Thursday, 23 January 2014

Neighbours...

Compassion Fatiguea cynicism, skepticism or resistance to giving to or helping people who are suffering. Compassion Fatigue is often caused by media saturation of decontextualized images of tragedy or by charities' handling of donations.

Are you "tired" after watching the news? Does the World Vision commercial make you change the channel?

As much as I like to think that I value human life across the world, it's often much easier to ignore the far away stuff that I feel helpless to change. After all, aren't there enough people suffering in my own community? Province? Country? Continent?



NOTE: This post isn't meant to make you feel guilty or uncomfortable; it's for me to talk about what I'm struggling through here in Kapsowar. Before you read this, you should take into account a few things:
1. I'm only here in Kenya for a few months and have a very basic understanding of Marakwet culture from my inherent world view and North American bias. This is written from my flawed observations and is in no way supposed to be considered an expert opinion on any situations here. 
2. I can't change my background, but I can work to improve my understanding and (in a lot of cases) ignorance of things outside my norms. 


"Love God. Love your neighbour. Share the Good News. That's it. That's the 'Bible for Dummies.' "   Richard Stearns

Who's your neighbour?


I don't know about you, but I have great neighbours. They're friendly, kind and even though we don't know each other well, we wave, smile, and stop to chat occasionally. In Canada, it's pretty easy to get by without really knowing your neighbours. We're self sufficient, we're busy, we're distracted.  We close our doors (or our blinds) and we live autonomous lives.

Here in Kenya, where everyone stops to talk, to see what's happening, and to get to know you, I have to wonder how am I doing with this "loving my neighbour" stuff.

Honestly? Not great.            

But who IS my neighbour? In this world of global connectivity, is it still the people in direct proximity to my house? The people I encounter on a daily basis? Could my neighbour be somebody living on another continent?


This Who's your neighbour? question isn't new. People were trying to figure out the scope of their social responsibility way back when Jesus responded with the familiar story of the man who was beaten and robbed and the Good Samaritan who helped him.

At the end of the story, Jesus asked, "Which of these do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?" The answer? The one who had mercy on him.

In other words, if you know of someone in trouble (awareness) and you have a way to help them (ability), then you're their neighbour (accountability).

Yikes.


Hold that thought because I'm here in Kapsowar with a story about neighbours.



In Kenya, being a part of a community comes with responsibilities we North Americans would find pretty onerous. Sure, if we hear about a needy family, we might organize a bake sale or donate some clothes we weren't wearing anyway, but in general, we fend for ourselves. Not so here. In African culture, people are responsible for one another. If a member of the community does well, it is expected that they will help others out whenever needed. If a member of the community needs help, everyone gives what they can.

So, in the early 1980s, when the number of orphans and kids in need grew too large, one rural village, Kapchesewes, decided to build a children's home. Here, kids with no help or support would live together and be looked after by the community as a whole. The community itself was poor, but the children's  basic needs were met: shelter, staple foods (beans and maize) and a place to belong.


Kapchesewes Children's Home


However, over the years, the children's home encountered many difficulties, ranging from a shortage of guardians to a lack of supplies and funds. Despite some never-completed building projects, the kids here live in primitive conditions (think no electricity and subsistence self-sustaining farming)

Enter one good neighbour.

In 1999, Bill and Laura Rhodes came to Kapsowar Hospital with their four kids. Bill works tirelessly as a general and plastic surgeon at the hospital and Laura, well, there isn't much that Laura doesn't do. She quickly became interested in the welfare of the children at Kapchesewes. After visiting the orphanage with Laura on two occasions, I was deeply affected by the level of poverty I witnessed and wanted to DO SOMETHING (oh, the doing something need) and to HELP somehow. Laura, after years of involvement, trial and error, and learning, shared her perspective and wisdom with me.


First of all, even though the orphanage looks incredible dismal to outsiders, the kids are living in the same level of poverty as the surrounding community and attempts to westernize the living situation haven't worked (and why should they?).


Secondly, the more outsiders tried to provide resources or money, the less community involvement there was. The responsibility people naturally feel for each other was diminished. Laura stressed that the children at the home really need only seven basic things: kerosene for their lamps, a bar of soap (for washing, laundry, everything), salt and oil for cooking, tea leaves and sugar for their chai, and school uniforms. This seems crazy from my limited perspective (I think of Emily with her stroller and toys and brightly decorated nursery), but these kids are members of their culture and community, complete with language and heritage (like we all are). Providing what westerners think children should have or removing kids from their community entirely would compound the already unbelievably difficult experiences many of them have already faced in their short lives and negatively impact the community as a whole.


So, is there or should there be western involvement here? I am sure this question has been asked in many places in many countries. 


Laura pointing out the storage shed for the maize harvested by the kids

As Laura put it:
In the Marakwet culture, they have it figured out how they help each other. We interfere when we impose ourselves on the way that they take care of each other. If there is a need in the community, they all historically and culturally get together as a community to take care of that need. That's how they operate. When we step in and say, 'we'll do it for you,' then we have interrupted the way that the society works. That doesn't mean that we can't contribute, that we can't help, even get involved with the harambe [a fundraising party traditional to this cooperative society] ... but to take over and say, 'we will do it for you,' we are taking something away. We are doing for them something that they can do for themselves. That weakens the culture, that weakens the society and that makes them dependent on us. That's not what we're trying to do. We are trying to come alongside, to encourage, to help when needed... They don't need us for relationships, they don't need us to deal with deviancy in their society, or to even be involved in their social activities. They don't need us.


Enter another good neighbour.


Rose & her son Brighton at the children's home


In fact, the children's home currently has an amazing (if incredibly overworked) house mother, Rose, who lives on site with her husband (who teaches at a local school) and two children, and assists the kids in all aspect of daily living, seven days a week. The children's home has partnered with AIM (Africa Inland Mission) and is currently operating a small commercial greenhouse, which Rose operates.



If a child has a medical emergency, Rose figures out what to do with no budget whatsoever. She communicates with the community, hospitals, and schools. She looks out for the kids in every way she can.


She expressed to me the frustration of constantly living on the edge, worrying about one boy's epilepsy and another girl's need for a heart valve surgery, that will cost 100,000 shillings (about $1,200). The community has to figure this out and is already planning a harambe, but Rose's intercession on behalf of these kids will ensure it happens.





Judith, the student waiting for a heart valve operation outside the children's home


I know what you're thinking. Uh, Abbie... where is this story going? Are you telling me to ship kerosene to little kids halfway across the world that don't need me? Sounds like Rose has it covered...

Not exactly.



How to be a good neighbour


Through her involvement, Laura realized that the one challenge faced by the kids at the children's home (and by needy kids in the area) that the community had no way of overcoming was education. In Kenya, secondary education isn't a right and it isn't free. Students only continue school after eighth grade if they have money for school fees which run about $500 (Canadian/American) per year. Plus, kids are streamed into schools on the basis of exams at the end of the grade 8 year (no pressure). So, if a child here manages to do well in the only primary school in the area, they MIGHT receive a place in a good secondary school IF they can come up with the fees. However, a good income in this area is about $3 a day and that's in households supporting their children at home.


A classroom at Kapchesewes Primary School


If kids don't go to school, poverty is guaranteed and perpetuated in the community. It's not a matter of working harder or doing more. This disparity is insurmountable.

The best definition of poverty I've heard doesn't mention anything about hunger or sickness or clean water or ambition. Fundamentally, it is a lack of choices leading to a lack of hope.

For the last fifteen years, Laura has been collecting and distributing money for school fees, both for kids at the orphanage and for needy kids in the community. She doesn't do any massive fundraising. Medical students come through the hospital, visit the kids and donate. Friends from home send some money. Total strangers hear the story and wire cash.  AIM international has a fund set aside for this purpose (Click here for information on how to donate) and because Laura puts in the time, energy, and work, all of that money goes directly to school fees, no processing cut, no overhead, just Laura, working (alongside Rose) to make sure as many children as possible get a chance at hope with every penny that somehow comes in at the right time for the right child.

"Pray, but when you pray, move your feet."  African Proverb

It's not perfect.

Laura admits, "We still struggle with this: What is the right way to help?"

Have they been disappointed or taken advantage of before? Yes.
But have they shown God's love in practical tangible ways over and over again? Yes.


Some of the kids at Kapchesewes Children's Home


The kids put in the time and effort. This year, from the orphanage and surrounding communities, thirty children arrived at high schools with cheques to cover their fees. That's THIRTY kids with ties to many people back home. The community members and extended families will help them get shoes, transport to school, and other necessities, which will in turn be repaid once those children grow up and return the favour, with interest. It's a solid investment that strengthens cultural and community bonds.

Because of this bridge of secondary education, one of the orphans from Kapchesewes is now a federal attorney. She visited over Christmas. Currently, there are three students in nursing school, two in teacher's college, one pursuing a Bachelor of Commerce, one enrolled in a theological seminary, and one in an accounting program. In the past, students have gone on to courses in biomedicine and airplane mechanics. A former recipient is a skilled nurse at Kapsowar Hospital who will be furthering his education by entering medical school in the near future.      

One of the things that has impacted me most so far during our short time in Kenya is the consistency of physical needs being met in God's name, whether it's through organizations like Samaritan's Purse or AIM/AIC, or just through individuals following God's call to love one's neighbour.


"Sometimes I would like to ask God why He allows poverty, suffering, and injustice when He could do something about it."

"Well, why don't you ask Him?"

"Because I'm afraid He would ask me the same question."    Anonymous



Emily with Diana, a student at the children's home

So maybe the question Who is my neighbour? is not so daunting after all. Maybe this is one way of many ways to be a neighbour. To show mercy. To make a difference far away. To commit to giving a hand up (not a handout) to one child and reach a community and an entire region without plodding all over other people with a western agenda.

I know there are many other ways in many other areas of the world with suffering and injustice, but today, I'd like to challenge myself (and maybe you too) to live out the love we have received in a practical way in this diverse neighbourhood of yours and mine.

"Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue, but with actions and in truth." 1 John 3:18

Click here (or ask me) if you would like information on how to donate toward school fees for a needy child in the Kapsowar area or from the Kapchesewes children's home through AIM International.

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