Thursday, August 06, 2009

Poverty up Close

Coming back from a walk, just before we got to the compound, we met a woman who was almost crying. She wore a pretty skirt, and a torn and dirty t-shirt with a jacket over it, and clutched a letter in Amharic. She had no shoes. She did not speak Amharic, so Ruth asked her to come with us so she could find a translator. Just before the gate, we found Kebede, who helped us speak to her. The woman said she was from the country, and her husband died, leaving her with four children and no home. She gave the youngest child, a girl, to an orphanage. She desperately wanted to keep her other children, but the person with whom they were living had said they needed to get out of his house. She came to Soddo to find work, and had not found any. Tears came down her face as she spoke of her children. Ruth asked if she was involved in a church and she said she had been Catholic, but now was in a new church, that could not help. We gave her 14 birr, and I gave her my shoes (which I had planned to give away anyway) and an avocado, and Ruth told her to return Monday and talk with the pastors at the hospital compound.

On Monday, I was with the kids, returning from a walk to the trash incinerator, and Ruth called to me, “Heidi, behind you is the woman wearing your shoes!” I turned to see her and she began to kiss me and hug me. I introduced her to my children. Just then, Kebede walked up and was able to translate for me. I told her that these were my children, and I loved them very much. I told her that the person in who adopted her little girl would also love her deeply and take good care of her. She smiled and hugged me—then Ruth took her to see the pastors.

Alden and I talked after we met this woman. Her story touched his heart, and we talked about his birth parents, and wondered if they might have been in a similar situation to this lady. “Does that mean my mom and dad are dead now?” he asked. He often wants to know if they are dead. I said I did not know; that all I did know is that they did not want to let him go because they loved him, but something made them have to let him go. And, his new Daddy and I would NEVER let him go, because we are not in a sad situation like what we see here.

That evening, Ruth and I talked about fatalism in the culture. Most people here won’t name their children until they have been alive one week. And, in Amharic, the way you express sickness is to say, “the cold got me.” Ruth has challenges with the nurses when she wants them to try and save a child they feel is going to die. They do not seem to want to fight for life. For instance, if a child should not be laid on his back, but rather inclined, so the lungs don’t fill up or the child does not swallow vomit, they won’t do it, because children are to lie flat for three months. Period. If they die, then God wanted to take them.

This mindset affects the HIV discussion as well. It is extremely difficult to convince people that they can live a normal life if they have HIV. Ruth attended a HIV training, and there was a long discussion among the Ethiopians about whether or not to tell a patient they had HIV. The final decision was, yes, even though it is very hard for the doctor to have to say such a hard thing to someone, they should do it.

One evening, we invited Mebrat, a woman who works at the Mossy Foot organization, to eat with us. Mossy Foot is a type of Elephantitis, basically caused by walking barefoot. Silicone gets into the feet and then into the lymph system, blocking it and causing the disease.

I remembered her from January of 2006, and eventually she remembered me, too. I asked her how she learned English. She made the comment that people’s story, or history, is a message. I like this idea and we asked her to tell her ‘message’.

Her mom, Dakeeta, became a Christian because she met missionaries from the SIM Tera Peiza compound in Otona. She got married and had seven girls and three boys. Then, her sister died and she took in her niece. Their small grass house was overcrowded with kids, and they were desperately poor. Often, they didn’t have enough food. When Mebrat, whose name means “light,” and her siblings were really hungry, her mom would tell them to go to sleep, and God would come during the night and feed them. She said she would wake up wondering if God fed her during the night.

She had one dress a year, no underwear or bra. She learned to cook full meals by the age of six, and was required to carry younger siblings when she was five—she didn’t like this job. The first time she had shoes, she was in seventh grade. Once, her gym teacher told her to buy pants for gym class. She told him that her father couldn’t buy them because they were poor, but he said that was no excuse, and beat her when she came to class in just her dress.

She remembered her mother crying to God night after night for food. Then, one day, a man from Australia came way out to their home and “right to our door”. The man took one of her brothers in and gave some of her sisters’ work. He paid for their pencils and notebooks so they could stay in school. Her mom was convinced that God sent him to save the family. And, thanks in large part to this man, Mebrat now has a job and can speak wonderful English, and has just completed her first year of study in Human Resource Management.

Update on the woman who has my shoes. She went to the orphanage today and tried to give away the remaining three of her children. She ended up only give the youngest two, the previous given daughter and her four year old daughter. Ruth treated her youngest daughter, at the hospital yesterday. She has malaria—poor baby. It makes me wonder if the rest of the family has it as well. Ruth and I are trying to figure out how to help this woman, and it’s really challenging. She basically needs a job. But, there are not many jobs, and they pay so little. She needs a home and a job, but Ruth is already supporting so many people, and she hears these sorts of stories almost every single day. I think of Hanna, too, and the stories she hears, and I just wonder what we can do.

The other night Ruth and I talked about helping and how to think about helping. She wants to go soon to this area in Zale, called Gamo Gofa, in the deep South. Ruth does a medical clinic there. It is terribly poor, and about one in ten people have huge goiters. Even the children have them. Evidently, they don’t get enough iodine in their diets. A professor Ruth knows gave a group of similarly affected people iodized salt, and people became healthy, and also more fertile. The increase in the number of children put too much strain on the available food supply, and people began to starve.

I saw a dead child today. He was covered, except his forehead, and lay in front of his mother, who was begging at the side of the road for money to bury him. Ermias asked me to take some photos, which I did. And, I gave her some money, and cried, and prayed for her.

We also saw a huge group of people wailing at the hospital because a young girl died after drinking an entire bottle of poison. Usually, they just drink a small amount, more to get attention, and then they can be helped, but though the doctor tried all night, he could not save this girl.

Poverty and death are up close here.

Today, here at the compound my older kids were helping loading large bags of rice on to 4x4 trucks. There was a container of rice and some other food shipped here from California, and is being distributed through a church in Otona, pastored by a man named Paulo.

Getting food to the hungry is the always to be commended and I am thankful for all the people that made this happen. I wonder if there is a better way than this. It took six weeks of work to get the container organized, and to set up the distribution network. They also had to negotiate with the hospital for storage space, and this week the hospital was trying to get everything out so they could get their space back. All this was on top of two people spending three days and lots of money in the capital trying to get the container out of customs (they also watched the customs agents burn all the used clothing—some of it new, but with tags removed—the country does not allow NGOs to bring in used clothes). The food in the container was not what the people here are used to preparing or eating. There was a lot of rice, quick oats, and cans of mac and cheese. The nutrition level was relatively low for what it was and the amount of money and energy used to get it here is high. The dozens of people involved in the container process have done a wonderful thing and I want to commend them--not be critical of the work, but I wonder if buying local food that is high in nutrients, like teff and lentils, would be a better use of funds. Right now, anyone with money can buy food at the markets—but if more people were buying could the supply keep up with the demand?

But, in my experience, it is so challenging to get Americans to give money rather than things. I wonder how to motivate people to get behind money projects rather than giving stuff. Could lots of photos or video updates work better? Still, the time needed for this is intensive. I think it would be motivating to get personal emails and see photos of the place where the teff is purchased, for instance, and the distribution of the food and so forth, to really connect the donors individually with the project. In my opinion, it needs to be done in a more personal way than, say, the Compassion newsletter. That means more manpower and more money spent on the administration. Ugh. Hard questions.

My thoughts circle and circle. What is helping? What is hurting? How much can and should one person from “outside” do, and what truly helps people raise themselves out of poverty?

Sneaths in Ethiopian Trees

The kids are really enjoying climbing trees. They also like to do their reading assignments in the trees. Zion has scraped her knee once, but, so far that is the only injury.