I have visited my fair share of “3rd world” countries over the years – and without hesitation, I can say that I have learned more from the “poor” about grace, humility and generosity than I have from the “rich”.
My experience in Mozambique (a year and a half ago) was no different. I was there on a trip with Could You? and my travel companions included a woman from Chicago (who works for Oprah)… four women from New York (two who work in the fashion industry – one, a South African ex-pat, who can’t be pigeon-holed and Christine Garde of Could You?) … a woman from London (Reuters journalist)… my super-inspiring friend, Tracey Webster (who heads up Richard Branson’s Centre of Entrepreneurship)… and… me.
Eight women… which is unusual for a Could You? trip – usually, there’s more men than women.
I could write a lot about that trip in this blog… but I’m only going to focus on one story here. The story of the people from a very rural village in Mozambique.
It was a long drive, through the African bush, on dusty roads to reach this tiny village which was – in the middle of nowhere! These villagers lived simple, uncomplicated lives. No electricity. No running water. No sewerage. No cell phone signal.
You may wonder why eight white women from around the world were visiting this rural village in the heart of Mozambique. Usually, White People (and especially those from foreign countries) visit African villages for one of three reasons:
- As tourists: swoop in, take lots of photos that you can put on your Facebook page which says: “I visited an African village”. Swoop out.
- As Givers or Fixers: White People often visit African villages as a part of a humanitarian effort to educate / feed / build orphanages / sink a well… that kind of thing.
- As missionaries (whether Christian or any other religion): these White People visit African villages in order to preach, hand out Bibles, get new converts… that sort of thing.
Could You? does things differently (which is probably why I love them so much!) 🙂
Here’s what their website says:
Our Mission: To help individuals find their own unique contribution to impact poverty.
What is poverty?
Why do we have too much to live with, but too little to live for?
We enjoy every material comfort, yet live in dissatisfaction – the feeling that something is missing.
Yet, others endure insufferable conditions daily with an exuberant spirit of hope and joy.
What would happen if these two worlds collided?
CouldYou? is an innovative, individually tailored immersion program in Mozambique that provides people with an authentic local experience. It helps participants utilise their skills in order to impact social change – and transform their own lives in the process.
CouldYou? explores what it means to have and to lack. Could wealth of joy be shared like wealth of resources?
CouldYou? believes that the line between giver and receiver dissolves when relationship and authentic experience are desired.
So, in a nutshell, we were visiting that village to learn something… to experience something… and, wow! That experience still impacts me to this day… so powerfully, in fact, that I often have to hold back tears when remembering it (and I’m not much of a crier).
When we arrived at the village, we were heartily welcomed. The whole community was there to greet us. Christine and Tracey had brought along a big bag of frozen chicken – and the women immediately set to work cooking. Here’s some photos:
While the food cooked and simmered, the men, the children and the elderly women sat around a big fire on grass mats. One of the things that I absolutely LOVE in places like this small village – is their sense of community! They’re like one big family. They don’t just talk about ubuntu – they live it! I was… in a sense… rather jealous of this lovely community… sitting in the sand around their big fire, chatting and laughing heartily.
In my suburb, everyone lives in big houses behind big walls. We’re all very suspicious of one another. We don’t know each other. We don’t greet one another. We pass our neighbours in the shopping centres and avoid their eyes. I hate that we live like this… and I yearn for the simplicity of community living… and of sharing.
Later, after the food had been prepared – it was time to dish up. We were given generous helpings of very delicious chicken stew. Everyone else ate with their hands, but our hosts had specifically gathered a few forks and spoons for us – the guests. Then we were invited to sit around the fire with the rest of the village. There was lots of story-sharing… laughter… and song. This was truly a beautiful moment for me. I remember sitting with those people (even I couldn’t understand a word they were saying – and our one and only translator was drowned out by the noise and the singing)… but I remember thinking: I love this place. I love these people. They have got something here… in this place with ‘nothing’… they have something that I don’t have back at home. And I’m jealous.
Later that evening, it was time for everyone to get some sleep. Community members had offered to have us sleep in their homes. We paired up into twos (I was with Bridget) – and were led away from the fire by our new hosts.
That was another experience on it’s own: walking through the bush, in the middle of the night… with just the light of the partially clouded moon and the bobbing, light-coloured doek on our hostesses’ head to guide our way. Our hosts couldn’t speak a word of English so there was lots of gesturing between us (which was all rather funny!).
Bridget and I were taken to a home which (apart from the home of the Chief) was considered one of the fanciest homes in the community. Instead of a grass hut – it was a new cement home: a rectangular block with 2 small rooms. Of course… no electricity, running water, toilets – or any of the stuff we take for granted in suburbia… including, of course, beds. “Bed” was a grass mat on the cement floor. The humbling part – however… was that our hosts (an elderly couple) insisted that we take all of the available blankets to make ourselves more comfortable. They would go without blankets on our behalf.
I was appalled – I didn’t want old people sleeping without blankets so that I… the overfed white chick from the city… could have a more comfy rest. I tried to give the blankets back, but my hostess was having none of it. With much rigorous head-shaking, she pushed the blankets back into my hands. It was at that point, that I began to feel overwhelmed and emotional. It has always been (in my experience) the people who have nothing… who give everything to others. I felt like the most selfish person alive.
After an uncomfortable night (even with those extra blankets – my body has been trained for the comfort of a Sealy Posturepedic mattress)… I woke up at around 6:30am… really, really needing to make a wee. Bridget was still asleep beside me, and the household seemed quiet – so I assumed that nobody was awake. I crept out the door and made my way to the back of the house where the “toilet” awaited. Here’s a pic of the toilet:
I love visiting rural places… but sheesh, I really struggle with the toilet situation in places where there’s no… um… “proper” toilets. Also – I had no idea what the protocol was – and since there was no sign of our hostess, I made a (wrong) guess – and I used the washing area to wee! (I felt rather guilty about this afterwards).
But here’s the part that always makes me cry when I recall it: when I exited the the grass-reed “bathroom”, and as I began walking back to the house… the hostess came running around the side of the house… carrying something. The expression on her face expressed both urgency… and embarrassment – that she hadn’t managed to supply me with the stuff I needed ‘in time’ – (because I had got up earlier than she’d expected).
This is what she was hurriedly bringing me:
- A plastic basin filled with warm water.
- A half a bar of flattened soap.
- A neatly folded strip of 1-ply toilet paper.
And she was sooo embarrassed and upset that she hadn’t got it to me “on time”.
Let me put you in the picture: this elderly woman had risen at some ungodly, early hour. She had taken her bucket and walked to the river to fill it. The river is FAR from her house – it’s a long walk! She had then prepared a fire (with wood she had collected)…. and she had heated the water – so that Bridget and I could wash more comfortably. And yet… she was embarrassed… that she hadn’t done enough, that she hadn’t been on time.
Well. That just finished me. And finishes me still.
When I drove away from that village, I couldn’t help thinking about the incredible hospitality and generosity that the villagers had shown us. Nobody asked us for anything – or wanted anything from us. They simply enjoyed hosting us as guests. They easily shared what little they had. They had given me, in the process, such a priceless gift.
While driving back down those dusty roads, I couldn’t help but wonder: how would MY community receive those people? would MY community open their homes for them? would THEY be welcomed in… given the best food… the best beds… the best treatment?
Of course, we all know the answer to this question: the answer is a resounding NO.
In fact, because they’re poor, because they don’t speak our language, because they wear faded, shabby clothes… we would oust them… sneer at them… turn our backs… label them as beggars and thieves.
And it’s at times like this when I wonder who is the ‘poorer’. “Us”… or “them”…?
I read a quote recently which says: “Some people are so poor, all they have is money”.