Monday, January 18, 2010


As I've read newspapers and browsed news websites in the past week, I've noticed myself consciously avoiding coverage of Haiti. I can't face the raw emotion of the pictures dominating the NY Times website or the only thing scarier than fatality and injury statistics - the fact that five days after the earthquake the situation is such a mess that there still aren't reliable statistics to give.

I haven't thought about Haiti much, and haven't really followed what's going on. Part of me feels bad about that, and part of me knows I don't have a choice. It's where my heart is right now.

One of my housemates asked earlier this week how I dealt/deal with exposure to poverty and deep human suffering. I think of it in three phases:

Though kids my own age begging at the windows of our car in Nairobi traffic was an everyday occurrence, something snapped inside me one now-infamous Christmas Eve. My parents had started buying peanuts from street vendors and opening the paper cones to give them to street kids (so they wouldn't re-sell the peanuts to buy glue). However, no matter how long we were stuck in traffic and how hungry I was, I was never allowed to eat those peanuts - too much of a health risk. After we'd each opened our one Christmas Eve present I proposed a new system where we would buy juice boxes or something else that I was allowed to eat. When my parents nixed the idea, I stormed off in tears, unable to understand how they would give another child something they considered dangerous to their own. I started volunteering at a clinic in Kibera, and remember not wanting to eat when I'd get home, and feeling paralyzed by the knowledge of how many people could be fed with the $10 I spent on a CD or seeing a movie. My response started (as it probably does for every privileged person) on a very personal level, in the tender (and I would say holy) space before I learned to rationalize inequality. I felt above all angry.

I spent most of college moving my understanding of poverty from a personal, micro level, to the systemic. My classes taught me about debt and unfair trading policies and the mixed records of multi-national corporations, putting the images of poverty I struggled to deal with in context. The shift in scale only made me feel more overwhelmed by the enormity of the world's problems, and my complicity in its broken systems. I felt above all guilty.

something like healing
My six months in Cambodia swung me back towards the personal, and opened up a space for me to rest. I wouldn't have predicted that living next to a sweatshop would lighten the burden of guilt I felt for being a privileged white girl, but it did. Snapshots of poverty, like the images of disaster zones or the impressions of a walk through a slum neighborhood, don't tell the whole story. Becoming, in a very imperfect way, a part of the community I lived in in Phnom Penh taught me that - obvious as it sounds - suffering people and poor communities are more than the sum of their problems. I don't say this to minimize the violence, hunger, disease and exploitation my neighbors faced, and I realized they were far from the most destitute people - but there was a concentration of life in that community that went beyond the density of the people living there. Yes, many of my neighbors were poor, but they were also moto drivers and factory workers and cooks, young and old, brassy and shy and funny and considerate and blunt and creative. My strongest impressions a year after I left are of who they were, not of the difficulties of their circumstances.

Returning to the US and feeling again the temptation to be overwhelmed by feelings of guilt and helplessness at the world's problems, I offered myself some space: to not try and wrap my head around more than what could fit in my heart for awhile, to allow myself to feel pain and anger for the suffering of the people I know, but not to try and extend those feelings to every painful situation I hear about. Right now, that means there’s not much room in me for Haiti.

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