06 April 2008


Fleas dream of buying themselves a dog, and nobodies dream of escaping poverty: that one magical day, good luck will suddenly rain down on them—will rain down in buckets. But good luck doesn't rain down yesterday, today, tomorrow, or ever. Good luck doesn't even fall in a fine drizzle, no matter how hard the nobodies summon it, even if their left hand is tickling, or if they begin the new day with their right foot, or start the new year with a change of brooms.

The nobodies: nobody's children, owners of nothing. The nobodies: the no ones, the nobodied, running like rabbits, dying through life, screwed every which way.

—Eduardo Galeano, "The Nobodies"

Just this past October, we made our way through the Xinjiang province in Western China. We learned that Yengiyar was famed for handmade ornamental daggers. We remember Urumqi's smoky streets, full of vendors selling kebabs and grapes, where we were nearly decapitated when a carpenter at work had the head of his hammer fly off and across the street, narrowly missing us. We remember Kashgar on a rainy Sunday morning as we slogged our way through mud to visit the livestock market.

Two weeks later, we headed south. We remember Lhasa on a piercingly cold day as pilgrims shuffled and genuflected in a clockwise circle around the Potala palace and the Jokhang monastary. We cannot believe that, barely 6 months ago, we were traipsing through these places, marvelling at their diversity and beauty, unaware that the entire western half of China would soon implode.

Is this story surprising? Liberia appeared to be the model nation in Africa in the mid-1900s, before Samuel K. Doe, a local Liberian, assassinated then-president William Tolbert to vent the perceived economic oppression of the local Liberians by the Americo-Liberians. Kenya was envied by its neighbors for a billion-dollar-a-year tourist industry and apparent stability before blatant vote-rigging in December 2007 plunged the country into near civil war. Tibet, with the completion of the Qinghai-Tibet railway—a straight shot from Beijing to Lhasa—was set to usher in 5 million visitors this year before the protests began. Now Han Chinese goods are being burned in the streets as Tibetans protest for independence.

Can't they just get their act together? Don't they see that fighting will only make things worse? As Western observers, it is so easy to shake our heads and tsk at what is going on. What, after all, would make a person risk everything they have and give vent to violence?

When I first got to Liberia and started to learn about its history, I was shocked. Liberia in the fifties was bustling, growing, and hopeful. I was stunned at the contrast between the iconic Ducor hotel then and the empty shell that it is now. I couldn't understand why a country so apparently good would have decided to self-destruct.

That was before I met Esther*, a 38-year-old woman who was widowed when her husband was shot in his car during the last civil war—who was the sole supporter of her children when she came to the ship to have a badly misshapen jaw fixed, only to discover that she was infected with HIV and tuberculosis, and therefore not suitable for surgery. Or Princess*, who was found to have malaria before her surgery for an eyelid tumor last week. Her father became angry when we told him his daughter was ill, because he was too poor to bring her to a hospital when she had a fever last week.

Or Morris*, who was admitted today with a large right parotid tumor but who was afraid to take an HIV test, fearing that a positive result would prevent him from getting the surgery he needed when he had no money to go elsewhere. Or the hundreds of people who line up at the gate of the port every Tuesday and Thursday morning, hoping we might treat their medical problems despite our advertisement of being a solely surgical ship, including one who flung himself at the feet of our screeners, imploring, "You are called Mercy Ships. Can't you show me mercy?"

It is not monsters who go to war. It is desperate people who have nothing to lose.

It is with this perspective that I think back on Kashgar and realize that we saw young children acting as mothers to their siblings instead of going to school. In Tibet, we saw children with only dirty pieces of cardboard to protect their hands as they knelt and stood, knelt and stood on their pilgrimage around the monasteries. As we travelled from Lhasa to Kathmandu, every child we met brought their hands reflexively to their mouths, begging for food. The wonder is not the number of countries that have slid into internal strife, but the number that have not.

We were foolish not to look past the poverty and see desperation. It is the ignored, neglected, unseen that cannot dig themselves out of their hole no matter how hard they try, and for whom, ultimately, violence sparks because life cannot become any more intolerable.
*Not their real names.


andreawilliams said...

Great post.

proonner paraphrases said...

seems like desperation is inevitable when the life that you've been born with becomes smaller with each loss and each disappointing event. i guess for some it just happens quicker and for others, well we're just lucky.