“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”
- Winston Churchill
“Weren’t you scared?” my colleague asked a couple of days after we had returned from Tanzania. “Weren’t you scared? My God, there’s so much danger! It must be a very scary place!”
I was as startled by the unnamed questions as I was by the one she had asked. Maybe she was wondering if we were in danger because of the disparity between their poverty and our wealth. Maybe she was convinced that white people would be automatic victims of stereotyping and hatred. Maybe she thought the violence that has plagued so many nations on that continent over the past decades was present everywhere.
I pondered her question. “Yes, I was scared at first.” I went on to explain, “You see, everything was so unfamiliar. I am not accustomed to being in the minority. I did not know instinctively what situations to avoid. I was suddenly dependent on people I had not yet learned to trust. And, foolishly, I had read a disturbing book on the plane.”
“What book?” she asked.
On the flight to Tanzania, I had finished Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust by Immaculee Ilibagiza, a first-person account by a Tutsi who had survived three months during the 1994 genocide by hiding in a tiny bathroom with six other women. "It is a frightening description of the unbelievable atrocities that took place in a country that borders Tanzania. The book culminates in redemption, but the images of violent gangs wielding machetes and of the unspeakable, unthinking hatred haunted me. I could have picked a better book to read.”
She nodded, believing that she understood.
“As soon as we landed, though, I had the opportunity to interact with the Tanzanian people. They are soft-spoken, loving, and gentle. Most have very few material possessions. (Tanzania ranks in the bottom 10 percent of countries with a median income of $340 per year – less than one dollar per day.) They seemed oblivious to the deeply rutted roads and the near-complete lack of infrastructure. They didn’t seem to mind walking for miles in driving downpours. The few with access to electricity didn’t notice when the power went out yet again. I can’t recall any of them ever complaining.
“You see, their schedules and priorities seemed so different than ours. After a couple of days, I began to notice things. We saw almost no begging in the city of Arusha. We noticed how the people took pride in their small homes, carefully sweeping the dirt in front of their doorways. We heard stories of how they take care of each other and their extended families. We learned from their farmers, their pastors, their teachers, and their healthcare workers. We marveled at how they creatively carry on despite a near-complete lack of resources. I found myself envying their peace, serenity, and generosity in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges, even though I barely understood their culture.”
She furrowed her brow. “But weren’t you ever scared?”
I laughed. “Yes. Without a doubt, the scariest night was the first time we heard lions roaring a few hundred meters from our tent camp in the Serengeti. That was a little unnerving.”
She shuddered and went back to work.
Later, that same day I was still thinking about my colleague’s question. Suddenly, my pager went off and I responded to the Trauma Operating Room. A young woman had been slashed with a knife by someone she knew. The trauma surgeons had saved her life and had asked us to repair some of the damage. The multiple wounds were deep and long. It had been a serious attempt to kill her.
As she lay asleep on the operating table, I explored the injuries. Here was a wound that could just as easily have occurred as a result of a machete attack during the time of the Rwandan genocide, from a brutal assault in Darfur, as a result of the recent unrest in Kenya, during ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, as a reprisal for a killing in Iraq, or in any of a hundred troubled lands in the world. Our patient was different only in that she would survive.
Silently, I thought to myself, “Weren’t you scared? My God, there’s so much danger!” I am scared that we will never learn the lessons that are just as evident in our own towns and cities as they are half a world away. I am repentant that our position of privilege has yet to teach us how to discern ways that make everyone safer and more secure. Mostly, though, I am grateful to our new friends in Tanzania for helping me realize that each of us, me included, is called to make a real difference whenever and wherever we are able.
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Wonderful story. Blessed are the poor... Seems counter intuitive but when all of life's material distractions are removed, character and kindness are the most valuable currency.
- Val Jones
I read Left to Tell; it was heart-breaking. I think the thought of what human beings are capable of inflicting on one another is scarier than anything.
If you ever have a chance to hear Imaculee Ilibagiza speak, try and attend; she has such an incredible aura about her...truly moving.