Friday, March 23, 2012

Starving Artists

Since we travelled to Oshoek a few weeks ago, I can't get the words out about two particular families we met with. I am weighed down by the stories and have tried many times to get past the choking feeling when I think of them and begin to process all we saw and heard and felt. I'm on my fourth or fifth attempt to write what I saw. I can only communicate pieces of a story so complicated it would take novels to tell. Here is just a glimpse of what I saw. The first was a family that we travelled a long distance over rough roads that back home would loosely be called trails. We drove as far as we could up into the hillside and then walked for the last bit through the woods and a large open meadow to their home. It was a beautiful setting and when we first approached the home, it was like walking back in time. A collection of small square buildings facing into a courtyard, all surrounded by a low mud fence. There was a large garden area with only the early beginnings of pumpkins and maize growing, though it was already well into the growing season. Rains have been few in the area and it's been unseasonably cool causing things to grow more slowly. There was a goat pen with no goats in it just behind the garden and no visible sign of a water source nearby. Entering the courtyard, we saw a few school aged children sitting. None of them were wearing school uniforms and it was early enough after school that it seemed unlikely that they had attended school that day at all. Upon closer look, the buildings were in various states of disrepair, seemingly left for a long period of time from the looks of the crumblings walls and hanging doors. As the care workers introduced us to the kids, they told us that there were seven children in the home living with their gogo or grandmother. She had had two children who had both passed away, leaving their own children, in her care. The gogo was in her room bathing and she yelled out to us to wait for her. She was worried she would miss us if she continued bathing. A young girl of about eight went and helped her dress and come into the courtyard with us. We were all seated on various rocks and stumps and wooden stools that were hastily brought for us. The gogo sat on a reed mat, similar to ones we've seen in every visit, in the doorway of one of the rooms. She greeted us all saying, "Happy New Year" with a huge toothless smile. She was very happy to see us and have us visit. She told us that she was always expecting people from Hands at Work to come visit as she had been visited a long while before by Hands at Work volunteers who accompanied their care workers. She told us that once, she had been on the main road in a taxi and seen a Hands at Work vehicle go by. She was so sure that they were going to her home that she left the taxi and walked back home from the main road, only to find no one had come. I felt so bad for her...we'd just driven from the main road and it was a long and arduous drive, never mind walking! And she was old! Add to that the idea that she had spent what little money she had on a taxi probably en route to the market which was two towns away - for the hope of a visit from someone who showed her care. My heart was already being wrung out by this family and their circumstances. They were visibly in dire need. Their shelter was not enough to protect them from the elements, they showed us where the rains leaked in through the tin roof. Each small room was open to the courtyard but not to each other so that if any of the children or the gogo sleeping in one room needed assistance from someone in the next room, they had to enter each others' rooms from the outside. It hardly seemed safe enough without the added fact that none of the doors I looked at seemed to be hinged properly or have a working lock. They were removed enough from neighbours and others that it may have offered them some protection but on the other hand, if someone were to come to harm them, they would be powerless to probably alert the neighbouring homes and whatever help their occupants could offer, if any.
One of the boys in the home was about fifteen. He was really cute - the kind of guy that back home would be popular based on his gorgeous short braided hair and big smile. He was fairly quiet but friendly. On the wall of his room were three amazing drawings: two of football stadiums that were hosts of the World Cup in 2010 and one a coat of arms of some sort. We asked him if he had every been to the stadiums to which he answered no. He had drawn them from memory having probably just seen them once or twice. They were detailed and amazing. The coat of arms was elaborate and colourful. Beside his bed, he had some sketchings drawn on any scrap piece of paper that he could get his hands on. Perhaps the most innovative piece of art that I saw was a guitar that he had fashioned out of two pieces of cardboard, shaped by ripping the cardboard into the shape of the body of the guitar. It was affixed by rusty nails between two pieces of roughly hewn boards that made up the body and allowed for the hollow hole of the guitar body. A long piece of rough wood made up the neck and head of the guitar. Each string was an elastic band fastened at the top and bottom with more nails. The bridge of the guitar was hand drawn and the head of the guitar had tuning keys made out of nails. You could strum the elastic strings and make sounds. We coaxed him out of his room with it to show the others and he smiled and strummed a small bit. Clearly, the hills of Oshoek hide some incredible talents. At the end of our time with this family, one of the care workers had asked the gogo how she fed all the children and what they lived off. She told us that they were out of mealies or pap, which is the staple food of African homes. It is ground maize meal that is boiled and made to a thick, mashed potato consistency. It's not nutritious but it is filling and keeps children from going to bed with an empty stomach. The gogo explained that they had no food and that they would have to ask a neighbour for some mealies to sustain them. She said that they would be going to bed hungry. I was watching Easton and one of the girls interact and heard the care worker say that the gogo was asking if we had brought them something to eat. I felt like I was going to throw up in discomfort, knowing that we had not brought food for the family. One of the care workers explained that we were just visitors, that we had nothing to offer them but ourselves. We were there to encourage them and visit with them and learn their stories so that others could learn about the needs of the communities that the care workers were trying to meet. Before you read this next part, let me assure you that there is not a thing you are thinking that did not go through my mind at this point. I was almost physically sick. I've been in situations where I have been asked for food and where I've known there were great needs. When I heard the words that all we had to offer was ourselves? I wanted to rip my hair out. I wanted to yell that that was a cop out. I wanted to laugh and cry. I felt sick with myself if that was all I had to give. I can't communicate how hard it was to not run from that family. To make matters more complicated, we had food. We had lunches from that day that I know all of us would have gladly given. The care workers had surprised us with lunch made from their own meagre resources - we hadn't known this was going to happen so all of us had at least a peanut butter sandwich or an apple or a granola bar along for the day. Those lunch things were sitting in the truck at the base of the hill. I wanted to run and grab them and bring them. I wanted one of those miraculous things to occur in which an apple became twenty and the family ate till they were full and had apples left over. But, the only miraculous thing that afternoon was that I held my emotions in check until we walked to the bottom of the hill after we had said our goodbyes. I don't remember much but I do remember thinking that there was nothing good about this situation. At the bottom of the hill, before we got in our vehicles, several of us asked if we could give them our lunch food. We put Levy, our team leader, into a really difficult position. I could see the compassion for the family on his face, I knew he wanted to provide a meal for them as badly as we did, but he asked us a very important question: "If we feed them tonight, what does that mean tomorrow?" I found myself wanting to stamp my foot and make Levy march back up the hill with our offering. I understand though that most of the motivation was emotional on my part, I can't speak for anyone else. I do know others looked as grim as I felt. We all had our reasons for wanting to give to this family. I wanted to feel better about their situation. I wanted to feel like I'd contributed or fixed something for them. Maybe a sandwich would have. An apple would have been a gesture of hope. A granola bar enough to get them a good night's sleep. But, I know too, that what Hands at Work and the work we are part of is NOT about is coming in to save the day. Weeks later...I have a little more clarity but I'm not going to say this decision sits well with me. I'm actually glad it doesn't. I wonder if I had given them my lunch and the boys' lunches and Jason's lunch...if I would even still be thinking about this family now. As we drove away, Levy told me that after our next visit, if I still felt strongly that it was not an emotional response, that he would consider giving them the food. I was certain I wouldn't change my mind. I reluctantly got into the truck and tried to contain what I was feeling. The next home we went to was that of two young girls, 15 and 11, who had recently lost their last parent. Newly orphaned. Joining the thousands each day that bury their last parent and return home at night without them. Small girls becoming the head of their households, young boys becoming the men of the family at ridiculously young ages. These girls are now living alone with their younger brothers in the home that their parents had built for them. An aunty was coming during the day to care for the girls and make sure that they were getting enough water and food every day. As we arrived at their home, and stood waiting by the truck for the others to join us, I looked up on the hillside at a small home above us. There, along the path, was the gogo we had just left, with the two youngest children, going to the neighbour to ask for mealies. I watched as they trekked across what looked like a goat or cattle path with an empty bucket swinging in one of the children's hands. As we sat at the home of the family we were visiting, I kept looking up to the hills to see if I could catch a glimpse of them returning. Not long after, I watched the gogo, with the bucket on her head, trekking back home with what was probably just enough mealies for a few meals. I admit, I felt a little better, knowing that the neighbour had provided for them and that they had something to eat that night. I turned my attention to the family we were with and heard and saw and felt for the story they were living in. I know that night and since, I have wrestled with the thought of "the right thing to do". I don't have any clearer of a picture now than I did then. What I am sure of is that not giving someone what I had - it felt wrong. It still feels wrong. It still hurts to think about it even though I don't clearly know what would have been best in that situation. I only know what would have made me feel better - and that certainly doesn't mean it was for the best. In some ways, I am grateful to be haunted by this family's situation. I wouldn't want to forget how it felt to stand in their midst and have no solutions for them. I am learning I don't have a solution, I knew I didn't coming here, but now I KNOW I don't. I don't think we can eradicate poverty, but we can alleviate suffering. I'm just wondering if we did that for that widow and those orphans in their distress - as we say we are here to do.

1 comment:

Tracy T said...

Gut wrenching to read Shelley, I can't even imagine what that would have felt like to live it! Everything happens for a reason - clarity for this event will appear when the time is right! Take comfort that you are making a difference not only there but here as well!! Just like you found the little girl you so desperately wanted to find, the silver lining for this experience will sort its self out some way. Thoughts and prayers are with you, thanks for sharing!