To start: I’ve had a lot of thoughts brewing on this for a while. That and I don’t think I’ll ever stumble on any definitive answers. In any case I might as well share my thoughts and open my journey up to the world. It’s always better to talk about these things than keep them to yourself.
I don’t really know where to start, or how to end this. But then again that’s so much like the subject matter that it seems fitting. I guess it really jumped to the forefront of my mind with the introduction of various contrasting factors. There’s an obvious and stark contrast between life on the ship and life on land. It’s very much like stepping out of first-world America every time you leave the ship, but that contrast doesn’t bother me so much.
Perhaps it’s my own inability to really separate the two, but it doesn’t shock me. It’s probably the sheer magnitude and world-to-world difference between ship life and anything else I’ve ever experienced. Life on the ship takes processing of its own to comprehend in the end. Somehow it doesn’t really give me pause to think.
But I have seen great contrast between the rich and poor of Sierra Leone. There is great wealth here. Don’t be too fooled. This country is full of natural resources and ingenuitive people; Sierra Leoneans will tell you as much themselves. There are plenty of hard-working men and women around here. The sheer number of street vendors can attest to that. They crowd the roads so much you wind up in regular, low-speed games of chicken if you try to drive anywhere. It’s usually the vendors that win in the end.
An auction was thrown for us by a very large regional bank the other week. This was just on the heels of the President of Sierra Leone’s visit, which probably added to the feel of the event. Some of the wealthiest people from the region came to support Mercy Ships. The bank itself funded the whole thing and hosted it on the ship. What was most moving about it was that in the end, through the auction and straight donations, we raised a substantial amount of money from Africans themselves. It’s not every day you have Africans giving to outside organizations out of their own pockets to support their people.
What left me wondering wasn’t that. I was genuinely moved by the show of support and the gratitude that was extended us. But what keeps me from settling is the stuff I see on the streets here every day and the contrast the auction drew. I haven’t posted many photos from in town, largely because I hate lugging a camera around like a tourist. It’s also regularly frowned upon to take photos of people here.
But take one scene from the market last week. We were buying produce and some birthday supplies for a friend. It’s actually a fairly well stocked, modern supermarket. Not Safeway-nice inside, but certainly has a small town mom and pop feel to it. Outside are all of the ladies selling produce. They don’t want photos taken, I discover (after I’d taken a few).
But just feet away, in the middle of the road, are three guys on crutches. All of them are missing a leg. And they’re digging in the road with their crutches. They’re pulling up chunks of clay and dirt from a pothole and placing them in a black wheelchair. And I wonder to myself, what the heck is going on here? First of all, it doesn’t make any sense any way you put it. There are easier ways to dig for clay than with crutches, and there are probably a million better places to do it than the middle of a busy street. But those kinds of images are normal here. And if it doesn’t make much sense to you as you read this WHY I’m writing about it, then good. You’re on the same track I must be on.
Because I don’t understand it. I feel like I’m suffering cognitive dissonance.
I had a caddy for the first time in my life here when we played golf last month. The golf course is a lot of fun, though you’re playing on perpetual rough. That and the greens aren’t green, they’re brown. Literally brown: a combination of sand and oil smoothed out to make a putting surface. It’s course rules that you have to have a caddy, and since it’s only something like $4US there’s not really much to argue about.
But it was weird. First because my entire life I’ve only ever carried my own clubs. And having someone watching your every move and make comments about everything you do can be unnerving. Second, I was rich for a day.
I’ve never been rich, ever. If anything we definitely grew up on the lower side of middle-class, even if I was totally oblivious to the fact. There are cool stories associated with growing up about God’s provision: checks in the mailbox of the same amount as the outstanding bill. That sort of story. But I’ve never had anything. I’ve always been, well… poor.
I’ve never thought of myself as such until more recently; like I said, I’ve been kind of oblivious to the world. But having a caddy that makes something on the range of $5/day puts things in a whole new light. We had a lot in common: we obviously both love golf, we’re the same age, and we got along swimmingly. But his life is so vastly different than mine.
He has a wife and a daughter. She’s thinking of leaving him, his wife, and he’s not so sure that’s a bad thing. She’s not very pretty, he says. He’s working two jobs to support his family: golf caddy, and more recently at a nearby restaurant. He was in Freetown during the civil war. His dad was killed, his sister taken away by rebels because she was beautiful.
We even talked about poverty. He blames the politicians, the corruption, and the general greed of mankind. He knows things could be better. And he looks at me like I’ve got it made. When I tell him that I know he won’t believe me when I say that back home I’m closer to the poor end of the spectrum, he says I was right. He doesn’t believe me. And why should he? I’m traveling the world, working on “the mercy ship,” I’m probably a doctor. I still think he believed I was a doctor by the end of the game in spite of my attempts to convince him I’m not.
But it’s true, I’m not poor. I told him something someone once told me, and while he agreed I don’t think think he really bought it. I said that I was once told that we always look two rungs up the ladder. We always look at those people above us in stature, finances, power, and wonder why we don’t have it. We want it, and are never satisfied where we are.
Whoever told me this said that we need to spend our time looking down two rungs. We need to do so and be grateful for where we’re at, and think of how to bring those people up to join us. Or at least get them a rung higher.
The tricky part of it is, there are ALWAYS people above and below us on the ladder. Even for my caddy, there are plenty of people below him here in Sierra Leone. He’s young, healthy, smart, and a hard worker. There are plenty of people left mangled by the war, like those guys digging up clay with their crutches. The elderly… the sick. People who didn’t finish their schooling, or even start. People who have little to no work ethic, or a simple lack of opportunity.
And that’s what I’m wrestling with. Poverty is everywhere. I told my caddy that there are even poor people in America, people starving and dying on the streets. He said he didn’t see any in the movies, which is often true. But we know how true to life movies usually are.
Poverty is something massive, something uncontrollable, unstoppable, and without remorse for those it consumes. It’s causes are legion, its victims plentiful, and its ramifications devastating.
And it leaves me wondering: what do we do? What can we do?