"My preacher asked me what I wanted to get out of the trip. I said, 'I want to get out of my comfort zone, because I live in a comfort zone here, and I feel like as long as you live in a comfort zone, you do not grow. I want to do something that I fear. I have fears of going there … I want to get out of my box and be able to love on these people, because to me, a smile and a hug is a universal language. I want to be able to show them the love of Jesus,' " said Brenda McKanna, who recently returned with other members of the Temple Baptist Church of Dumas from a mission trip to the West African nation of Burkina Faso.
If she were looking for a place to experience something beyond the comfortable life of Dumas, Texas, McKanna, who works as Moore County Clerk, could not have found a better place than Burkina Faso.
Once known as Upper Volta, the former French colony is, according to the Central Intelligence Agency's "The World Factbook," one of the poorest nations on Earth. "High population growth, recurring drought, pervasive and perennial food insecurity, and limited natural resources result in poor economic prospects for the majority of its citizens," it states.
Eighty percent of the population is engaged in subsistence farming; unemployment is widespread. A third of the population is illiterate. The World Food Program of the United Nations estimates that 380,785 children suffer from "moderate acute malnutrition."
To make things worse, the country has been forced to contend since 2016 with terrorist attacks from Islamic groups tied to Al Qaeda, who are seeking to create an Islamic state in neighboring Mali and the rest of Northwest Africa. In March 2018, attacks on the French embassy, the national military headquarters, and other places in the capital of Ouagadougou and elsewhere in the country killed 35 people. The United States Department of State issued a travel advisory for Burkina Faso stating that people should "reconsider travel" to the country. Despite the presence of international and local aid organizations, drought and conflict have thrown many people in Burkina Faso into crisis in 2018.
McKanna had always donated money for missionary work in her church, but she had never gone on a mission trip. (Her travel destinations last year were Disney World and a cruise.) All that began to change when the new pastor of the Temple Baptist Church, Chris Fobbes, suggested changing the church's approach to missionary work: support fewer missionaries, but give more money to the rest and take trips to help them in the field.
"We were going to the mission field. We were going to see their work and help them in it. One of the trips was to Africa. But there were some easier trips, and it went through my mind, 'Well, I will never do Africa, but I would do one of the easier trips,' " said McKanna.
In February 2018, the church's new pastor took along a parishioner and went to Burkina Faso to help establish a feeding center for orphans in a remote rural village. After their return, the missionary who lived in Burkina Faso and ran the feeding center, began posting pictures of the children they were helping on social media.
"It really hit home what that money is going for," said McKanna. "People over there are touching people that we have no way of touching except through our giving."
She began to consider the possibility of making a trip to Africa.
As time passed, the missionary in Africa came to Dumas and talked to the congregation about his work. Now McKanna started to feel inspired to go to Africa, but she still had doubts. When the missionary asked her if she wanted to go on the upcoming trip to Burkina Faso, she said she could not because of the election she had to work. He replied that the trip would begin on June 28 and end July 10 -- a time period in which there was no election.
When her 15-year-old granddaughter, Landri Garcia, came to her and said that she wanted to make the trip, McKanna summoned the will to overcome her fears and doubts and committed to going, too.
"I knew that if I didn't go, her mom and daddy were not going to let her go," she said.
On June 28, McKanna, her granddaughter and a group from Temple Baptist Church headed to Africa.
The flight to Burkina Faso was long and uncomfortable. Almost immediately upon arrival, McKanna and her companions found themselves outside their comfort zone. As soon as they left the plane, airport personnel took their temperature (screening for Ebola). Outside the airport, armed, military men in trucks were ever present. Mckanna and the others were forced to confront the harsh reality of life in an impoverished nation.
"I would say the poorest person in Moore County would be considered rich compared to those people over there," she said.
For the most part, McKanna and her companions lived in the capital, Ouagadougou, in the house of the missionary and worked in a church, but they ventured out into some of the remote villages outside the capital -- including the one where the feeding center they support is located. Travel was not easy. One village they visited was only 15 to 20 miles away from the capital, but it took three hours on dirt roads to get there.
"The traffic was horrendous. It's like there are no traffic laws. There were few traffic signs and very little pavement. Most people rode motor scooters called 'motos,' " she added. "There were thousands of motos."
The villages themselves had no running water or electricity; the buildings were "mud huts" -- sometimes built with old pieces of scavenged tin or wood.
"It is the saddest thing I have ever seen in my life," she said.
Though she was reluctant at first, McKanna ate a brochette kebab in an outdoor restaurant in a remote village, and, much to her surprise, found it delicious.
It was in the small, remote, impoverished villages that McKanna came to respect and care about the people of Burkina Faso and to realize that her experience was changing her.
"All these little kids (were) around our feeding center ... and our missionary said, 'This is the hard part. These kids over here get to eat; these others don't.' I started bawling and asked, 'When do they get to eat?' And he said, 'When we get the money to feed them. We don't have the money to feed them all,' "McKanna recounted.
The children were orphans and had to eat what they could find. Though they were cared for by their relatives and the village as best they could, there was little food to go around for anyone.
"We started to play with them. They love to high five you. They had big smiles on their faces. It didn't bother them that they didn't get to eat, but all their little bellies (were extended). That was the saddest thing. I have heard of starvation, and their bellies get bloated. I had heard of it, but I had never seen it before. Their bellie buttons hung down, and the whites of their eyes were yellow and brown, because they have had malaria so many times," she said.
One little girl in particular touched her heart. Younger than many of the other children -- at most three years old -- she was terrified of the visitors. McKanna persisted in trying to make friends with her to no avail. Finally she took out her smart phone, took a picture of her and showed it to her saying, "That is you."
The little girl let McKanna pick her up.
"She just crawled into my arms, and it was like she was my best friend after that. She wasn't scared any more. She was the one that touched my heart the most. The bigger kids just loved us, they had big smiles on their faces, but she was scared of us. I made friends with her, and, after that, everyone was holding her," she recounted.
In another village, they conducted a church camp and vacation bible school. Afterwards, they intended to spend the night in the village on cots under mosquito nets, but a storm was approaching, so the people of the village had them sleep in the church -- a building with no door or glass in the windows. Rain poured down, and though they got a bit wet ,they were comfortable. Around 4:30 am, McKanna awoke to the sound of women praying outside. "They come every morning to pray for their families, their crops, and they thank the lord for what they have got. They have nothing, yet they are coming to the church at 4:30 in the morning. We were in their church, so they just knelt down and prayed outside, " she said.
Burkina Faso is 65 percent Muslim, and despite the religious conflict in the region, McKanna and her companions were able to visit a Muslim village and invite some Muslim women and children to attend Christian services that they were having.
McKanna was moved by the hard work of the people she encountered.
"The kids out in the villages work from sunup to sundown. The men plow with donkeys and old-timey plows," she said.
She was also moved by their kindness and even happiness in the face of such extraordinary hardship.
"The day we left there was military everywhere. I still never had any fear. All the people -- we stood out like sore thumbs -- would wave and smile," she remarked.
Before takeoff to come home, McKanna and the group underwent "aircraft disinsection." Airline personnel sprayed the inside of the aircraft -- and the passengers -- with insecticide to prevent the spread of zika and other insect-borne diseases -- one last experience outside her comfort zone.
Africa changed McKanna.
"I compare it to last year when I went to Disney World and on a cruise ... I tell you I would go to Africa again way before I would go to Disney World or on a cruise. It was one of the most rewarding things of my life," she reflected. "I would do this a million times over. I look at things a lot differently. I recently bought some lotions for $30.00, and I thought, 'Do I need these lotions?' That $30.00 could have fed a little child for a month. Until you see the poverty and the smiles on their faces ... it makes me want to feel content with what I have."