If I asked you to think about 384 million people, would you be able to find an image in your minds eye? If I tried to get you to visualize 147 million orphan children, would you be able to conjure up such a picture? In the swirl and confusion of conversations about the US economy and budget cuts, as we use the disembodied language of millions and billions of dollars, do you have a picture in your mind of a giant pile of bills and coins? Most of us will never see a trail of that many zeroes in our own bank accounts.
We do like big numbers. I have not heard anyone describe the trek to the summit of Kilimanjaro as a 3.8-mile climb. Climbers like to say that they traveled 19, 340 ft.
What is fascinating to me is that even though the most common ways to describe issues of poverty is to use obtuse language and disconnected big numbers, if we think back to the reasons we began to care about the effects of poverty, it would, in most cases, start with a single story. The reasons we were compelled to write a letter to our senator, or sign a petition, or make a financial sacrifice was because of a single story. At some point in the conversation the numbers fell to the periphery and left standing a human face, or a family story that brought weight and meaning to what was once just information.
And so it is with great hesitation that I write this post. Because what I am hoping to celebrate without being contradictory is the completion of Blood:Water Mission’s goal to help bring clean water to 1, 000 communities in Africa by way of a campaign called, “The 1000 Wells Project.” How could our widest eyes grasp a view vast enough to hold 1, 000 communities? And even though it is impressive that nearly 700, 000 people have access to clean, safe water that did not before, I understand that unless you were standing on the stage in Philadelphia during the Live8 concert, where nearly 1 million people gathered to bring mass awareness to the fight against global poverty, you might not be able to visualize such a physical presence.
So, to break it down, picture a small child roughly 6 years of age. Picture that child with a swollen belly from the worms about an inch in length that fill her bowels. Picture that child walking the 4 miles back to her village carrying a can of larva infested, animal polluted water that weighs as much as she does. Picture that girl dragging that water can nearly all day. Consider this child’s reality. She will not get an education because of this mundane task of collecting dirty water. She will not be healthy because she will carry worms in her system for the rest of her life. She will be embarrassed when the worms come out of her at random times because there are so many in her system even as the larva hatch inside of her and grow into more worms.
This reality is enough to make us shut down emotionally. Can you visualize yourself as a child? Or can you put your own child in that place under those conditions? Could you find the imagination necessary to feel those worms growing inside of you? Could you find your way to feel the hopelessness of never learning to read or write? Of course you can. But why would we want to stay in that meditation for too long? It is simply heartbreaking. Some might argue that feeling too much is no better than not feeling at all. As both experiences are numbing and paralyzing.
So, where do we go from here? What if we visualize that same child in a school classroom? What if we visualize her with soft skin, and no worms? What if we picture her holding a book that she is learning to read? Does that cause us to re-engage? Does it allow us a foothold back into a story that is ripe for our compassion empathy and action? This is the story we want to tell. It is the hope infused story of real people with real dreams and significant obstacles that they are overcoming. We do love those stories. We seek them out.
I have always held to an idea that if it were my family, and if it were my children who did not have the basic needs for human life, that our story would be compelling enough. I hope that it would not be necessary to wait for the creation of a movement of millions of people voicing solidarity and advocacy to make someone feel implicated in the story of my sick children alone.
After all, for those of us who have been invested in the work of fighting HIV/AIDS and the work of bringing clean water to communities in Africa, we aren’t invested in ending the water crisis. We are invested in helping people survive and thrive. Paul Farmer is absolutely correct. We do not treat a disease. We treat a person.
So, join us in celebrating the life of ONE healthy child, 700, 000 times over. And thank you for your continued support!