If one hundred people represented the world’s population, fifty-three of those would live on less than $2 a day. Do you realize that if you make $4000 a month, you automatically make ONE HUNDRED TIMES more than the average person on this planet?
Which is more messed up—that we have so much compared to everyone else, or that we don’t think we’re rich? That on any given day, we might flippantly call ourselves “broke” or “poor.” We are neither of these things.
Crazy Love, by Francis Chan
You know, I’ve learned a lot here. I’ve slowly built an arsenal of useful Kinyarwanda phrases (chore—to express surprise in a negative way; reka—kind of like, “you’ve got to be kidding me” or literally translated, “don’t touch me!”; and Imana yanjye—“oh my God!”), I’ve managed to understand how to put together a cohesive lesson plan, and if you needed a play-by-play of a Rwandan wedding, I’m your girl.
There’s a lot to master—to understand—but with each passing day I’m finding the most complex, disturbing, and heart wrenching question is that related to poverty. I get these beautifully supportive emails, messages, calls, and letters from loved ones that encourage and commend the job I am doing. More than I can say, I appreciate these. But what I don’t often talk about, explain, or try to put into words is the guilt, hypocrisy, and embarrassment I feel by living in a world surrounded by extreme poverty and being the RICH one.
It’s easier to tell funny stories about my students (like when Yazina commented on my blisters from my shoes: “teacher, the shoes for you eat your foot”), to share anecdotes about living in the village, or even what I’m doing on this or that weekend. These things are important but to share this experience fully, it has to be addressed on what it’s like to be a blatantly rich person in a place full of subsistence farmers, one-or-two room houses made from wood and mud, and with children, students, and young adults who are barely able to pay for school. My father saw this all first hand.
I saw the look (and shock) on his face when he saw my house. So. You live HERE. But as we went deeper into my community, into the homes’ of families and friends, he too realized that I live above the rest. I have paint, cement floors, electricity, and multiple rooms for only me. Pictures, knick knacks, and letters line my walls. Clothes are bursting at the seams of my makeshift dresser. I use a mosquito net, and now have two mattresses stacked together to keep me comfortable at night. And when people see all of this, they are only getting a small taste of where I come from.
From the American perspective and life experience that I am coming from, I suspect that many people might think that how I live (and where I live) is a life on the margins. My, what you have given up! And so, I feel like I straddle the line of two extremes.
My past is full of a university education, vacations to stunningly gorgeous places, multiple cars at different times, weekly trips to Starbucks, gym memberships, camps, my own room and space, microwaves and toasters, and summer jobs that gave me money to help with school, car insurance, or a few extra bucks to hit the cinema. I am so grateful to have had these things. It’s not that I don’t appreciate them. And, it’s not like I haven’t had to work hard for these things. More than anything, I’ve just so happened to have a great deal of blessings in my life: incredible parents, good neighborhoods, and a sound education system. But, these blessings are not to be taken for granted, I’m learning. Because it’s more than just the things, really. It’s the opportunity; it’s the way that I have been able to move through life.
I’m not trying to say that America doesn’t have poor people. God, no. Nearly every day, I have to explain to Rwandans that America indeed has poverty, poor people, and a lot of problems with homelessness, mental illness, and abuse. America is a rich country, absolutely. But, like I tell people, rich countries have poor people and poor countries also have rich people. Americans don’t have a free pass from economic hardship. But, let me be clear. Despite my experience working in homeless shelters, community centers, and transitional housing, I, myself, never had to wonder if I could go to school. I never had to question if food would be on the table. And, I never had to question if my basic needs would be met.
It’s just hard to reconcile my life with my current situation.
If I’m going to be completely honest here, a lot of times I get really pissed. At me? At the world? At God? Truthfully, I’m not quite sure.
I’ll talk to a student who can’t afford the 10 US dollars to pay school fees. I’ll talk to another student with this problem. And another. And another. And another. It really is never ending.
I’ll visit a Rwandan home with no belongings in sight.
I’ll be running with my IPOD plugged in and passing old women who are walking slowly with a stick, returning from market or from praying. Maybe they’re headed home—to cook, to fetch water, to clean. Maybe all three. I hope the water is clean today, I think.
I’ll give back a brown paper bag to my student who brought it to me because their family wanted to give me tomatoes for the week. I give it back after putting those ripe, red tomatoes in my food box because she needs it. Nothing is disposable here for many people, even a brown paper bag.
I’ll see a woman pay 100 RWF (Rwandan Francs; this amount is equal to about 15 cents or so) to buy phone credit immediately after I have just paid 2000 RWF just so I can chat up my friends for the evening.
A woman will tell me how their country is poor. And the best thing I can come up with to say is something along the lines of, “well, you have really good people.” Really, Heather? Really?
I get pissed because I just keep asking, WHY DOES THE WORLD WORK THIS WAY?
Maybe before you can probe this question, you have to first ask, why don’t people know?
And like I already noted, Americans aren’t immune. Poverty exists, thrives, and persists in America too. So why is it that if you happen to be comfortably getting by you can comfortably turn on the IPOD speakers at dinner time and tune it all out?
Why do I get to come home, even in my little village, and get on my computer and watch whatever TV show I want? All the while, my neighbors cook late into the evening, with the harvest from that day, with a small, fidgety petrol candle by their side.
I’m not free of these questions just because I happen to live in Rwanda. I’m 24 and afforded privilege, wealth, and education and I’m living in the midst of this problem and still feel like I’m doing nothing. Maybe that’s why I feel so darn guilty—I’m afraid I don’t know the answer. I don’t know what to do.
The best I’ve been able to muster is to treat my community members as equals. I try not to bring wealth into the equation. Often, the word poor isn’t even a descriptor I think of when I am describing the community I live among. I help where the outlets have been made known: through teaching, coaching, and friendship. But, is it enough? I do think we all have the power to change the world. But, what does that even look like? Am I doing enough? In a few years will all of this really matter to people who spend most of their hours in a day just making sure they can eat, bathe, and clean?
The rain has come and gone. I’m cozied up in a blanket, with my tea, computer, and pillow to rest my back as I sit on my treasured mat. I think the rain is probably going to come back. The thunder is rumbling treacherously, and somehow, I think that the storm has yet to clear. But, that’s okay by me. Two of my candles are flickering at a nearby table and I’m intentionally closing myself off. From the world, from these dark questions of why the world can be so messed up, from my job, from my stresses, from my doubts, from the mistakes that I make, and even from the probing mosquitos. Let the rain come. I’ll still be here.
A couple of hours ago, I realized after some journaling and chatting on the phone recapping my day that I needed space. But not the kind of space where I shut my door, throw on the latest episode of a TV show that I’m watching (these days, it’s Weeds), and zone out. I need to think but also rest my heart and mind.
I don’t need to ask if I’m doing enough because I can’t single-handedly figure out, process, or give the answer to the poverty in my village (or in the world, for that matter).
I have to say that, to write that, because I really need to believe that.
It still hurts all the same. I turned on one of my favorite songs that always brings my heart back to God and tried praying for a little while. I let the images of my friends, of my students, flash in my mind and tears came. What could they do if they weren’t poor?
And in a very beautiful way, in a very beautiful personal sort-of way I should say, I also came to realize that these very heartaches and questions are directly connected to WHY I believe in God. Here on Earth, there are all sorts of disparities, pain, diseases, issues, and inequalities. As humans, I think, it’s our job to do the best we can to minimize these, to support each other, and fit our strengths with the weaknesses of others (and vice versa) so that we are the best we can possibly be. We won’t be perfect. That’s just not going to happen. With God though, there’s more. With God, there’s grace. And there’s a deep love that He has for ALL PEOPLE. EACH AND EVERY ONE OF US. It doesn’t matter where you come from, what color you are, who you love, or the mistakes that you have made.
We’re equal in the eyes of God. And for all of those questions, for all the discomfort I feel, and for all the what ifs I ask when it comes to who has what, I believe that I have to continue to do what I can to help, but also to trust that our lives are in the hands of God.
At the Catholic Church this last Sunday, I watched a lot of women pray as the service ended. I’ve talked about this before, but it never fails to be splendidly moving. They pray with fervor, with conviction, with hope. And it helps me believe again. And to remember this equality that God so perfectly provides. He is the great provider. For now, that is enough. I can rest in that. No, the answer is that I’m not enough. But, He is.
Come to the water
You who thirst and you’ll thirst no more
Come to the Father
You who work and you’ll work no more
And all you labor in vain
And to the broken and shamed
Love is here, love is now, love is pouring from His hands from His brow
Love is near, it satisfies
Streams of mercy flowing from his side, because love is here
Come to the treasure
You who search and you’ll search no more
Come to the lover
You who want and you’ll want no more
And all you labor in vain
And to the broken and shamed
And to the bruised and fallen
Captives bound and broken hearted
He is the Lord
“Love is Here” –Tenth Avenue North