31 Jul 2008
Notes written by a Mediterranea Volunteer to Addis
I have been trying for days to put in to order my experiences with Mediterranea. It isn't because writing is in any way difficult for me. Neither is it for lack of feelings and emotions. It is simply because I don´t know how to put such experiences in to some kind of an order, or how to reflect them without seeming blase , neither do I wish to be over-sentimental or exaggerated.
When the chance of travelling to Addis with this small NGO emerged, I got scared. I´m a typical product of a Western society and I look face on at how most of the world lives …. well, I didn't really like the idea initially. I feel good by doing my bit for the world, recycling, switching off lights, buying at fair trade shops, helping a NGO, getting angry about injustices …. But, living it face to face? I was distressed. Well, I´m going to stop the euphemisms: I was distressed and I´m not exactly a little languid flower.
When I expressed my fear to Victoria, who is the person in charge of Mediterranea´s Ethiopian projects, I was sincere. “You don´t know how silly I feel. I´m going to spend the journey crying.”
“Don´t worry,” she told me. “At these schools nobody cries, they only laugh and a lot, because the children are happy and because many nice and good things are done there.”
“Yes, OK,” I thought, “blah, blah, blah.” I thought her answer was a way of calming me down. And just in case, on the way, I put three packets of hankies into the suitcase….
But, once again, I was wrong. Because it´s true, I spent two days crying but after the third one I laughed. A lot. Sometimes with a sense of black humour – as black as oil or its price. But, especially I laughed heartily. But never before had I been exposed to such sad and heart-rending stories as the ones I heard from women with their heads bowed and men whose life had been shattered by their destiny. Or the horrific accounts I read in the eyes of abused children or of sick parents. But, at the same time, never until then had I changed my role from passive spectator, ‘voyeur’ of other people´s misfortune, to an active participant in the relief of these dramas. Something which makes a world – sorry, a universe – of difference.
The first day I couldn't stop crying. I wanted to contain myself but I couldn't. It has been hours since my last experience, even so tears were continuing to stream from my eyes (red) but I couldn't avoid it. In fact, I was on a terrace with my travel mates, sharing a table with an Ethiopian couple, when I realised that the eyes of the female of that couple were fixed on me. She talked to her companion in Amariña, the language of the country. The boy turned and he asked me straight. “My friend says you are crying, is that true?” I could say that I had three or four sarcastic answers in my head but it is not true. I could only nod. “Why?” What would I tell her? I preferred not to go into details.
Crying is embarrassing.
On the second day I cried a lot less. Especially because I was embarrassed. Really embarrassed and with a sense of shame. I don´t know, I think there is something obscene about crying in front of people who are living real tragedies.
Our tears of commiseration are inevitable but easy. It is difficult to hold oneself, especially for someone as inexperienced as me, but I know that protagonists of these stories are not only worth tears but solidarity, true and effective.
On the third day, I felt strong. The fourth day, I felt ready to truly help. Because I understood I was not only a spectator but also part of the solution. Because the money we had been sending (that act so real but at the same time so cold) had done things. Really. There were children whose appearance during the 10 months of the school year had experienced spectacular changes. Mothers who had not had to give their children up. Parents who had found work. Sick men who knew that if something happened to them, their children would have a refuge. Grandmothers who were receiving that vital help. Then, everything made much more sense.
The case which could better sum up the feeling of doing something is of a woman, whose story I have recorded in my soul. A woman arrived at the surgery, nervous, she was hiding a piece of paper inside a school exercise book. It took us time to realise what was happening: she was gabbing, crying, getting nervous …. it was her husband´s AIDs test result: positive. She had just found out. We encouraged her to undergo the test as well. “No, no, no.” She was terrified. “No.” She was crying. She was repeating, “No" and again she was crying. “I´m afraid, I´m afraid.” We convinced her to do it, “If you are infected, it could be treated,” we assured her. “There is no point being ignorant of it,” we were repeating to her time and time again: “you are a mother, you have to be all right.”
Two days later, she came back. The AID´s test was positive. She was also sick. She couldn't even talk, she only held out her hand– crying, trembling – with the fateful sheet of paper in it. What do you say to someone in that situation? Nothing. You hug her, you hug her strongly, heartily, because you don´t know what more you can do. You hug her because life is unfair, because you are there and because, at that moment, you can´t do much more. And what is strange is that hug is made of gold. Because probably no-one had hugged her before, because, for sure, she won´t tell anybody that she is sick: the stigma is too big. If someone knew, she would lose her job and, because of it, food for her children. Never again could she repeat it, neither to her parents nor her children. Then, what is important, in that moment is that someone touches her, hugs her and kisses her.
The best thing, fortunately, is that our help doesn't necessarily have to end like that, although it is a lot. We can promise her that her children will go to school, also nobody will expel them from the classroom for being positive. Also, someone will come back regularly to know she is OK, to make sure that with the medication she is able to live a lot longer. She will see her children growing up and, if she is sacked from her job, we will be able to help her.
Misery is like war.
This has been only one case. There are a lot, a lot. Cases of people who have not done anything wrong expect to be born where they were born. Ortega said; “I´m me and my circumstances.” You bet! Because there are circumstances – and there are circumstances.
Once I heard an Ethiopian doctor. She said: “People are afraid of war because it invades but misery is like war, it also invades and destroys what lies in its path.”
And it is true: poverty hurts, it stupefies and drives us mad. But with stories of parents who abandon their children, mothers who leave when they know their children are sick, leaving their babies or grandparents alone, who push their children and grandchildren away if someone is HIV positive. There are stories which only talk about solidarity and love. Like the one about a grandmother, dry and bent like a contorted vine , who, with a 8€ pension, has taken in the daughter of her neighbour who died of AIDs and brings her up as her daughter, her only fear being that something could happen to her and the little child would be abandoned …. The 17-year-old boy who takes care of his two sisters of 11 and five years and works cleaning shoes to keep all three together after their father left them …. The man who fell ill with terminal AIDs, who makes a great effort not to lose his job and also to keep his two children … The good-hearted woman who puts up with her husband´s maltreatment because she refuses to put on to the street the child who took refuge with them after his mother died, even though she has another three children and does not have one bean left over.
There are good and bad people on all sides, in the First and in the Third World, but it became blatantly apparent that to be generous and show solidarity when you yourself are going through such hardship, is an amazing and wonderful thing.
Once, one of my relatives told me that in those countries, as women had more babies, they loved them less, they felt towards their children in a way different to us. I would like to throw that back in the face of the person who said it and confront that person face to face. They are resigned, yes, maybe because the little strength they have, they need it to survive and to move forwards, but they don´t feel less, nor differently.
A friend said to me that it´s not enough to talk like a "Miss" in a beauty contest : ¨What I ask for is peace in the world and no hunger¨. what we have to do is get up and actively work against the problems and injustices.
I do not feel guilty of how the world is . I did not design it. However, I belong to the part which takes advantage of the situation. I was born in the ¨ best ¨side. That one for whom poverty (other peoples poverty) is often very convenient, whether or not we have directly created the poverty. Because of this, I do not feel responsible for it. However, I can check that the help we send is real help, that it changes their fate , that it betters their chances. Because I did not choose where I was born. Neither did they as a matter of fact . And also because I have had the fortune , the immense fortune of being a witness to the help we are providing. And I have seen that our effort does produce results. This help changes people ´s fate. Not everybody´s , but some people's . And this is an important concept when is said with a cool head.
When our eyes meet, skin to skin, hand in hand. Then, there is no choice: We are forced not to forget people who are on the other side of the walls of our well-off society.