Wednesday, May 27, 2009

in sheep's clothing.

a few months ago i visited an orphanage in rwanda, traveling mainly by motorcycle taxi.
rwanda is perhaps one of the most beautiful countries i have ever visited, though i am surprised that i even noticed since every time we traveled anywhere my 'helmet' would fall over my eyes, and i was usually too busy gripping the motorcycle driver's tee-shirts with a death grip to push it back so i could see.
on a particularly bumpy trek down from the mountains one day, my driver was particularly chatty. he would lean back as he drove to ask me questions or comment on this or that.

fyi - this did not make me particularly happy as i thought he should be doing less leaning and chatting and more worrying about staying upright on the road.

none the less, he was a very pleasant fellow, and shared all sorts of anecdotes about his love for his family, his love for Jesus, how glad he was to have a job driving motorcycle, his plans to marry soon, and so on.

at one point he leaned back and asked 'i heard that even poor people in america have cars - is this true?'

i paused.

in rwanda, the only cars i ever saw outside of the capital were owned by aid workers, mainly the UN.

i didn't know how to answer his question other than honestly.

'yes,' i said carefully, 'many poor people have cars there.'

he sighed. 'it is my dream to go move to america where all the poor people are rich.'

i tried to explain to him that even though poor people in america might have cars, they still don't think of themselves as rich. i tried to explain the idea of relative poverty, where even the posession of the luxury of a car wouldn't be enough to give someone status in society.

he wasn't buying it.

the first image that popped to my mind was this man, who in rwanda rode his motorcycle through beautiful green hills preaching about his love for Jesus, who had perhaps never had to wear shoes in his life, whose family all lived together, who had hope to bring a final peace to his nation - and i imagined him immigrating to america, living in a cramped apartment, struggling to pay bills, surrounded by advertisements for credit cards, a language he didn't understand, hip hop music, people who would stare at his deep black skin with suspicion and treat his hard to understand accent with impatience.

that's a negative image, and i don't mean to only portray a negative side of the immigrant experience to america, as has been an will continue to be a land of opportunity for millions.

however, at that moment, i secretly prayed that he wouldn't have to go through that. i prayed that he would go home to his family in the village, that they would laugh and eat, and talk about the crazy foreigners they had driven around that day. and that he would go to bed in peace.

i'm in development.
my goal is to help people live a better life.
but sometimes i don't know what that better life is. and wonder if i am being arrogant to think that i would ever know better than they would.

is helping people make more money so that someday their children could be wealthy enough to have a car, or to immigrate to america truly the point?

to acquire things, bigger houses, more food than they can eat?

to acquire degrees to nail to their walls?

poverty, especially extreme poverty, can be a curse. it can drive desperation, crime, corruption, family violence, and so on.

but can't wealth also be such a curse? greed, sloth, gluttony, and perhaps the worst, apathy - all stem from a misuse of wealth.

so i don't know, sometimes.

its easy for this kind of work to become almost a religion - but sometimes, i wonder if the message we preach, of improving your life, of empowerment and education.. is not just a sly wolf in sheep's clothing.


Hiatt Family said...

This post really made me think. I appreciate you sharing your experiences so that we can be better educated on the issues going on outside our "bubble". I know that most of us have no idea how much we really have.

Kent said...

Ah, but in your analysis I hope you consider the opportunity for the first generation to acquire a PHD, or be President, or to make enough here to not only support themselves but those back home.

Victor said...

Good stuff. I still like education though and think it can be a natural life improver.