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.