A Rose Among Thorns

Hidden behind a thick screen of trees and underbrush was about three quarters of an acre of partially cleared land. Stumps and weeds made it difficult to cultivate.

A little woman appeared from a mud and wattle house, together with four children, the oldest of which was in his early teens. Her two-year-old boy’s belly was swollen from hunger and his navel protruded like a misplaced pear. It looked painful. Her husband had deserted her and left her alone in the bush with the children.

When I asked if they had any food, Rose pointed at her small field. The corn she had planted was just about ten inches high. Nothing to eat there. Her pumpkin plants were beginning to flower. Nothing to eat there. Other crops were starting to grow as well, but their leaves were not edible.

I asked, "Rose, what are you and your children eating?"

She turned away from me and took a few steps to a crooked board attached to the top of a small tree trunk near the grass-roofed mud hut. She pointed to the pits of about six green mangoes.

"Is that all you have?"

She nodded. She and her children had been eating nothing but unripe mangoes from some wild mango trees nearby.

I had heard about this little lady in rags and had come prepared with a 50 kg sack of maize. I handed it to her, and the stoic and hopeless face produced a tentative smile as she struggled to hold the weight of it. It was about 110 pounds; she probably weighed less.

She expressed her gratitude as an arm slipped around the shoulders of her oldest son. The boy sat on the ground staring at me with unblinkingly brown eyes. Uninvited, I walked back to a little woven granary with a caved-in grass top and looked inside. I saw one clay cooking pot, a badly bent aluminum container for water and a stirring paddle. No food. No grain.

We felt them staring at our backs as we picked our footing back away from her little hidden corner of the world.

Six months later, I asked if I could see Rose again.

When we went back to her little fields and two huts, she greeted us with a smile. I sat and talked with her about what she had grown. Her maize had grown well and she had made her garden a little bigger. All of them appeared healthier with a bit more flesh on their bones. The little boy’s stomach and navel had receded very little from the former bloat.

I asked the little boy’s name. She said, “Now I call him Saviour, because when you were here the last time, you gave us maize.”

As we turned to leave, she said something in the Bari language. What she said stopped Zamba Duku in his tracks. He had a stricken look on his face. Zamba asked me, “Did you hear what she said?”

I pointed out that I don’t understand Bari.

He interpreted it for me: “If you had not brought that food when you were here before, we would have all died.” That’s why she had renamed her youngest son Saviour.

I walked away from Rose with a lump in my throat and a question in my mind, “How many others like her did we not get to in time?”

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A year later, I returned to visit Rose again.

She and her two teen-aged sons had cleared a little more land. The little boy’s belly was still bloated. They still lived on the edge of starvation. The look of despair was still there.

We left them more maize. It was difficult to walk away, knowing their plight and knowing that many other hundreds around the area were in the same terrible circumstances.

As we left her in her little one-family village still tucked away in encroaching bush, she again called out in the Bari language, “If you had not given me that food the last time, we would all have died!” It was a feeling of mixed joy and dread. How will she survive the next few months...years?

She reminded us, “My youngest son—I have changed his name. He is now called Saviour.”

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In April 2013, I asked the staff of Savannah Farmers Cooperative to take me to see her again.

It was a rather different story this time. Some years had passed since that first visit.

Rose greeted us with a wide smile which never seemed to leave her face. She was well dressed.

We saw a new house which they had built. A man was quietly witling a limb from a fresh branch into a peculiar shape. Her sons were healthy. Saviour, the little boy with the bloated stomach, was nowhere to be seen. When I asked, Rose told me that he was at school. I was disappointed he was not there. He is one of those children who often come to my mind.

Rose was dressed in bright, clean clothes. Her teen-aged boys and a friend sat on a log under a tree quietly listening to us talk through an interpreter. Her baby girl was doing well. Her enlarged fields were just being prepared for the new rainy season. Her granary had a good amount of food in it. She even owned a pig.

But there was one more startling change. The man was sitting apart, and with a panga (machete) was chopping away at that strangely shaped limb from a tree. We asked about it. It was to be the handle for another very small jembe (hoe) for planting.

Rose finally told us who it was. Her husband, John Yile Lodu Michael! She told us the whole story of his return. He had a virulent form of malaria which had caused his “craziness” but had survived and had now returned permanently to his wife home and family. John stopped working on his hoe handle for a moment, pointed at his head and said, “My head was all wrong.”

As we talked, Rose excused herself and went behind one of the huts. My son John followed her with the camera. She dipped into a granary and retrieved something, wrapping it in a plastic bag.

Rose’s mother-in-law came in wearing a red and white striped jersey and sat on a log behind her son. While Rose was off at her little granary, her mother-in-law thanked us for helping Rose.

“If you had not helped her the whole family would have died without food.”

Meanwhile, the husband, John, right out of the blue announced, “I am now born again! We go to church every Sunday.”  Then he continued working on shaping the point on which the hoe would be mounted, and making the handle the right size and feel.

Rose came back from behind the hut and knelt in front of me and gave me about 1.5 kilos of ground-nuts (little red peanuts). She smiled broadly as she presented them to me in gratitude for revolutionizing her life and circumstances. It would have been rude in their culture to refuse them, even though their need was still much greater than mine, so I accepted them with joy. I later had the guesthouse cook roast them and I brought them home to Canada. They are best little red peanuts available in the world as far as I am concerned!

Just as we were about to leave, we saw a few boys walking on a path toward us. One of them broke away and came into the homestead.

Rose said, “This is Saviour.”

I greeted him and lifted him into my arms along with his school books. His stomach was normal. His grin was infectious. I was delighted beyond words.

Just a small gift of food can help people out of extreme, life-threatening poverty.

This little woman, Rose, is an example of perseverance and faith living in a world of thorns, challenges and uncertainties.  

“God, give us the grace to understand how privileged we are in the West, and to understand the plight of millions of people facing unnecessary death by starvation.” My prayer!