Mali Mormon-Modibo Diarra
by Maurine Jensen Proctor
The first native Mormon in Mali received an unforgettable lesson in courage.
Mali Mormon: Modibo Diarra
“When you are not a Moslem in Mali,” says Modibo Diarra, “you are like a dog. They try to make you afraid not to belong.” Mali is a country in west Africa where fear is common, a place where hyenas howl, just a half-mile from a village, where the government has in the past sometimes been unjust and erratic; and disease and hunger threaten many.
Yet Modibo, Mali’s first native Mormon, looks more like a tribal chieftain, perhaps a jungle shaman, than a man who would ever know disquiet. In his flowing white bubu, with his gray beard and regal bearing, he seems just as Richard D. Hanks, who has worked in the fields of Oulessebougou with his father Elder Marion D. Hanks, described him. “The Moses of Mali,” someone set apart by an ancient wisdom and a courage that springs from some quiet inner place.
Though he speaks six languages, including French and his native Bambara, he picks out the words carefully in English for this interview. And I come away feeling that I have had that rare experience-I have met a truly remarkable human being.
A Lesson in Courage
To explain himself, Modibo begins with a story. “When I was a young boy, we had a farm fifteen kilometers from our village. One evening as we were working in the fields, my father came to me and said, ‘Go back to the village and get me some tobacco.’
“The sky was getting dark with clouds, so I said, ‘It will rain very soon. After the rain I will go to the village.’
“‘I need my tobacco now,’ answered my father.
“‘Then I will take the horse,’ I said.
“‘The horse will be afraid in the rain,’ answered my father. ‘You cannot take him.’
“‘Then I must take the gun,’ I said.
“My father came back, ‘You cannot take the gun. I will have to go myself. I see you are a very great coward.'”
At this Modibo became angry, and anxious to show his father he was no coward, he left for the village, but the way led him through the forest that during the rainy season was alive with the sounds of wild animials-leopards, snakes, and especially the lethal and dreaded hyena.
“This will not be a good adventure today,” Modibo thought as he started out in the quickly darkening world. “My father does not love me. He wants me to die.”
As he walked toward the village, he could hear the fierce screams of the hyena and the urgent rattling of snakes in the bushes. The hair on his head stood on end as the night grew blacker. Sometimes he thought he saw a group of people ahead, but when he rushed there, hoping for a little comfort, it was only bushes in a huddled circle. Finally, the rain began, an African downpour that hits the skin like bullets. Modibo was blinded by the rain, sometimes staggering off the road where the vipers were curled and ready.
At last he made it to the village where his mother gave him the tobacco, but she told him, “Wait until tomorrow to go back to the farm. You must stay here.”
If I stay, my father will think I’m a coward, thought Modibo and started back through the black savannah to the farm without saying anything to his mother. The sounds of the forest chilled him as he walked back through a world, not rainy now but windy. Then he began to notice the black shapes of hyenas on either side of the road. “I was so afraid then, I didn’t hear any other noise,” said Modibo. The shapes crossed in front of him.
Modibo knew that hyenas won’t attack you if you don’t show that you’re afraid, so even though they were stalking him, every time he came very close to them, he strode forward aggressively, and they would run again.
Finally it came, the dreaded moment when both hyenas reared on their hind legs in front of him on the road, the sign of attack. At that point, Modibo knew there was nothing he could do to save himself. He searched on either side of the road for a tree to scramble up, but he saw nothing close enough.
This is it, thought Modibo, and then just as the hyena was ready to attack, he heard a shot ring out from behind him, downing the animal. Frightened, the second ran off into the woods.
“Beside me was my father. He had been following me the entire trip. ‘I had to help you because this case was serious,’ he said, ‘but I sent you to the village so that you would learn courage, that you might keep your mind in any situation. It was something I could do for you that would serve you all your life.’
“It has been my gift,” said Modibo. “Since that time, I have never been afraid.”
His courage has served him well, and it has been called upon repeatedly in a world where he sees a different vision than most of his colleagues. For instance, when Modibo was fourteen, Mali had become independent from France, and the Russian communists had a major influence in his country, including the school system where atheism was indoctrinated. One day when a science teacher was giving a lesson on matter, Modibo asked him what was a most natural series of questions, “Who created matter? Who created the earth?” To Modibo the scientific theory was interesting but terribly inadequate. “Someone organized and harmonized this world,” he thought. And surely we must have a creator. I don’t know what he wants of us. Maybe I am still too young to understand, but I am certain he is there.
To his questions, the teacher replied that he was stupid, but Modibo decided for himself instead that he was a free thinker, unbound by the creeds around him.
A Latter-day Pioneer
Becoming a Teacher
Modibo continued to march to his own drummer at seventeen, when a government official came to his classroom looking for volunteers to teach. “Those who were educated could be a very big man in our country,” Modibo said. “You could become a general, a doctor-professions that paid well and made you important. Yet this man said to us, ‘You are lucky. You already have enough. But what will happen if you refuse to go to teach the people? You will be all head and no feet. You owe your countryman something. It is not obligatory, but we want you.’
“I was the first to raise my hand,” said Modibo. “I had had two teachers who had done so much for me when I was a little student. One was a French teacher who was all the time trying to help our village. I remember one day the police came to our classroom and took him away, and we never saw him again. The other had taught me that the only way our country could prosper was to teach the people.”
Modibo’s first teaching assignment was in a small village, Chirflja, in the north of his country. When he arrived, the village leader told him he could only have thirty-five students because he was so young. Modibo answered, “I want to do maximum for my people. Don’t tell me I am too small. I am ready to sacrifice all to help my people read and write.”
From the first day of teaching nearly “all” was what was required. School was obligatory for village children, but over the long years of colonization, the people had learned to distrust the schools where their children had been taught that they were savages, cannibals, or criminals incapable of their own rule and propagandized with the doctrines of Russian socialism. When Mali had become independent, the people felt that the schools were not much better. When they sent their children to school, they became unfit for village life, looking with disdain at their parents and their traditional farms, and not finding a place in the larger world of employment. “Education was seen by the people,” said Modibo, “as making their children unfir for any life. They would never again be rural people. They would never be Western people.”
Consequently, the people would get up early, gather all their children together at 5:00 a.m. and hide them so they didn’t have to go to school. “I had sometime to get up at midnight to go find the children at their homes and prove they were not gone. I swam rivers to find them,” said Modibo.
In one village, the people had tried to make every teacher who came believe he was crazy. They would dig a little hole near the teacher’s living quarters, put a chicken inside and cover it again. Then at night, while the teacher was trying to sleep, he would hear the noises of a distressed chicken and not know where to find it. The entire next day, the teacher would be falling asleep, having lost his rest the night before, and if he claimed he heard a chicken all night, the people would say he had the devil. For nearly thirty years, Modivo taught under meager conditions, fired with a desire to lift his people. In some villages, he had no bed; he spent a three-year stay sleeping on the ground. In other places the people were hungry, and to go and teach there meant you starved along with them.
“Sometimes I was mad at school,” admits Modibo, “because if a child was very sick, the parents would just bring him to me and say, ‘This is no longer our child. This is your child, not ours. I could not understand how parents could treat a child that way.’
“One day some parents brought a little girl to me who had pneumonia. Because they had no money, they were essentially throwing her away. I took her on my back and walked seven kilometers and bought antibiotic and found a doctor who could treat her. I found a nurse who could stay with her until she recovered. Then I sent the chief of the village to get her family. They were very embarrassed.”
In 1979, the teachers in Mail came to Modibo and asked him to be the head of the teachers’ union. “They said that they were convinced that the work of educating the children was very important for the nation, but they could not work because of frustration. In Mali, a teacher is nothing. The government pays such a poor salary that the teacher is always struggling. You eat something,” said Modibo, “but it is never enougyh. The people often live in complexes with one shared, locked bathroom for many families. The teacher and his family earn so little that they are not given a key. The teacher must borrow a key every time his family needs to use the bathroom.”
Modibo assumed the lead, struggling first to augment the teachers’ salaries and conditions at work. Many teachers had no classrooms. They could not afford medical care. Modibo began to solve these problems. He arranged to buy rice in bulk, so the teachers could buy it from a cooperative at a lower price. He built healthcare facilities so the teachers could have their own doctor.
The struggle for salaries, however, brought him head to head against a corrupt government. “We would bring them our honest concerns, and they tried to label us as political rebels, trying to undermine the government.” The government sent spies to their meetings to find out what the union was planning next and threatened members with prison if they didn’t become turncoats and betray their friends.
“One day you would be fighting with someone for an important cause,” said Modibo, “and the next day he would be a spy working [against] you, put you in jail. You are like a small insect in this situation, quite helpless. What begins as a good struggle, ends in distrust.
“To stop us, the government intimidated us. They would come to our homes at 2:00 in the morning and drag people out of bed. We would hear gun shots and wonder if our friends had been killed. They would tell me, ‘We will save you. Just stop leading the teachers.’ Many times I was put in jail-sometimes it was only for a few days; once it was for three months. I have to thank the Lord. I never felt angry or resentful at the people who betrayed me. The Lord helped me with that. The Lord created people. Some are strong and some are weak. If you are strong, this is not your courage. It is a gift.
“I am blessed because I have not had any black hole in my life, some wicked action that I have to live with like they do. I have been able to do exactly what I believe.
“One time I was put in a small cell shared by thirty other people. There was not room even to lie down, unless several others would remain standing. The jailers had told the inmates to beat me until I died. They were hardened men who had done this before, but I started to talk to them. I began, ‘I know your life is not good, but that also is a part of life.’ After some hours of talking, they said, ‘Let us find a way for you to sleep.’ I told them we needed to leave this kind of room for those among us who old and sick.”
“And When Ye Shall Receive These Things…”
So this was the man who in 1981 was leading the national teachers’ union, living in a slum in Mali’s largest city. Bamako, and teaching eleven extra hours a day to support his family. Then one day, he went to an American family, the Millers, to whom he taught French and told them he would have to miss teaching that day. His dog was dying of rabies, and, said Modibo, “I cannot kill so good a friend as this dog has been to me.”
The people mentioned that they had an American friend, a veterinarian named Dr. Jerry Zaugg, who might be able to help. “Just then, almost as we spoke his name, Dr. Zaugg was at their front door and came with me right then to help.
“Dr. Zaugg looked at the dog and told me he was sick, but not with rabies, and he would not die.” Gratefully, Modibo offered him tea, but Dr. Zaugg declined. So Modibo offered him coffee. He declined again, “I don’t drink tea or coffee.” Modibo wondered if Dr. Zaugg had some medica l problem, for he had seen American movies and was certain Americans drank coffee. Dr. Zaugg answered that he declined all these drinks for religious reasons.
“I wanted to know about a religion that inspired this much committment in a person,” said Modibo. He began meeting with Dr. Zaugg regularly and devouring church books in French.
“Et quand vous recevre ces chose” (“And when ye shall receive these things…”), Modibo read.
“All those years ago, my question had been who the creator was, and nobody could anwer. I knew if I ever found out, I would worship Him with all my heart, and now there was someone who told me.”
On April 12, 1981, Modibo was baptized.
As our interview finished, I had one more question for Modibo. “Besides your son, you are nearly alone as a member of the Church in Mali. Isn’t it difficult?”
He answered, “It would make me happier to have people to share mly faith with, but it would not make me stronger.”
I believe him.
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.