This morning, I write from an aching place. I am wrecked. To those of you who worry about my mental health, don’t fret, this isn’t “wrecked” in a psychiatric way. I recently read an article addressing how after living in the developing world and dealing with areas of injustice and poverty as a rich and privileged person “gets easier”. The article refuted it and I agree wholeheartedly. I think when the issues of poverty and inequality are easy, we have ceased looking at those around us as human.
Sit with me this morning, grab your coffee and let me tell you a story.
First a little history:
When we first moved to Ethiopia, we asked many people, Ethiopian and expatriate alike, what “rules” they had when it came to the beggar situation, the people we had to walk and drive by, some with obvious medical conditions, others, young mothers with kids running between cars. Honestly, life is just really more comfortable when they are not there.
Some people told us they give a little bit to everyone who asks. Others have made it their guide to give more to a few. In general, most Ethiopian we talked to seemed to have a demographic they looked for, the least able to provide for themselves.
A few general thoughts as we prayed we made our own set of principles.
This doesn’t refer to our community, it’s a different ball of wax when living in a community but unknown beggars on the streets in cities or in the market places.
-Don’t set “rules”. Rather, have a set of guiding principles but always be open to the Spirit’s prompting.
I am going to list our current principles, not because I think we have the right answers and this list should be emulated, but just so you have more context on the wrestling. Our principles evolve over time and sometimes we throw them out the window because we know the Lord hasn’t asked us to shut up our hearts towards anyone. And sometimes we are weary or hard-hearted or have nothing left and we walk on by, pretending not to see.
Our priniciples we have gleaned that also fit for us are as follows:
1) If possible, try to hire the person to do some sort of job. This preserves dignity and empowers. This may mean I have three boys in the market with me to haul a load I am capable of carrying, which feels yucky to me to be served in this way. Many times this isn’t a possibility.
2) Give to disabled or those with significant medical difficulty
3) Give to moms with kids, their step after this if begging on the streets doesn’t pan out is prostitution. They are there as last resort already. Put the money into mom’s hand, not the children’s.
4) Give to the elderly, especially elderly women.
5) Beggars are people with stories, look them in the eyes and value the man/woman/child as a precious and loved creation of God.
6) If a child is selling something, (gum, tissues, olive branches used as toothbrushes, etc, etc) buy from them.
7) Don’t give to able-bodied men or able-bodied children. If a small child is asking, we try to find the connected adult to not affirm the child’s future in begging.
Okay, time for the story.
We are in Bahir Dar for a long weekend. Jon is at a renewable energy conference (think solar, wind, water, all natural ways of generating energy). The girls and I plan to fill our days with walking the lovely streets and eating ourselves silly on fried foods we can buy from vendors, reading, swimming and I am hoping to squeeze in their math lessons. Yesterday, the conference hadn’t started but we came up to do our stocking up for a few months. Jon and the girls sat in the van as I went to the grocery to buy several months of supplies.
The grocery store is very close to the bus station. We had heard that there had been an influx of mothers with small children coming into Bahir Dar from drought and famine affected areas of the countryside, just trying to survive.
I felt sweaty as I watched our pile of groceries be tallied and the crowd around me grew as the cashier was closer to announcing my total bill. We go through a tin of milk powder a month and it is around $35. I was purchasing two as I have been wanting to make more yogurt. I knew the bill would be significant, not something I would blink twice at in Walmart but here, with a crowd, I felt embarrassed. Because it is hot, the doors are propped open and through it came a countryside mom (very clearly marked by clothes and hairstyles from a certain people group). Her small daughter stood beside her and a baby slept on her back, his face covered from the sun so I couldn’t see it, but his two perfect little feet could be seen by the mama’s hips.
Now what to do, I am spending $200 in front of a crowd of people and now being asked for a small contribution. As discreetly as possible, I wadded up a bill and gave her double what I usually give a woman in this situation, which to be culturally appropriate, still isn’t much. I muttered a quiet saying, “May God give to you”. As I had a crowd watching me, there was nothing discreet happening. The people in the grocery store smiled and blessed me for “helping”. I had a pit in my stomach and couldn’t wait to get out of there. After the groceries were in the car and we were ready to go, I saw a banana vendor. “Buy her bananas,” was the distinct directive I heard from the Spirit.
I walked down the street to the bright, yellow stacks and wondered if she would even still be there when I got back. I bought one kilo of bananas. The price has gone up, they are almost a dollar per kilo. I knew I wanted some for my family anyways. I caught sight of her and small crew, they were coming towards me. I bought another kilo.
After walking a few steps, I gave her the bananas. She asked me how to eat them and I realized she has probably never had bananas. As I could only see the feet of the little one on her back, I said, “Your baby can eat them, too”. She seemed relieved and emboldened by the contact and she quietly asked, “What am I to do with my baby?” To clarify, I asked, “How old is your baby?” She responded, “Three months old.” I backpedaled, told her that little of a baby should just do breastmilk. She waited for a second, “I am too hungry, what to I do?” I asked about her milk supply. “It’s almost dry, I am not making milk, I’m too hungry”. Her little girl watched with big somber eyes, the banana vendor came around the cart, waiting to see what I would say.
What should I say? What should I do? Once again, we had onlookers. I broke our normal protocol and gave her more money, telling her to hide it as countryside women and their girls in a city are easy targets for thieves…and worse. If she is careful, she can get enough food for a few days.
I walked back to the van, on the very short way, I passed several more groups of countryside women obviously from the same people group, fresh off the bus, new to the city streets, with two or three children. I want to stop and invite, “get in, get in the van, let’s go get something to eat! Let us find you places to stay, let us find ways to stop your suffering, to fix your problems!” but I know I can’t. We can’t stop the suffering and we are not the Savior. Though, the Church has been called to be the hands and feet of Christ and I can’t figure out what that needs to look like in this situation.
I climbed into the front seat and felt like I’d just been punched in the face by the famine and at a complete loss as to how to respond and we drove away. I’ve prayed for her baby, for her, her little girl, even asking God to bring them back into our lives in the next few days if He wants us to do more. But it’s overwhelming, she is just one mother of thousands who are migrating with nothing because they know that staying home will mean certain death by starvation. At our house, in our community, we would be able to do more.
As I let myself sit with this, trying not to drown it out because sometimes it’s okay to hurt, to weep over the world’s brokenness. All I can think to pray for her, for me, is, “God, help.”