head off to the unknowns on the other side of the world—this was just too much of a “Get Out of Jail Free Card”offer to the church brethren. They listened, they prayed and they decided.  They were going to ask the Bob Prouty family to go to a medium-sized mission post in one of the more remote areas of North Kivu, Zaire, literally in the heart of Africa not much more than five miles from the equator.

Now Zaire at that time was still under the rule of Mobutu. More to the point it was a hotbed of instability then (tragically even more so now). Life was not easy: communications with the outside world were non-existent; living conditions were challenging for someone used to 20th century amenities and luxuries; and they spoke no English. So, when God in the form of that GC VP called—well, let’s just say it wasn’t met with a great deal of enthusiasm on my part.

My initial refusal to go caused me great consternation. I knew I’d made a promise to God and despite my perspective I’d already met my commitment I felt just like I was saying no to God and more importantly—no to any kind of long term relationship with Him and the hereafter with my refusal to take this call.  So, after a three-night struggle something like what I figure Jacob probably experienced when he wrestled with that angel  I said a reluctant “yes” and begrudgingly began preparations for the next and one of the most significant journeys of my life.

A few short months later we sold our new home and headed off for our two-month training at Andrews University in Michigan. Bob was finishing up his MA at the same university which conveniently left me to attend the training on my own.  You can imagine my delight upon discovering that the final decision about our employment and eventual deployment as missionaries would only come after intensive scrutiny of our (MY) performance during this training period.  I’m sure you can appreciate how I saw it—if I said YES to God but they said NO to me…well, that wouldn’t be MY fault or doing. Right?

So, I began constructing the most delightful plan ever: How to totally-miserably-completely- yet masterfully fail their evaluation of my suitability for mission service.  After all, since Mr. Bob who wanted to go and would naturally just be a hit with EVERYONE WAS NOT THERE —well, it left me up to my own devices which was just TOO MUCH to resist.  So, I began my masterful plan.

Culturally sensitive?  NOPE.  Check.

Willing to sacrifice and be a risk taker? NOPE. Check.

Ready to minister to the less fortunate?  NOPE. Check.

Upbeat? Caring? Optimistic? Trusting?  Nope. Nope. Nope. And NOPE. Check, check, check and check.


Well, you can imagine MY surprise when two months later OUR name was NOT on the list for those who were NOT going to their mission post.  Indeed, it was with a sinking heart that I noted next to the Prouty family name it said:  Lukanga, Zaire. 

WHAT?  After putting up with the pity if not disgust of all the other well-intended, wonderful, generous caring folks who sincerely wanted to do this who were TOTALLY put off by this obnoxious and completely unlikable person I WANTED AN EXPLANATION why we were still on the list to go to Lukanga as missionaries.  Certainly there had to be a mistake.

So, it was with some confusion and consternation that Bob accompanied me to the meeting I’d arranged with the organizers and evaluators of the training program. You can imagine MY dismay when confronted on “WHY ARE WE BEING SENT OUT? AREN”T I COMPLETELY UNSUITABLE FOR THIS KIND OF SITUATION? WASN’T I OBNOXIOUS, RUDE, INSENSITIVE, COMPLETELY UNLIKABLE? “and I was told in reply, “Well, we have to admit that when we got to your name we REALLY deliberated. But, after careful consideration and reflection of all you said and did we realized your opinion about what it would be like was SO NEGATIVE that in comparison you would find it JUST WONDERFUL. So we decided you’ll do a great job!”


So, like a reluctant Jonah I headed off to Zaire. Little did I know that God had some other lessons for me to learn before this would all be over.

Shortly before our arrival our fellow missionaries had managed to find a half bag of sugar, a full bag of flour, some salt, some oil, some powdered milk and a bit of oatmeal for the new missionary family. Those purchases represented about a 6 month’s portion of Bob’s salary.  More importantly, it represented the staples for a missionary family living like we were out in the bush.  Those were the core ingredients of all your bread and many other basic meals we had day after day. In my view—they were MY lifeline.

So, when four months after arriving at Lukanga my supplies were almost gone, it was with quite some panic I said to the other women that I needed to get more. They understood my need; they too needed the same supplies. But the problem was Idi Amin was still on the rampage in Uganda and all supplies coming from Kenya through Uganda were cut off.  And the other main supply route-by boat from Kinshasa to Gisangani and then overland to Butembo–wasn’t working either. Bad rains the year before had all but washed out the only road between the two towns and the hundreds of miles to travel between them took months to navigate.  In fact, at the moment when my bag of flour went completely empty the road was officially closed. Trucks were cut off and not coming through.

I was dismayed and beside myself worrying about what I’d do if I couldn’t get my sugar and flour. And short of begging God to work a miracle I contemplated how I’d managed if I couldn’t get what I wanted; what I needed. Hoping for the best Gerard, the business manager for our tiny compound, headed off to Butembo on his next trip to town with a lengthy list of goods to buy.  Not only did he have numerous supplies to get for the school but he also needed to buy items for the wives including 4 bags of sugar and 7 bags of flour.

Shopping in Butembo was an exciting experience.  It wasn’t exciting because of all the wonderful things there you could buy. Nope. What made it exciting was the possibility you MIGHT be able to get something you need that MAYBE there would be something available as you wandered from one tiny shop to the next. Indeed the NUMBER of stores was something Butembo had no shortage of. And there was LOTS of stuff to buy actually but they all seemed to sell the same sad assortment of items ranging from bottles of glycerin to nuts and bolts to engine oil and truck and car tires. It was just the STUFF you needed that just wasn’t there. There really wasn’t much beyond those few items.  And there certainly was no sugar or flour. 

In store after store, Gerard asked the same question:  Any sugar or flour?  And heard the same reply: Nope. None. Everyone wants sugar and flour. Haven’t had any for months. So, done with all his business and with only three things left on his list to purchase—sugar, flour and glass for the new church windows–Gerard began the long trip back to the compound. 

Just before you leave Butemo tucked off on the left hand side of the road is amazingly a two-item store that only carried window glass and tires.  True to his word that he’d do his best to get us our sugar and flour yet knowing the store would NOT have anything but glass and tires Gerard still asked the owner if he, by chance, had some.  Gerard was prepared when he heard the same old reply that there hadn’t been sugar or flour for sale in town for months.

Gerard began negotiating his purchase of the glass and the owner set about getting it cut and wrapping it for the bumpy journey over the horrible roads back to Lukanga.  About half way through the transaction the proprietor was called away to take care of some urgent business. A bit baffled he returned a few minutes later.  “Just how many bags of sugar and flour were you looking to buy Monsieur? he queried of Gerard.

 “Four bags of sugar and seven bags of flour. Why?”  Gerard responded. 

Shaking his head in disbelief the store owner incredulously blurted out ”Amazing. A truck just rolled in from Gisangani—it’s been on the road for four months.  He has exactly four bags of sugar and seven bags of flour on his truck.  You can have it if you want it.  I can’t believe you were here just when he arrived.” 

Four bags of sugar and seven bags of flour.  The driver later told Gerard the day he left Gisangani. Will wonders never cease—it was on the same day we arrived in Zaire. That might not seem like such a big deal to you but to me it was a definite, loud, overpowering message from GOD to Diane—“I am watching out for you. This is no coincidence.  This was in my master plan all along. Trust in me; count on me; no matter what happens you’ll be okay. I AM here.”

I’m not going to say that my faith like a little mustard seed blossomed and I never doubted or questioned or felt moments of despair ever again. No.  It didn’t.  But…always, in the back recesses of my memory is the crystal clear recollection of the day Gerard came home with four bags of sugar and seven bags of flour and the joy comes back.

Mahmoud lives with his mother and father in Bububu on the island of Unguja in Zanzibar..  Mahmoud has one older sister, Nayla, and one younger sister, Saada. Every day they walk together to  school, or play together near the mango trees near their house or swim together in the ocean just down the hill. Sometimes his older sister Nayla helps Mahmoud herd their family’s goats that graze in the fields near Mahmoud’s house.

But today was a big day for Mahmoud because his father, who drives a big truck, asked him a very important question after Mahmoud woke up.

“Mahmoud I need to take a barrel of mazout to a shop keeper in the next village.  How would you like to go with me and ride in the big truck since you don’t have school today?”

Mahmoud was so excited! He always liked to ride in his father’s big truck and see all the interesting things along the road and in the other villages.

So, after they loaded the ONE barrel of mazout on the big truck Mahmoud climbed into the front of the big truck and waved good-bye to their only security guard who closed the gate as the big truck drove away.

Mahmoud looked out the window as the big truck bounced along the road that ran past his house. He saw one of his neighbor’s cows grazing in the nearby field. As they drove past their house he saw the girl who lived next door pounding cassava for her family’s supper.

Soon they were at the shop keeper’s store. Mahmoud watched his father unload the barrel of mazout. When Mahmoud thought about the barrel of mazout he decided number one was a very good number indeed.

“One barrel of mazout” said Mahmoud’s father as he handed the bill to the shopkeeper.

“Yes,” replied the shop keeper. “But I was wondering if you could take TWO boxes of supplies to the old man who has a small duka down the road.”

“Hakuna matata” said Mahmoud’s father.

His father loaded up the two boxes of supplies and headed to the next stop.

Mahmoud looked out the window as the big truck bounced along the road on the way to the next village.  They passed two men peddling their bicycles. Each man carried stalks of bananas tied to the back of their bicycles. Mahmoud saw two little boys throwing stones into the water as the big truck bounced along the road that ran along the beach. When Mahmoud looked at all the people and objects outside his window he thought the number two was a very good number indeed.

Soon they were at the old man’s duka. Mahmoud watched his father load the two boxes of supplies.

“Two boxes of supplies” said Mahmoud’s father as he reached out his hand for the money the old man handed him. “Asante sana for bringing me my boxes.” said the old muzee.

THREE mamas carrying baskets of food on their heads ran over to Mahmoud’s father.

“We are going to the market in the next village. Could we ride in the back of your big truck?”

“Hakuna matata” said Mahmoud’s father.

So the three mamas climbed into the back of the big truck and Mahmoud’s father headed to the market.

Mahmoud looked out the window as the big truck bounced along the road as they headed to the market. In the distance he saw three mamas working in their gardens with three little babies tied to their backs. Three dogs chased after their trunk barking at the tires of his father’s big truck as it bounced along the road. When Mahmoud looked at all the people, animals and objects outside his window he thought number three was a very good number indeed.

Soon they were at the market and the big truck stopped to let the three mamas off. They waved at Mahmoud’s father, “Asante sana Bwana for letting us ride in your big truck” they shouted to him.

“Three women left at the market. This is a very good day,” said Mahmoud’s father as the mamas waved good-bye.

A man standing by the road ran up to Mahmoud’s father. “Are you going to the next village?” he asked.

“Indeed I am” said Mahmoud’s father.

“Can I go with you and take my FOUR goats to my village>”

“Hakuna matata” said Mahmoud’s father.

So Mahmoud’s father the man’s four goats on the big truck as the man climbed on board.

Mahmoud looked out the window as the big truck bounced along the road as they headed to the next village. He saw four boys walking to school carrying back packs full of books. Each boy dragged a stick in the dirt leaving four crooked lines behind them in the dirt. Mahmoud knew how much fun it was to playing with a stick in the dirt. He pointed to the boys as he told his father, “Baba look at those four boys with their sticks. I like to run along with a stick like this too.”

‘Indeed you do” agreed Mahmoud’s father as he smiled down at his son When Mahmoud looked at all the people, animals and objects outside his window he thought the number four was a very good number indeed.

Soon they were at the village and the big truck stopped to let the man and his four goats off.

“Four goats running crazy,” said Mahmoud’s father.

“Asante sana Bwana for letting us ride in your big truck” he shouted to Mahmoud’s father. The man chased after his goats quickly scampering down the road.

An old mama sitting by the side of the road waved to Mahmoud’s father. “I need to send FIVE baskets of food to the school just down the road. Can you take them for me?” she asked.

“Hakuna matata” said Mahmoud’s father.

As the big truck bounced down the road Mahmoud saw five goats tied to five sticks along the road. He counted five houses and five cars as they sped past his father’s big truck. Mahmoud smiled as they passed five boys playing with a ball in a field. When Mahmoud looked at all the people, animals and objects outside his window he thought five was a very good number.

Soon they saw the school in the distance. The big truck stopped as the school director ran to the side of the road and helped his father unload the baskets of food off the big truck. .

“Five baskets of food dropped off at the school”, said Mahmoud’s father.

“Asante sana Bwana for bringing us our food.” he said to Mahmoud’s father as he shook his hand.

“There are SIX students who would like to ride home on the back of your big truck. Can they ride with you?” asked the school director.

“Hakuna matata” said Mahmoud’s father.

The six students climbed on the big truck. Mahmoud’s father started the engine and drove away from the school.

Mahmoud looked out the window as the big truck bounced along the road to the next village. He counted six dhow boats bobbing in the water and six little girls playing a game alongside the road. There were six big rocks piled high along the shore where six men were fishing with six large nets. He could see six dugouts skimming along on the water. When Mahmoud looked at all the people, animals and objects outside his window he thought the number six was a very good number indeed.

Soon they were at the village where the six students lived. The big truck stopped and the students climbed off the big truck.

“Six students heading home,” said Mahmoud’s father.

“Asante sana Bwana for letting us ride on your big truck” the students shouted as they raced home for their suppers.

“Hakuna matata” said Mahmoud’s father.

One of the fathers stood along the side of the road waiting for his son. “I need help getting SEVEN big fish to the market” he said to Mahmoud’s father. “Can I ride on your big truck and take these to the market?”

“Hakuna matata” said Mahmoud’s father.

Mahmoud’s father and the boy loaded the fish on the back of the big truck as his father climbed in the back.

His father started the engine and bounced down the road as he drove to the market. Mahmoud saw seven boys swimming in the ocean. Seven girls washed clothes in the water. Seven goats grazed in the grass. Seven chickens pecked at bugs in the dirt. Seven large pieces of driftwood were piled up on the shore. Seven mamas were selling fruit along the roadside. And, seven soldiers walked together alongside the road. When Mahmoud looked at all the people, animals and objects outside his window he thought the number seven was a very good number indeed.

Soon they arrived at the market. Mahmoud’s father stopped the big truck and helped the father unload his big fish.

“Seven fresh big fish ready for the market,” said Mahmoud’s father.

“Asante san Bwana for getting my fish to the market” the fisherman said to Mahmoud’s father.

An old man leaning on a stick slowly walked over to Mahmoud’s father. “I have EIGHT chickens I bought in the market and want to take home. Can I ride in your big truck?” he asked.

“Hakuna matata” said Mahmoud’s father.

Mahmoud’s father loaded the baskets with the eight chickens unto the big truck and helped the old man climb aboard.  Then he climbed into his seat and started the engine.

Mahmoud saw were eight birds sitting in eight palm trees along the ocean. Eight cows grazing in the grass that grew along the beach. Eight boys were playing football and eight girls jumping, clapping and singing in a field near the road.  Mahmoud counted eight piki pikis parked at a store selling all kinds of car and bike parts piled in eight bins in front of the store. And eight chickens ran together across the road in front of the big truck.  When Mahmoud looked at all the people, animals and objects outside his window he thought the number eight was a very good number indeed.

Soon they arrived at the old man’s house. Mahmoud’s father stopped the big truck and unloaded the baskets of eight chickens.

“Eight baskets of chicken delivered,” said Mahmoud’s father.

“Asante sana Bwana for letting me ride in your big truck” said the old man.

Mahmoud’s father was climbing into his big truck when a young boy ran up to the side and said, “Bwana we have NINE baskets of vegetables to take to Bububu. Can we put them on your big truck?”

“Hakuna matata” said Mahmoud’s father.

They loaded the nine baskets of vegetables on the big truck. Mahmoud’s father started the engine and once again the big truck bounced down the road.  Mahmoud counted nine boys walking along the road. He also counted nine men riding on nine bicycles carrying goods to Bububu. And as they neared the town he counted nine mamas with nine babies on their back and nine baskets on their heads walking together on their way to the market. Nine goats grazed in the field, nine dugouts skimmed along in the water, nine men fished with nine nets on the shore. As Mahmoud looked at all the people, animals and objects outside his window he thought nine was a very good number indeed.

Soon they were back in Bububu. Mahmoud felt sad because his ride in Baba’s big truck was almost over. He wished he might be able to ride with his father some more and be able to count more things he saw along his trip.

They rounded the bend in the road near the football field that stretched along the beach near the beautiful blue ocean near his village. Mahmoud’s heart sang for joy when he saw all his friends waiting for him to play football—all TEN of them. As he saw them standing there Mahmoud smiled and he thought to himself indeed ten was the best number of all.

When Mahmoud finished helping his father unload the nine baskets of vegetables he turned to his father and said, “Baba, can I play football with my friends?”

“Hakuna matata” said Mahmoud’s father.

As Mahmoud run to play with his friends his father smiled and thought to himself one son was a very good number indeed!

The End.

About this book:

Unguja Island is the largest of two islands that make up the Zanzibar Archipelago.  Unguja and Pemba are the largest and most heavily populated islands in the archipelago. Zanzibar is an independent region as part of the country of Tanzania.  Bububu is one of the towns that lies along the Indian Ocean. Several hundred years ago Arab and Portuguese traders first visited the islands bringing outside influences including Islam and fragrant spices. The people of Zanzibar are very diverse although most trace their roots to African descent with a few others who are of Arab and Asian descent as well. There is little industry in Zanzibar and most people live by fishing or farming. Tanganyika and the Zanzibar Archipelago gained independence from Britain in December 1963. After a brief revolution in which hundreds of people died the archipelago joined Tanganyika and together they became the” portmanteau” or blend of the two countries to form  Tanzania and Zanzibar.

The language spoken in Zanzibar and much of Tanzania is Kiswahili. Although mostly composed of Bantu (African) words Kiswahili is a rich mix of Persian, Arabic, English, German, and Portuguese. To demonstrate the contribution of each culture and language into the Swahili language examples of the borrowing include:

The numbers one (moja), two (mbili), three (tatu), four (nne), five (tano), eight (nane) and ten (kumi) are all Bantu. Six (sita), seven (sita) and nine (tisa) are Arabic. Chai (tea) is from Persia. The Portuguese language brought words like meza (table), peza (money) and even bull-fighting practiced on the island of Pemba. Words borrowed from the British include “baiskeli (bicycle), basi (bus), penseli (pencil), mashine (machine), motogari (motorcar) and koti (coat). Shule (school) and hela (coin) were introduced by the Germans.

The following Kiswahili words are used in this book.

Asante Sana—Thank you very much


Cassava–major food in the developing world that provides a carbohydrate high diet for over 500 million people. It is highly drought resistant which makes it a good crop in much of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Dhow—traditional sailboat with a triangular sail commonly used in the Indian Ocean

Duka—small roadside store

Hakuna matata—No problem

Mazout—diesel fuel

Muzee—wise elder

Piki piki—an anamanapia word for motorcycle; anamanapia is a word formed from the sound something makes when in action