Monday, September 27, 2010

Good Intentions that Hurt

I am the woman that lives in what you call a third world country. I am everywhere. In the villages of Guatemala, Haiti, Ghana, Uganda. In the slums of India, Cambodia, Honduras, even parts of China. Yes, I am poor, but I take pride in the work that I do, sitting here all day in this market or on the side of the road. You come here for reasons I am not sure of, haggling until there is barely a profit left to be made on the few things you may purchase to bring home to show to your family and friends. Sometimes you come here just to take pictures of the filth. Proof that you were on a mission trip and your eyes have seen how the less fortunate around the world lives. Trash overflows dumpsters into the streets. You stare at where we cook our food to sell and whisper to your friend in a language that I cannot understand, but I know what you say. "I would never eat that. Look at how disgusting it is. Look at how dirty they are."

You walk by barely noticing me. I am sitting here waiting for what may be my only sale of the day or week or month. We have clothes here and shoes and everything else you could need. Do you need soap, shampoo, socks? Pencils, fruit, maybe a belt? I am one of many that sit here every day trying to sell these much needed items to people in my village. The only problem is they do not have the money buy them which leaves me with no money to provide for my own family. You snap a few more photos, make a few more comments, smile at me with pity and go about your day, forgetting that I even exist. No sale today.

At the end of the day, I walk miles across rough terrain to my home. The roof is caving in. The floors are made of dirt. And it is cold and raining tonight. My six children are hungry and as I look into their eyes to tell them that there is no food today, I wonder where you are sleeping tonight and how good it must feel to be able to feed your children every day. "Maybe tomorrow," I tell them, but they know as well as I do that tomorrow may be no different.

I see you again the next day, riding by in your large, comfortable bus. Now I know what you are doing here. You aren't just a tourist, you are here to help. My people thank God for you every day because we do need help, but not the kind you think we need. You think you know this country well. You think that we need basic supplies and you are right, we do! But what you do not understand is that we already have all that we need right here. You were so kind to hold that drive for clothes and shoes, for Tylenol and vitamins, for pencils and notebooks and I know you worked so hard organizing it all. I wonder what village will be blessed by your efforts today?

The bus begins to slow and comes to a stop within feet of my stand. Your team piles out with their matching shirts and they are so happy to be there, ready to serve in any way they can. But while you are unloading boxes upon boxes, my heart sinks. So does the heart of every other person working around me.

You begin to open boxes and pull out piles of clothes, hundreds of pairs of shoes and hygiene products galore. You only see the thankfulness that comes from the hearts of those that you are distributing to, but are blinded to their shame. My people do not want handouts. Would you? What we want is to work, to make money to support our families. Not once or twice a year distributions from people that pity us.

With every shirt that leaves your hand, a sale is taken from mine. With every pair of shoes that you happily give away, my child goes hungry for another day. With every box of crayons that you pass out, my children are less likely to be able to attend school. With every handout comes more shame and more poverty than you can begin to imagine.

We want you to know that we thank you for remembering us. Like I said, we do need help, but are you willing to listen and learn about what we really need? I am no expert. I never even attended school, but I know that what we need is not people giving handouts. We need people that are willing to walk with us, helping us lift ourselves out of poverty and I assure you that handouts are not the way to do it. I have lived this for so long already.

I watch people go through your line all day and as the sun begins to set, I close my little shop knowing that because you gave away every thing that I have for sale, I will not make a cent for weeks, possibly months, to come. What will I do? How will I feed my children? What will I tell my family? As I walk by, you smile that same pitiful smile. You are exhausted, but feeling very good about your work for the day as the weight of the world falls on my shoulders.

After I wrap my children in damp blankets tonight and watch them fall asleep, I kneel in the dirt outside my door and pray that I will not have to send them out to work on the streets or make the decision to leave them at the orphanage that is in the next village over. But if something doesn't change, that is what will happen. I lived through this as a child and I wanted a better life for my kids, but I guess this cycle will never end. Not this way.

As I lay my head down for the night, I wonder if you ever thought about what would happen if you had purchased all of the items that you wanted to give us right here? What would happen is this cycle, with consistency, would begin to end.

If you purchased from me some of those items, I would have been able to purchase food for my family tonight from the next vendor over and she would have been able to purchase school supplies from our neighbor so her daughter could go to school. Our neighbor would have been able to hire a taxi to drive him to the city to learn more about a new skill that would increase his income and that taxi driver would have been able to repay his brother the money that he owes. His brother would have been able to buy medicine for his sick son and that guy that works in the pharmacy may not have been laid off. The number of lives you would have touched for far longer than those supplies will last would amaze you.

That is a cycle that I could live with. That is our dream come true. We just want to work and take care of our families. You could help us with that. Maybe one day you will understand...

In the meantime another day begins. I watch as my sister makes the hardest decision of her life. Since her husband's tragic death, she can no longer care for their children. There is no income because she has no skills and no access to any type of training. She is forced to leave them at the orphanage just so they will be able to eat. They do not understand what is happening. The children that you will call orphans and add to that horrible statistic just want their mother. They do not want to leave their country or their family to be adopted by you. They don't care what kind of life you can offer. They just want to stay with their mother, be able to eat and go to school. They want to grow up with their siblings and make a better life for themselves together. You could help them with that, but I wonder if you would prefer to save a child from such a miserable existence in an orphanage than to help reunite them with the family that loves them and the family that they love so much. I wonder if you would consider helping this family out of poverty so they could stay together and begin to thrive instead of removing the children from the only life they have ever known because you think they would be better off in a wealthy family.

In the end, we are one and the same. I just happened to be born in a country overwhelmed with poverty, full of despair and griped by injustice. I am what you call poor and oppressed. You claim to love my children with all of your heart and you are willing to do whatever it takes to give them a better life. You want to help, but what you don't get is that because of your good intentions, we will remain poor and oppressed.

And the cycle continues....

Unless something drastic happens.

When you begin to see beyond the child that lives in the orphanage and dig deep into the reason she is there. When you look into his eyes and see not just his life, but the life of his children and his grandchildren. When you realize that without serious intervention that goes beyond clothes and shoes and toiletries, you will still be working with the same children twenty years from now (if they survive that long), their children and possibly their grandchildren. And when you begin to understand that so many children that live in orphanages around the world still have families that love and want them, they simply cannot take care of them, your perspective may begin to change.

There is only so much that a bar of soap can do and a wet blanket is worthless under a roof that is almost non-existent. A bag of food only lasts so long, that Polo shirt becomes very thin quickly with every day wear and those shoes are not going to last long. Until we realize and accept that relief is not the answer in areas that require development (which is most of the world), we will get nowhere. And the more dependency we create, the more problems we cause for the world.


arm said...

Wow! Powerful! This is such an easy concept that could really make a difference for the rest of people's lives.


Rebecca said...

Great post Terry. The Lord has surely given you clarity as you have walked in PN, listened to the hearts of those that call PN home and researched poverty, charity, and development.
Our good intentions are no good when they hurt those we are intending to help. It's not about us at all.
Thanks for your boldness!