She gave me a stool. I sat and watched her make ugali over a fire on the floor. The old pot she made it in was balanced on three stones. I could see that S—- was pleased I was watching because of the way she smiled as she carefully sifted the maize flour. Clearly, S—– was skilled at sifting the flour, adding it at the right time to the boiling water, and stirring the thick white stuff in the pot with a wooden spoon. She has much to teach me about making ugali as well as “making do” and being content.
However, there were some details about this scene that disturbed me when I compared them to my American life. I remembered the time I asked S—- how she was doing and she told the truth, “My life is sad now, I do not have a job.”
I thought of all the reasons that S—– did not have a job. If she knew English well, she could score a big job in the city. If there was no government corruption and disorganization, there would be a prosperous economy and with available jobs for the average citizen. If there was a longer rainy season, S—– might have some extra money with which to leverage herself out of the situation. The list of reasons could continue.
All of these reasons are also walls that keep disadvantaged people in poor situations. If we are actually going to help the people blocked behind these figurative walls, we will have to travel through the walls to get to them. To tell you the truth, when you are actually in the host culture, you can see that the walls are numerous and will be complicated to traverse to get to the point of “helping”. The price to help is often as costly as the forces are strong that keep the “poor” in poverty.
Once I read a book about a doctor who intended to set up a health care system for rural peoples in India. He wanted to serve the Dalit (or “untouchable”) caste, but when he began to offer services to these people, he found innumerable setbacks. Flooding rains, poor road systems, social stigma, and national and local government officials all worked against him, inhibiting him from actually helping the people he intended to help. He learned that the forces that keep people in poverty also keep those who want to help from actually helping.
In short, I have realized that most things that bother me here, the bumpy roads, the heat, the cheap bikes that perpetually break, and the slow government processes, are “walls” that keep the “poor” poor, and us wherever we currently are. In order “to help,” first, I must endure the heat, wait in line at the post office, get the runs (that’s not the kind you wear shoes for), replace the bike tire, learn a new language, and bounce over yet another pothole.