It was Saturday, March 14th. All at once we were told that we were no longer allowed to leave the ship and we were beginning to shut down operations, effective immediately. Within a week all patients were to be discharged from the hospital. The many patients waiting at the Hope Center for their surgery dates were to be told that they would not be receiving surgery. The ship was going to pull out as soon as possible.
Wrapping up this whole mission as quickly as possible would be a Herculean effort. It took over a month to set everything up. How would this be possible? We employ over 260 local Day Crew on the ship. Senegalese people who daily come to serve with Mercy Ships in just about every department on the ship. They are essential in many ways, especially as translators for our patients. What about them? We didn’t even get to say goodbye to them as they were called on Saturday and told not to return to the ship. We were isolating. Creating a bubble around the ship. No one on, no one off. In order to protect our Senegalese friends and not overrun their medical facilities should COVID infect our crew, we were trying to leave as quickly as we could.
Knowing how essential our Day Crew is, about 72 of them were asked if they would isolate with us. Stay with us on the ship, away from their families, agreeing to not return until we left, and they all said yes!
We were down on the dock saying goodbye to the first wave of crew who were flying back to their home countries while the airport in Dakar was still open. Many would depart over the following 2 weeks. On this day as the trucks drove away and we kept waving until we could no longer see the taillights, I saw Mame Balla. A sweet Senegalese man who daily stood guard at our gate, making sure we are safe. Always smiling, always happy to greet everyone, Mame Balla had taken a liking to our girls (twins are very special in Africa!), especially Emma. When she would take out the Academy trash each week, Mame Balla would chat with her.
We walked over to him and with tears in my eyes I said, “Thank you for being here. Thank you for staying with us.” His reply is one that I will never forget. “Of course Mum. You are my family. We are together.”
We are together
Not just a powerful statement, for it is more than a statement for the Senegalese people. It is a lifestyle. We are together. Nioko Bokk (Wolof). A lifestyle that is not just known in Senegal, but throughout Africa.
We are together. This doesn’t just mean, “I’m thinking of you and let me know if I can help.” It means I will sit in the pit with you. I empathize with you. I will put your needs above my own.
In Senegal there is such a sense of community that I have never experienced before. It feels as though all of the people are raised from birth with the mentality of “we are together.” It is not an individualistic culture. They are always looking to what is best for all, as opposed to what is best for the individual. Being raised in a very different culture, I couldn’t wrap my head around this natural first response. I still can’t totally understand, but I know I want to be like that - always putting other’s needs above my own and looking at what is best for all as opposed to what is best for me. I have so much to learn from Africans.
When I thanked Mame Balla for staying with us, I was struck by his sacrifice to not return to his own comforts, his home, his food, his family. But he didn’t see it that way at all. We were his family and for the greater good, he, like 72 others, would stay with us however long until the ship sailed away.
We arrived back in the United States 10 days ago. We arrived in a state weary of sheltering in place in the midst of the pandemic. Protests were happening, people demanding their rights, exercising their freedom of speech. We were told we were coming back to a country divided and we quickly saw that. What happened to “we are together”?
Then a few days would pass before the horrors were told and shown of George Floyd’s murder. I am sick to my stomach. I am confused. I want to go back to Africa. What happened to “we are together”? Many are protesting, marching and demonstrating – something has to change. Racism must end not just in America but in the world.
An African friend back on the ship asked, “Why do Americans hate black people?” My heart aches that our African friends would have reason to ask such a question. I don’t hate you. I love you and am so humbled by the way I was graciously welcomed into an African country with love and hospitality. I don’t hate you. I love you and am honored that I got to work alongside so many Africans from all over the continent. I don’t hate you. I love you and I am challenged by your intelligence, work ethic and gentle spirit. Speaking 5+ languages – one of the greatest of which is love.
We are together African friends. I have so much to learn from you, especially your world view of Nioko Bokk. We are together African American friends. I don’t claim to understand what you experience daily, but I will seek to learn. I will sit in the pit with you.
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests,
but also to the interests of others.”
“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.”
“If one part suffers, every part suffers with it;
if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”
1 Corinthians 12:26
I’m grateful that my eyes were open to see life lived in a different way – where the whole is much more important that just a part. And now that I know, I am responsible to live in the same way. I am compelled to be a person who daily exemplifies what it means to “be together,” and to instill that lifestyle in my children and the community around me.
(n.) lit. Swahili: “we are together”; a shared sense of purpose and motivation in a group – it transcends mere agreement, and implies empathetic understanding among the members of the group
– from Wordstuck