Glenvar grad travels to Mali to help with mission
SALEM – Gregory Irby barely knew where Mali was before he went there.
But the Islamic country in West Africa’s bulge – which was formerly known as the French Sudan – made a lasting impression on him when he traveled there earlier this month to help a friend scout the area for future mission work. Mali’s people worked their way into his heart.
“The biggest thing that sticks out about the people is they are so open and trusting,” said the 22-year-old who graduated from Glenvar High School in 2006.
When their rented Jeep broke down in a village half-way between the capital city of Bamako and Kayes, Irby and his three friends from Crown College were stranded for hours and surrounded by people who didn’t speak English.
The young Americans found they didn’t have to speak the Bambara language to make friends with Mali children. They gave out sticks of candy and played marbles in the red dirt with the boys.
“It turned into a whole day of being with their children, playing with them, singing with them, interacting with them,” said Irby.
He said the people, both children and adults, “wanted to touch us, embrace us. They brought me into one of their houses which you enter through a mud wall into a dirt courtyard, then another mud wall which is actually the house.”
Two adults in the courtyard looked up at him, he waved, said hello in French, which is the second language of Mali, and they waved back, Irby said. “They had no concern that 12 of their children were holding onto me.”
He and his friends visited with a pastor who is starting churches in other areas of Mali that don’t have Christianity.
The people of Mali the young men met are very religious, he said. “They love their religious traditions, their feasts, their prayers, said Irby, who was in Mali at the conclusion of Muslims’ holy season of Ramadan. He reported seeing people praying on the streets: “One side of the street would have the men, the other side would have the ladies on their prayer mats.”
They spent two days at Sikasso, which is more to the east and closer to the country of Burkina Faso, before returning to Bamako and then home.
“We did our market run, which was the day before the feast ending Ramadan. Imagine all of Salem poured onto Main Street. There was food and animals and clothing for sale.”
All he brought back in addition to the memories was a bag for his mom, he said.
In addition to the candy sticks Irby took with him to Mali, he and the others had two dozen copies of a Christian book about Jesus, said Irby, who also took diabetic supplies from his employer, Liberty Medical in Salem.
“We traveled with Benjamin Tessague, a church leader whose dad was one of the first people to bring the gospel into Mali. His wife is a nurse. She is able to use those diabetic supplies,” he said.
The reason Irby and his friends Brian Stocks from Georgia, Brandon Nelson from Stoke-en-Trent, England, and Legrand Lamb from Birmingham, Ala., went to Mali was to learn about the country where Stocks plans to go permanently as a missionary.
“He will start in Bamako and go to Sikasso. I was leading a Bible study at Virginia Tech, where I met two Africans. One was from Mali and the other from Senegal, a country bordering Mali,” Irby explained. “They said, ‘You could come and teach our families and our village.’ ”
Although the people of Mali have a place in his heart, Irby’s dreams lie in the heart of America. As soon as he’s able, he intends to move to St. Louis, Mo., where he grew up and where he would like to start a church and teach Bible studies.
“Especially after going on a trip like this, I can see how you can make contacts. There are over 50 nations represented in St. Louis, he said.
Irby is the son of Kimberly and Greg Irby, who is pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Salem. His sister, Rachael, also graduated from Glenvar High School in 2005 and is teaching and administrating at a Christian school in Hickory, N.C.
Gregory Irby graduated in May from Crown College in Tennessee with a major in pastoral ministries and Biblical studies. www.crown.edu.
To get to Mali, it took Irby 24 hours of flying, with a stop in Rome – but only for refueling.
And what did he learn from the trip? “I learned the world is very accessible to America, the fact that I can get on a plane and go to any country in the world. I didn’t know that before. And I know that we have so much that we don’t need.”
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series about Salem and Glenvar young people volunteering in West Africa. In next week’s Sept. 30 Salem Times-Register, read about Salem High School grad Christoph Herby’s Peace Corps service in Benin, and his upcoming adventure.