The Common Good

Seeing The Human Spirit

There is a small, mud-bricked, tin-roofed building on a piece of flat land below a mountain in Kenieba, Mali. This simple structure, surrounded by courtyards, peanut fields, and scrub grass, is the church building where we lived for three years, a place that became our home.

An old bicycle. Image courtesy MaPaSa/
An old bicycle. Image courtesy MaPaSa/

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The people who are this church are simple people like the building itself. Most of them are subsistence farmers growing just enough peanuts, millet, rice and corn to eat for the year. When I think of these friends of ours, three people come to mind who symbolize them all.

One of these people is Momadu. He is pastor of the church. Humble and persevering, he is many things to many people — servant of the church, cook on a mission compound, father to three children, farmer, and, most of all to me, friend.

Another is his wife Bintu. Like most women in Mali, she works at pounding grain in a mortar and pestle, cooking over an open fire, walking to market each day, helping in the fields during growing season, and caring for her children. One evening, I passed the church building after dark and saw a small flame in a lamp just inside of the window. I peeked around the door and saw Bintu sweeping and scrubbing the dirty cement that makes up the floor of the building. I greeted her and she turned toward me and smiled at me with her broken toothed smile, a broken smile that always makes me feel whole. This is the kind of person she is — the kind of person who ends her long day by humbly cleaning the church, unbeknownst to anyone except me.

And the third is Brihma. He was stricken with polio when he was a child and lost the use of his legs. Now they are shriveled and frail, like the twigs at the end of a tree. He makes his way around Kenieba on a bicycle that he pedals with his hands. He can't work as a farmer, of course, but he can take apart a radio or any other electronic thing and find a way to fix it. This is his work, fixing broken things. His greatest gift, I believe, is the gift of himself. If I could frame a moment of in his life, with the brightness of his eyes and smile and song, then it would be a picture, an icon even, to bring faith to the heart.

I hope you see these human beings, this human spirit, when you see stories about Mali in your day-to-day life.

Trevor Scott Barton is an elementary school teacher in Greenville, SC. He is a blogger for the Teaching Tolerance project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. 

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