Nevada native experiences life in the African bush

Sunday, March 7, 2004
A group of village children gather with Denise McCoy, a native of Nevada, for a photograph during McCoy's recent trip to Mali, West Africa, as part of a mission team.

By Lynn A. Wade

Denise McCoy had no idea what to expect when she joined a church mission group on a trip to Mali, West Africa -- and she got a lot more than she'd bargained for.

McCoy, a 1986 graduate of Nevada High School, went to the small village for nine days in February, and brought back with her many memories of of a culture filled with hard-working, generous, welcoming people; new understanding of what it is to live without a clean water supply, and a new perspective on the power of God.

During the group's visit to the African bush village, volunteers from the Stonebridge Church of Springfield, where McCoy now resides, worked to help dig wells for clean water, built and repaired housing, gave medical support and assistance to the people and help with much of the work that simply needed to be done.

McCoy said the trip came about because "the church had "adopted this tribe of people, and we have an American missionary family that lives there year-round."

Primarily, it's an evangelistic mission, but "part of what we do take is dry land agriculture team and medical team to help them with their daily lives. We had 14 from our church -- 21 including the family that's already there and some nationals who served as translators."

McCoy said she learned "indescribable" life lessons during the trip; but she attempted to explain one that stands out in her mind -- you don't have to have the riches and comforts common in the U.S. to be happy.

Although there's no electricity, no plumbing, no running water of any kind, extremely limited access to medical care but plenty of hard work to go around in the village, the people do not consider themselves deprived, bereft of needs or persecuted. They have their families, a well-defined sense of their roles in the community and genuine care and concern for others.

"It took me two days to realize that I wasn't there to be their savior. At first, I just wanted to gather up these children and take them home with me. But they're truly happy and loving. They love each other very much, and they showed love for us," McCoy said.

She described the tribe's lifestyle as very structured and organized. Many -- but not all -- of the children attend school, and are literate in three languages -- English, French, and the local dialect spoken in the village, and most activity takes place between sunup and sundown.

"It's a simple lifestyle. Basically, they work by the light of day. As soon as it's dark, they all come in," said McCoy.

It's vastly different from the American lifestyle, but, "to them, we are the strange ones," McCoy said.

The village primarily supports itself through subsistence farming -- raising crops, sheep, cattle and goats. A few engage in skilled labor, working as craftsmen, teachers and merchants.

Men and women have clear, defined roles, McCoy noted. Men plant, harvest, hunt and tend to business matters. Women gather food and water, prepare meals, care for small children and help in the fields.

The village is organized into family clusters. The people are polygamists, so families are very, very large but close both in terms of living quarters and support of one another. For example, McCoy said, the chief lives in an area with his family that's like a big camp composed of many small structures made of mud sticks thatch, and most had dirt floors.

Villagers ate what they grew on the farms and indigenous plants and water.

McCoy said the missionary group brought its own food and water; having been cautioned that eating the villager's food might be more than their digestive systems could handle. Accommodations were simple but adequate.

"We stayed in ... an abandoned ranger station. It had concrete floors, so we didn't have to sleep on the dirt, and we had a place to go in at night," McCoy said. The shelter was welcome, she said -- especially when uninvited reptilian guests appeared.

"Africa has some of the most poisonous snakes in the world. Three nights in a row, we had snakes that came up on the roof," she said.

The snakes kept to themselves, but their presence was distracting and a little nerve-wracking -- since on two occasions the slithering intruder was a Black Mamba, and the third was a visit from a puff adder.

Besides the snakes, the environment presented several surprises.

"I was very excited about the idea of experiencing the African sunrise and sunset, but it was so dusty you couldn't see the sun rise or set."

Villagers obtained water from open wells that was brown and heavily polluted with parasites, so the mission group purchased equipment in West Africa's capital city and dug new wells and installed pumps and a primitive filtration system. "The water came up clear and much cleaner and cold. The people were very happy because they'd never had water like that before."

The trappings of American civilization the missionaries brought along intrigued the villagers -- especially the children.

"My digital camera was a big hit. These people had never seen what they looked like. They all wanted to see themselves on it," McCoy said.

The new and rewarding experiences of the trip were far too numerous to recount, McCoy noted, and she's looking forward to returning to the village next year.

"You just can't even imagine what it's like if you haven't been there, and seen it. I absolutely cannot wait to go back. Those people loved us, loved each other. This is going to be something that I do each year and would probably just stay there if not for my family. They even gave me an African name, Maribbamu Fofana (a guess by McCoy as to the spelling, derived from the last name of one of the chiefs)," she said.

McCoy is the daughter of Nevada residents Dennis and Connie McCoy, and granddaugher of Betty McCoy, Nevada, and the late L.R. McCoy.

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