Monday, July 22, 2013

Malaria, Fasting, Field of Dreams, and Standing in Solidarity

These women were returning from doing laundry at the river. Dad noticed the task had taken them all day. I noticed their loads included uniforms from the choir that had welcomed us at the airstrip.
So I Skyped with my parents last night and found out that Dad is down with malaria again. He’s sweating it out on the living room couch in Plainfield, Indiana and stubbornly not seeking professional medical attention because he says local doctors would overreact (translation: he doesn’t want the medical bills). He hadn’t been taking any anti-malaria meds on our recent trip to DR Congo, but I’d made sure that Mom had some extra pills, so we at least talked him into taking a couple Mefloquine tablets yesterday.

I mention this because, while my father and I agree on many things, there are ways in which we differ. I, for example, take my anti-malaria pills because I’m no good to the team if I’m sick, and I’ve got a young daughter who needs her mommy. Dad, on the other hand, takes the solidarity approach. If the Congolese members of our team don’t have the luxury of taking anti-malaria meds, then neither will he. Dad’s primary mode of transportation in Congo is bicycle; I tend to ride in/on machines with engines while there. Some of our methodological differences are philosophical, but mostly they are related to age and gender (a young mother is more at risk than a crazy grandpa).

The question of how to live in solidarity with our colleagues in Congo is complex. Back in 2005 when I was living in Kamina, there was one day that hit me hard. I had spent the afternoon with two Congolese friends, and they were escorting me back to my house so I could have the dinner the bishop’s cook had prepared for me. They knew I had promised to play with the kids at the orphanage after my meal, so they said they would just wait outside for me. “You must be famished too,” I said. “Why don’t you go home and eat with your family?” They gave each other the do-we-tell-her? look and replied that there was no point walking home because the food money for the month had already finished and the household was fasting until the next payday.

They explained to me the system commonly practiced by families in the community: when food supplies run short, you divide the household into two and teams eat one meal every other day. The ones who have eaten more recently are in charge of doing the labor-intensive work for those who are hungrier. Food is consumed before bedtime so one gets a better night’s sleep and still has energy for morning chores.

As you can imagine, this put me off my appetite, and I felt too guilty to eat the abundant meals being made for me. After a couple days, my energy levels dropped, and the cook started panicking. “You must eat more! If you become thin and sickly the bishop will blame me and I’ll lose my job!” he pleaded. He was right. My solidarity fast was helping no one and stressing out those tasked with keeping me safe and healthy. As the bishop has pointed out numerous times over the years, while sickness, accidents and death are a regular occurrence in Congo, when it happens to an American volunteer it makes international headlines and creates huge problems for the hosts who failed to protect their guests.

This mother (stripes) gave birth by candlelight with the help of this graduate of FPM's El Dorado Nursing School (left) who had received a scholarship from this donor (top right)

I don’t think there is an easy answer on how to live in solidarity with others. I could fast with my Djiboutian neighbors during Ramadan and some might appreciate the gesture, but I still wouldn’t really know what it’s like to enter into a long religious fast when there’s labor-intensive work to do and no air-conditioning. I could start wearing a hoodie when I’m state-side, but I’m still never going to know the experience of people suspecting me of being a criminal just because I’m not wearing my Sunday best. Even if I gave away everything I owned and made a vow of poverty, I wouldn't know the fear, anxiety and depression that accompany involuntary poverty.

All this to say that while attempting to live in solidarity with others is good, we must not romanticize our actions. I am now a member of the North Katanga Conference, and I have pledged to do my utmost to stand in solidarity with my colleagues. And while in some ways we are now in the same boat, I still have advantages that shelter me from the risks and difficulties they face (I have health insurance through my husband's job, for example).

We can pray and strive for the leveling of the playing field, but those of us born into privilege should never forget that God’s primary concern is for the less fortunate, and that means that as much as we may yearn to unite all of God's people and have the Beatitudes be about us too, sometimes the Gospel isn't talking to us.  Sometimes we aren’t invited.

(My father raised me on Field of Dreams. Just because God calls you to do something big doesn't mean it's all about you.) 

Note: In this post I leave several key things unsaid hoping that the reader will connect the dots.

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