Oct 28 2017

The gift of accompaniment carries us forward

By Regina Mburu, Unbound’s communications liaison for Africa

Visiting Madagascar, the fourth largest island in the world, I felt the refreshing breeze of renewed energy and excitement blowing my way.

Madagascar is located off the east coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean. I was a bit nervous about the weather because the last time I visited, which was four years ago, there was a day that was so chilly I had to ask for extra blankets from the hotel where I was staying. It was a pleasant welcome when I arrived to see a brilliant blue sky and feel the sun’s rays cast their glow on my skin.

My colleagues from our program in Madagascar were waiting for me at the airport. As it is often said, a radiant smile is the universal sign of welcome. I felt welcomed.

It would take us four hours driving on a long, winding road to reach our destination. My colleague pumped up the music in the car. We sang along and our heads bobbed to the beat. Music cuts across cultural boundaries like a blade, communicating in ways that no language can.

Madagascar is a French-speaking country (Malagasy and French are the official languages), and communication posed a barrier. I had picked up some Malagasy words from my previous visit, and I intended to learn more words during this visit. I was determined to enjoy my trip and gather as much information and beautiful photos as I could, regardless of the challenge in communication.

As a communications liaison, nothing brings more joy than spending time with the families we serve and listening to their stories of determination, strength, inspiration and success. It is usually overwhelming and life transforming to “walk in their shoes” and be part of their journey.

A visit with an elderly man stood out on this trip.

As we walked toward his house, Michel was waiting with his hand outstretched to greet us. We walked up the creaky staircase to his one-room house. A small window in the mud-walled structure let in rays of sun that made the inside of the house look smoky. There were two metal beds in the room. By Michel’s bed there was a small radio, perhaps his only companion.

“Why do you have an extra bed?” I asked. “It is for guests,” he said. “Anyone who would like to visit me would have a place to rest.”

This old man reminded me of my late grandfather in so many ways. His piercing yet gentle eyes, the firmness of his handshake and, above all, his humility and kindness struck a familiar chord.

Michel, 76, lives alone after losing his wife a few years ago. He had six adopted children, whom he loved and took care of, but they are long gone and only two remember to visit him from time to time.

“They have their own lives and that is OK,” he said, with a distant look.

Michel’s story is like those of many aging friends in our society today. We get too busy with our lives and forget to give them the love and care they gave us when we were growing up. At their most vulnerable times, we have turned our backs on them.

Spending time with Michel was an honor for me. Although I told him that he reminds me of my late grandfather, he did not know just how much it meant for me to hold his hand and take photos with him.

His warm smile and gentle spirit was God’s way of reminding me that there are other “grandfathers” out there that I can love and spend time with, just as I did with mine.

Through the eyes of our elderly friends, like Michel, we are reminded that there is no gift you can give your loved ones that is greater than your time and attention.

For, as Pope Francis said at the Festival of Families on his papal trip in Philadelphia, “A people that does not know how to care for the children and a people that does not know how to care for the grandparents is a people without a future, because it doesn’t have the strength and it doesn’t have the memory that will carry it forward.”

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