Home for three weeks now and the bones are buried again, back in their usual spot under the floorboards.
Travel in areas of absolute poverty and you soon confront questions that have no answers. Questions that get packed away upon landing, a standard part of the psychic tidying after every international trip.
But when you are away those questions seem to knock louder. And on journeys they always pry the boards loose and go walkabout, turning up in the strangest places.
If I am my brother and sister’s keeper, how can I stay at a hotel for a night that costs two months wages for the family living next door? In a place where widows don’t even have mites yet still try to offer something, how can I keep spare cash in my pocket? Considering how overfed I am, is it moral for me to eat three meals when there are those who would consider just one of mine enough for the day?
Spend time with the rural poor and the awe deepens. These are people who work all day and still end up with little to eat. They are parents who want to send their kids to school but can’t afford the $50 annual cost. Mothers proud to welcome a visitor to their tiny thatched home yet embarrassed into silence because the only hospitality they have to offer is their eager eyes and expansive smiles.
As someone of faith I have no answers to the questions of how this squares with what I believe. If I really honour the idea that we are all created in the image of God, how do I reconcile such disparity?
The priestly types say that God has a preferential option for the poor. Apart from sounding clinical, what the hell does that mean in Burma when speaking with a woman who works as a cook and tries to support her family on a salary half the price of the coffee I just bought as I write this? Perhaps if God holds onto options when dealing with the poor, so should I.
Maybe my first step is to park the habits of mind and whispered synonyms for poverty that don’t hold true in developing countries (or maybe anywhere). Sloth, lack of initiative, wasteful, entitled, stupid… these silent justifications that comfort me at home ring hollow in places where the culture and language barrier is profound. A second step might be to find a new vernacular that translates our common humanity into moments of mutual exchange.
In what ways can we meet as equals: me without crocodile tears and they without worry about losing face? How can I photograph without exploitation? Tell their stories without sensation? Find human worth not pity or voyeurism?
Rather than look at their poverty perhaps I can see their riches. What do they possess that I am too blind to see? Might it resourcefulness, tenacity, hope, joy, contentment, living in the present, community, belonging and graciousness? Might it also be the kindness of heart to allow me to live so large while their lives are so often cramped by circumstance?
My eldest daughter is a sharp-eyed international development consultant with a huge heart grafted to a solution-oriented mind. She reminds me that giving all you have to the poor helps neither the poor, the context nor the future. Emptying my pockets likely does nothing more than make me feel better, as if easing my guilt is the prime number in this equation. There’s got to be more to this meeting of rich and poor, but what is it?
So here I write and ponder, three weeks too late. The floorboards are nailed tight… until the next trip.
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Bramwell Ryan is a writer and photographer who recently traveled with Benjamin, his 18-year-old son, on a two month working trip in south Asia. To see this material in its original form, and to explore a bit more of Bram’s insights, head to Dispatches. Bram will be speaking at our April 16 session of ideaExchange.