Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Brutally honest

A few weeks back I was playing with Ashlynn upstairs and heard commotion across the street.  I look out the windows to find the bamboo fences and bamboo and mud shelters in the squatters community being torn down and burned.  There were a few trucks collecting the corrugated metal roofing that was being torn off the homes.   Women and children were standing back watching their shelters being destroyed.   What I later found out from my driver and my guard was that the government owned land had allowed a squatters community to live on the property for some time.  Apparently there was an agreement that no more building would take place.  If this deal was kept the squatters could live there.  "Moon houses" were being built (when people come at night and build by the light of the moon to evade government noticing the new housing).  Officials got word and came to tear down some of the homes and give notice to the rest of the community that they had three months to find a new area to live before the government took the land back.  The idea that squatters land could be at any point reclaimed by the Ethiopian government is not news to the Ethiopian people.  They try to build quietly and hide their villages with grass and tree covered bamboo fences.  It disguises the size of the communities.  I've seen my fair share of poverty stricken squatters villages.  Our entire experience overseas thus far has been in a poor SE Asian country and now an even poorer African country.

I managed to live in Manila, Philippines for three years, spouting off the term "third world country" more than I'd like to admit (mostly blaming anything I didn't like on Manila's third-worldness) without ever really understanding what being characterized a third-world country really meant.  It was easy to escape Manila's third-worldness. If I felt glum about the poor barrios next door I'd drown my sorrows in a Krispy Kreme doughnut and the sale racks at Zara in Power Plant or Greenbelt or Glorietta or any of the other gazillion shopping malls in Manila.  If I wanted to, I could ignore the things about our home that made it a third world country.  To be quite honest, ignoring Manila became much of how I got through my three years in the Philippines, now that I think about it.

Now we are settling in to life in Ethiopia.  I'm struggling a bit since I'm hitting that low point about 6 months in to our tour.  I'm struggling partly because Addis Ababa, Ethiopia doesn't let me ignore that it's truly a third world country.  Manila might have prepared me for life overseas in a poor country but it did not prepare me for the true third-worldness that I'm experiencing here.  There are no shopping malls.  There are no areas of town you can drive to and feel like you've escaped the poverty.  There is just plain and simple, no escaping it.  It is impossible to ignore the desperation and hunger in the people's faces as we pass in our car.  Deformities, malnutrition, blindness, elephantiasis, amputees, and homeless begging people of all ages line the streets and make it very difficult to look away.  The hardest for me are the nursing mothers and women with small children living on the streets. The children have bugs in their hair and green oozing from their noses. When it rains some of the women have a large shawl or piece of fabric that allows them to cover their infants from the elements.  It's heartbreaking and unnerving at the same time.

So I looked up what it meant to be a third world. The explanation below describes the Philippines and Ethiopia.  What I am learning is that there is very different levels of third-worldness.  Some third world countries have Louis Vitton boutiques and others don't even come close.

"the concept of the third world serves to identify countries that suffer from high infant mortality, low economic development, high levels of poverty, low utilization of natural resources, and heavy dependence on industrialized nations.These are the developing and technologically less advanced nations of Asia, Africa, Oceania, and Latin America. Third world nations tend to have economies dependent on the developed countries and are generally characterized as poor with unstable governments and having high rates of population growth, illiteracy, and disease. A key factor is the lack of a middle class—with impoverished millions in a vast lower economic class and a very small elite upper class controlling the country’s wealth and resources. Most third world nations also have a very large foreign debt." (What makes a nation third world? from Encyclopedia of World Geography)


I spent most of that day looking out our second and third floor balcony windows, which provided me now an unobstructed view of this tiny little village of huts across the street (thanks to the men who tore down the makeshift fence). Dark thunder clouds rolled in and soon heavy rains poured down on the bruised village. I came in for shelter and watched the village get soaked and muddy from rain. Sadness and a complicated mixture of anger and relief washed over me periodically.  After dinner the girls and I spent the last hour before bath time playing outside, sitting in the grass and talking to Teklu.  He explained to me that the government officials had gone through and torn down some of the unauthorized housing but left one where a single young woman and her two day old baby were living.  They were warned that they needed to move but it seems even the sternest Ethiopian officials had hearts enough not to throw this poor girl out of her shelter two days postpartum.

I couldn't see straight after hearing this news.  Two days ago, not 40 paces from my front door, a young woman gave birth in a bamboo mud hut. I waited until the black spots on the periphery of my vision disappeared and then went into a frenzy grabbing stacks of newborn clothing I had set aside for donation, cloth diapers, my nursing shirts and bras, baby blankets, newborn hats and socks, and some of my comfortable old clothing for the mother.  I stuffed it all in a few bags and asked Tecklu if he knew how to located the mother and the newborn.  He knew exactly where to find them.

Justin came home from work, I passed Ashlynn to her Daddy and took off; bags in hand following Tecklu across the street and then through a short muddy path that led to the shelter.  I gingerly tiptoed through muddy branches and leftover bamboo support beams from the torn down fences and homes.  Within a few short steps we reached the opening of one small hut with an open space for the door.  It was evening and the sky was dark with clouds. There was no electricity of course so the inside of the hut was dark.  Tecklu introduced me to the women and children inside.  The space was about the size of our large bathroom and housed three or four women with toddlers.  On the right side of the space was a sheet draped from the ceiling.  We explained that the bags were full of warm clothing, diapers and blankets for the baby and mother.  The older woman directed my attention to the hanging sheet.  The new mother carefully sat up and peered out to say thank you.  She was young and glowing from new motherhood but with weary tired eyes.  She picked up a tiny bundle of blankets and presented me her newborn.  It was a tiny baby boy.  A beautiful little sleeping face. So tiny and perfect.  I didn't want to intrude on their privacy any longer so Tecklu and I said our goodbyes as the women thanked me profusely for the gifts.  As quick as we had entered this other world, we exited and walked back through the mud and grass, across the street and through the door at our gate.  Tecklu thanked me as if the child was his own.  I walked straight to our laundry room and removed my muddy shoes and unsuccessfully held back the tears that had been welling in my eyes.  I walked inside our house and could hear the bath and bedtime routine starting.  The bath water running, the girls giggling and Justin helping everyone get ready for bed.

The idea that the woman had given birth in the tiny damp dirty hut had me bawling.  So many things were running through my head as I cried. The realization that the only thing that separates my world from the woman and infant in the mud hut is a bit of pavement and a dirt path.  We're neighbors but we might as well be living on different planets (different planes of existence may be more accurate).  Happiness knowing the infant could be wrapped in warm blankets during the rainy cold nights.   A baby was born just a few hundred feet from my children's world of abundance yet he will experience none of the same in his own life.  It all seemed so unfair and made me immediately feel guilty. The bags of clothing felt insignificant.  I cried for the baby boy and the mother.  I cried for my ignorance.  I cried out of thanks for the comfortable life my family and I have been blessed with.

Seeing my damp read eyes, Justin inquired if I was alright.  I lied and said I was.  I scooped Ashlynn in my arms and snuggled her soft warm body, breathing in her sweet scent.  I herded the girls in to the bathroom and gave them warm baths one by one.  Suddenly I saw the warm water as a gift, their soft warm towels and pajamas all extravagances and at the same time basic necessities.  Their toothbrushes and night light; everything seemed so big, bright and clean.  I nursed Ashlynn in her bedroom and put her to sleep in her own warm dry bed and went downstairs to finish Addie and Bella's bed time routine.  I looked out the window towards the mud hut where the tiny infant lie.  I felt like I had floated through the bedtime routine viewing it from the eyes of the young Ethiopian mother.  I was embarrassed and shocked. We have so much.  We have so many things that we take for granted.  Across the street the mother and baby were most likely sleeping since it was dark outside. I felt terrible for complaining about the smelly exhaust fumes from our generator that runs when our electricity goes out.  I hated having to flip the breaker for the hot water heater in the girls' bathroom every day. We have running water!  My complaints seemed beyond ridiculous at this point.

Over the past few weeks I've thought a lot about that evening I met the new baby across the street.  It's the moment when I faced Ethiopia with my eyes open.  It was the first time I'd seen Ethiopia and I'd allowed myself to recognize the poverty that is occurring everywhere here. My neighbors are struggling.  Ethiopia's third worldness is knocking on my front door.  It's not something I can escape from and I can't ignore it.  Sometimes I see some of the women washing their clothing across the street in the grass as we pull out our drive way.  I wave and they wave back with big smiles on their faces.  I see the baby clothing hanging to dry and it makes me happy to know they are using some of the things I gave them.  I mostly think about the baby boy and if he's thriving and nursing well.  I hope the mother is healing quickly and getting enough nutrition.

Mulling over this experience has been challenging for me.  It's forced me to face my feelings honestly and ask myself how far would I go to help?  What am I willing to do?  Now I have a personal reference to the disgusting disparity between my family and the struggling Ethiopian families all over this country.  It's not pleasant to view oneself with brutal honesty. The faults that arise aren't very nice to admit.  As much as I feel miserable about  the poverty I saw, I am every bit as much relieved that it isn't my family living in a bamboo mud hut.  I feel frightened and my protective mothering instincts kick in.  I want to shield my children from what is happening in third world countries.  I want to shelter their eyes from the sick and malformed.  I loath my honest feelings about the raw humanity that poverty exposes and what that ultimately says about me as a human.

If I'm being completely and utterly honest with myself, I don't entirely like what I see.  I feel guilty and gluttonous.  The mixed emotions of feeling, but not wanting to feel superior is an ugly mental place to be.  A part of me wishes I could take back the knowledge and the visceral experience of feeling the damp hut, hearing the small children whimpering, and smelling coals burning under the small pot of tea that was inside.  My senses won't forget.  Poverty is such a foreign concept for most of us. It was for me. It's easy to give money to charity to help end world hunger and another thing entirely to live next door to it.

What am I willing to do?  How much would I give?  How close will I allow poverty to touch me and my family?  I don't have answers to these questions yet. I'm feeling paralyzed with how to even begin tackling these questions. But it has opened up the conversation.  The people we have working for us in our home need our help too.  We chose to help those closest to us in the Philippines and we'll do the same here as well.  I can't save everyone but I can help a few.

Small things can change someone's life in significant ways.  I know that's what happened to me that rainy evening a few weeks ago when my shoes got muddy and my heart and head got a little muddled.  

20 comments:

Becca said...

wow, that was amazing. I have to share this post.

Kathleen said...

Thanks for posting about this experience. I think we all need a reminder of just how truly blessed we are. Your Ethiopian neighbors will also be immensely blessed by the sweet, generous woman that has moved into their neighborhood.

My brother is leaving in a month for a mission trip to Ethiopia. He will be drilling a water well in conjunction with Living Water at an orphanage (I think) in a village about 5-6 hours outside Addis Ababa. It's eye opening to think that this village will be forever grateful for clean water when I complain when our hot water heater runs out. But by the grace of God go I...

Nomads By Nature said...

Encounters with real people in real situations are brutal and beautiful. That yours was in an impoverished country you are only getting to know, makes it that much harder to navigate. Follow your heart, like you did that night. You will find ways to connect and possibly help. Write about those moments and teach all you read your blog. The humanity is that it could be any of us in those circumstances of need. The humility is that we, in places of privilege, are no more deserving. Trust your heart and bless you for sharing such a brutally honest moment.

Melinda Renee said...

*speechless*sniffle*sniffle*

Sunny said...

Sara, I know and don't envy the dilemma you are in. You are faced with true poverty and an opportunity to experience a chance to really make a life changing difference. It hurts but in the end you will totally be blessed for having your eyes open.

Emily said...

Thank you for this post. I don't have words, but thank you.

Sara said...

These comments are so nice. Thank you! Sometimes being honest with yourself isn't pretty but healthy in a green tea cleansing sort of way. I skim the surface of myself for too long and it's good to dive deeper. Experiences like this one are what living overseas is all about right? It's what I wanted to feel but when it comes down to it the experience is much more raw than I could have imagined.

Sarah said...

I LOVE this posting... your brutal honesty reflects how, I think, most of us feel. We want to help those who need help, and yet we want to shield our little ones from what poverty is and does to others. What we have and how we live is a gift, and I think it is good to be reminded just how LUCKY we are in different ways. All of these "things" are necessary in life, but they are nice to have and nice to be able to afford them. Thank you for sharing this experience with me and others, and reminding us just how lucky and blessed our lives truly are. :)

Daniela Swider said...

Thank you for sharing your experience! I have been struggling with similar feelings since our recent arrival here in India. I have seen so many people that need help. And it is the mothers and young children that truly break my heart. I intentionally sent our kids old clothes, books and toys in our HHE because I knew there is crushing poverty here and those items are more needed here than in the US. It is hard to figure out what to do with your feelings but I am glad you are writing about it. Perhaps it will help you find peace and decide how you want to move forward. You have a big heart and that's awesome. Perhaps it's not an accident that you are where you are at this time...

Danielle said...

You had me in tears by the end of this post. You're writing is wonderful, no wonderful is not strong enough a word. Thanks for sharing this, in all the complexity.

Heather P. said...

I was in tears halfway through your post. You have such a big heart for your family and those around you. I know your heart is heavy with your experiences in Ethiopia, and I will be praying for you and those around you.

Heather P. said...

I shared this post with my in-laws and sister-in-law who recently took mission trips to Ethiopia. I wanted to share my father-in-law's response: This post from Sara was moving, honest and so real. The contrast from opposite sides of a street is so immense in Ethiopia. I find myself like Sara at times, seeing all that we as professing Christians have and yet "saying" the words of "love your neighbor as yourself". Are not these Ethiopian's our neighbor? And many of these suffering people are Christian brothers and neighbors. It is a struggle to know what to do and how to respond. But one thing I did learn while in Ethiopia from those who work in this environment daily is "make a difference with those that are right in front of you". To try and "fix" it all is impossible in every aspect. From reading what Sara said it is very evident she will make a difference in the lives of those around her.

Sara said...

I love hearing that people are sharing this with their friends and family and telling me about people's reactions. My favorite comment so far is from my Mom, who told me it was provocative and made her think! Gotta love it when you can make your own Mama contemplate life! Thanks for sharing this everyone!

Jill said...

Wow ... such eloquence about a topic that is, for lack of a better word, ugly.

Sadie said...

I am just now reading this post, and 'wow' is the word that comes to mind. I like what Nomads said - "Encounters with real people in real situations are brutal and beautiful." That sums up what I am thinking/feeling after reading this. It makes me reflect on the time I spent volunteering at an orphanage in South Africa, where I felt like no matter how much I gave - time, effort, love, money, food, clothes - it wasn't enough to ease the pain of poverty. But what you did was something tangible and very needed. So glad you've been able to watch the baby boy grow older! Keep on being you!

ericajgreen said...

Thank you. This is a wonderful post.

Marti said...

Hi Sara,This is how the third world country lives...there are people who struggle to eat once a day and others play with food(like the one in the WIPE OUT !)Leaving in the US for the last two years,I see how unfair we humans are.There are children's who are starving and dying,and thee are others with too much extravagance life.I am not saying why do they have everything, But I think we need to teach them to exchange excess luxury to something that can save other humans.Otherwise the world is going to be the worest place to live in.After all we are all going to die .BTW thank you for your honest posts.

Greg Kennedy said...

Just remember Sara; you can't save the world, just learn how to embrace it. Once you learn how to go native, it’s much easier to enjoy the developing country that you’re living in. You’ll never understand this world through white, upper middle class eyes. Ethiopia has a lot of history, culture and good food, so you can start there.
When I worked in the Philippines I would visit some interesting places while traveling around the countryside. I traveled around Luzon, north of Manila and would embrace the culture and the food. Showing respect to their customs went a long way and helped get me adopted by the folks I was working with. It was nice to get back to the New World Hotel though for a hot shower and then a nice meal across the street at the Greenbelt.
One thing I did while I was down there was put girls through college. At $300 a semester for four semesters they could get a degree and have a better chance at a new life. $1200 for a degree and I did that eight times. Whether it was nursing, teaching or hotel management, they would have a better life. It’s a man’s world in the third world, so I helped a few get a better chance to a better future. 100% of my donation went for the cause. If you just help the young mother a little bit with food, shelter and perhaps an education, it’s more than most people do in a life time.
Now I’m in Djibouti and it’s even worse. I thought the Philippines was bad, but this place is terrible. I was going to try to set up a program to provide shelter and a safe place for single mothers and the street kids. After looking into this, it looked like a good project for USAID. I didn’t have enough spare time to make it work.
I haven’t been back to the U.S. for some time and have learned to live in these austere conditions. Remember, for these people to live in a squatter village is the norm. There are people who have lived in Refugee Camps their entire lives over here in Africa. They don’t know what it’s like to have a down comforter on their king size bed, a fireplace in the living room in a 4 bedroom 3 bath house. And, now they’re having kids of their own.
One thing I’ve noticed is that the people in these environments have embraced just living an existence or living to die. They wake up, clean and then cook breakfast. Then gather around in a group and talk, smoke shisha, chew khat for most of the day. They do this day after day after day. You can’t force them to be motivated, get an education or work. In these places, people sometimes have kids so they can send them out to beg or even worse, to sell into Human Trafficking.
I’ve definitely become more of a minimalist because of experiencing this type of environment. I help when I can, but I don’t feel guilty when I don’t.

loni r said...

I am sorry about your sad experience with the poverty in Ethiopia.

Are there any middle class people in Ethiopia or are all the people living in huts?

Lindsay said...

I remember experiencing something like that internal dilemma whenever we would drive out from the sheraton hotel parking lot in Addis. From opulence to severe hardship in a moment's time. Lucky for me, I wasn't yet a mother - I didn't have the burden of a mother's perspective and knowledge - the tender love you have for your children and your fierce instinct to care for and protect them. You are brave and strong and have a good heart. I appreciate this post. I interned there with an NGO for five months and I hoped I would always bring my family back one day. I'm sure if that day comes it will also bring lots of reckoning and emotional struggle.