Monday, September 18, 2006


The Problem

According to Ben Fountain, at an intersection in Accra, Ghana, a one-legged boy on crutches hobbles up to a car stuck in traffic. Inside are a driver, a diplomat's wife and a foreign visitor. As the boy extends his palm, the visitor pulls a clump of bank notes from her purse. "Don't give him money!" the diplomat's wife calls sharply. "That makes you part of the problem!" The visitor gives the beggar the money anyway. "As long as there's no solution," she replies, " I might as well be part of the problem."

The visitor wasn't my sister-in-law Bethanie. I don't think she's ever been to Ghana - physically. She lives in Haiti among sons and grandsons of once-upon-a-time slaves. She lives in a valley in between mountains on a slope in between ravines with lizards and scorched white rocks where the tether of community is still easy to grip; she lives against the disorienting cities where streets become dunes of garbage - filling out the open spaces, eruptioning in filth so colorfully rich they acheive a sort of abstraction.

Things are concrete where Bethanie lives. The Americans live in a compound surrounded by a fence (as do most missionaries who try to fix the problems of really poor people). The gates are locked at night. During the day the Haitians enter the compound and stand on porches, hang on yard fences and wait until the Mennonites have time to answer their questions and honor their requests. Its not easy living 7 hours from the nearest tomatoes; the running water is never heated; potatoes are a scarce commodity. But natives wash most of their clothes with (discontinued) wringing washers. Haitian cooks make Haitian food for the blancs and their native staff. Labor is in abundance but the Holmes County transplants can only hire so many people; only so many are allowed open access to the mission center's well of water (it's a long way to tote drinking water from the nearest mountain spring). The Mennonites only hire morally upstanding citizens which means most of them attend the church they built out of concrete and tin and painted white and mint green.

Bethanie is in charge of the clinic which forms the inadvertant center of town; outside its fence is the local market. Bethanie is the dispenser of medicine, of food for malnourished children, of HIV tests, of advice for young mothers, of tears. I'm sure she feels at times she might be contributing to the problem to which there is a solution which no one knows. She knows LaSource has a dual economy, a class system, a racial divide. She senses the cultural chauvenism and feels the desperate needs. She knows she is extending the dependency. She knows she isn't living like they do. It bothers her. It bothers her that the other whites talk about themselves, about each other (not always in front of each other's backs) about the place they are from rather than about potential solutions to the problem or what they must learn about their own problems.

One of Bethanie's favorite things to do is to sing - to sing like the Haitians - in a full-bore, gently-swaying, arm-waving sonorous uprush of sound and wind. Maybe it allows her to forget for just an instant her irreducible difference and remember the overwhelming familiarity she has with those she regards as human before they become others: objects to be fixed. Maybe for a second she feels completely a part of a community, a part of a whole. I suspect that in this moment the spiritual aspect of being-in-relation fills her soul and she (sub) consciously feels as though she might be part of a solution.

We miss not living near Bethanie, yet we know that for now she is where she wants to be - where she can help mothers to live to see another day, children to distend their bellies no longer, HIV patients to contribute socially and give orphans her shoes so they can go to school. If Bethanie is adding to the problems of the world, I'm glad she can do it in a place where she can at least sing like a Haitian. It's nice to have a problem for a sister-in-law.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You've shared some marvelous thoughts concerning Bethanie and Haiti. I share most of the sentiment that you offered - at least what I understand :) - especially the statement "It bothers her that the other whites talk about themselves, about each other (not always in front of each other's backs) about the place they are from rather than about potential solutions to the problem or what they must learn about their own problems." I've never thought about it exactly like that, but I felt it and couldn't put my finger on it. I know that you're not being critical for critical sake - me neither. But, maybe that's one area we can all grow in - maintaining our focus in the proper perspective of reality. It's not where we've been, or even to where we will surely return that matters. It's where we are, and what we will do to make it better - even if only for a little while that counts :)
Brother Ricky - your foto fan :)

6:09 PM  

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