07/31/2012 07:42 EDT | Updated 09/30/2012 05:12 EDT

How a Journey to Mali Changed the Way I Give to Charity


As a city-dwelling lifestyle journalist, I tend to write about high-end spa treatments, which whites will look best on your walls and how to stay healthy in the Western world, where access to food, water and emergency care is seldom given a second thought. So when my editor at Chatelaine asked if I knew anyone who would travel to Mali in West Africa to write about the food crisis there, I opened my mouth -- and was as surprised as she was to hear the words "I'll go."

Eight days and seven needles later (to ensure I wouldn't be felled by hepatitis or yellow fever), I found myself in a dusty, buggy hotel with intermittent electricity, gritty rice and water of questionable cleanliness -- luxuries all.


During my briefing session, I was cautioned not to show emotion, no matter how heart-wrenching the stories. Right. In every village I visited, there were children whose black hair had turned the colour of copper (a sign of severe malnutrition) and tales of desperate mothers digging in anthills to find buried bits of grain.

And yet the people I spoke to had not abandoned hope -- far from it. They graciously welcomed me into their clean-swept mud huts and told me tales of solidarity and generosity as their families looked out for one another with whatever resources remained. One woman pressed a little parcel of peanuts into my hands. It was a gift from someone who has nothing to someone who has everything, and I was overwhelmed by it.

Incredibly, they were grateful to me because I had come so far to hear their stories. They were amazed that people from Canada would care to know about them and their problems. And, since I was there four months ago, their problems have only gotten bigger.

First, came the drought that destroyed their crops, sparking a hunger crisis in a country where already one in five children never reach their fifth birthday. Then, a military coup in Mali's capital, Bamako, ended 20 years of democracy. In the midst of the chaos, radical Islamic militants took over Timbuktu, destroying ancient tombs and shrines and imposing strict Shariah law. Up to 400,000 people have fled their homes to escape the extremists.

The conflict has exacerbated an already desperate situation. "Many families literally have nothing to eat," says Malek Triki, West Africa spokesman for the UN World Food Programme. "Their only food is soup made from wild plants that are so bitter, the animals don't even eat them."

And, just when it seemed that things couldn't get worse, cue a plague of locusts. In June, the crop-desiccating creatures swarmed down from the north where the political upheaval has made organized government pest control impossible. "The locusts pose a considerable threat," says Diana Gee-Silverman, program manager children and emergencies for Plan Canada. "They can devour acres of crops and trees in just 30 minutes."

Even in the face of all this, a disaster lacking the dramatic footage of a surging tsunami or earthquake-shattered villages can be easier to dismiss. And you can take refuge in the fact it is happening there, not here. But that's not actually true, says Triki. "The interconnectedness of our global village has made it impossible to think of humanitarian crises as foreign problems in faraway lands," he says.

And, according to Dave Toycen, president and CEO of World Vision Canada, Canadians are among the most generous people in the world when it comes to helping others in times of crisis. "Now, it's the people in West Africa who need our help -- with over one million children at risk of severe malnutrition, Canadians can prevent a bad situation from becoming much, much worse."

The week I spent in Mali changed the way I go about charitable giving, which tended to be sporadically and usually in the wake of a natural disaster (yes, the footage helped). My challenge has always been to feel connected to a situation so far removed from my day-to-day life. Even after I returned, I was quickly swept back up in trivial details that threatened to eclipse my intention to do better.

"I've learned that if you can't relate to the whole picture of a crisis, there are pieces of it that you can relate to," Gee-Silverman says. "Maybe you're descended from people who fled to Canada to survive a threat in their home country. Or, you can think about the children affected by this crisis right now. There are kids in the Sahel who have become separated from their families, and who don't have safe places to learn or play."

For me, the connection has become two little girls in a village five hours from Bamako. They trailed after me during my visit, smiling shyly and gradually closing the distance between us. I took their picture and turned the camera so they could see the screen -- and I can still hear the sound of their laughter. That is the image I brought back with me when I boarded the plane and it is the one I make sure to return to every so often, so I don't forget.

Those little girls prompted me to try to do something every month, whether it's buying a chicken for a family or contributing to a loan for a woman building a business selling peanuts. I also sponsored a little girl in Mali for, I'm ashamed to admit, less than I spend on coffee in a month. Kadia's smiling face is now front and centre on my fridge. I can see copper in the hair that pokes out from under her bright headscarf, but I know that I am doing something to change that.

Some ways to help:

1. Contribute to crisis relief and long-term development projects:

2. Sponsor a child or send a family a pig, a goat or an egg-laying chicken:

3. Buy food for desperate families:

Read Sydney Loney's full article on Mali in Chatelaine.


Life in Mali