Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Like a grain of mustard.....

I've debated with myself for some time about whether, and how to tell this story. It touches on friends of mine- friends of mine who the readers of this blog will probably never encounter, but friends nonetheless. I worry that this will be too much of a betrayal of their privacy. But on balance, I don't think it is. I tell this story "ad majorem Dei gloriam", and because I want to reveal a portrait of what strong and good people in a developing country look like: to provide a humanized portrait of what people are like in a very poor peasant society. I think they would approve of that goal, and that's why I am telling this story.

I worked with several different villages, when I lived in Madagascar, about seven over the course of the couple years I was there. In one, I had some neighbors- a couple that we can call 'Norbert' (the guy) and 'Liva' (the woman). He was in his late thirties, she in her early twenties (the same age as my brother). When I first met them, they were among the poorest people in the village. He was a heavy drinker, as are many of the underemployed men in rural Madagascar, and was visibly intoxicated on some of the occasions I saw them; she already had one child and was about to have another. They didn't have any land, beyond what they could ask friends or relatives to lend them- when I met them 'Norbert' was working on a little garden patch with some sweet potatoes and pumpkins, that I occasionally helped him weed. They made a meager living largely from working for other people as day laborers. They lived in a tiny, dark little cottage, on land that wasn't their own, with no land of their own, no trees, no rice paddy or corn field.

I first became acquainted with them when "Liva" came to my house one day to ask to borrow some food. This is the kind of thing that happens not uncommonly in what is around the 12th poorest country in the world. Situations like this were often a topic of argument among people that I knew- should you just give food away, or does that just encourage people not to work? Whatever one's answer to that, I didn't feel like I could turn someone away hungry, especially if they had a baby. When Jesus said, "For I was hungry and ye fed me, thirsty and gave me to drink...." that was a command, not a friendly suggestion. I gave them, I think, some rice and salt fish, and they took it home and cooked it.

In the weeks after that, I would go over there, occasionally at first but then more often, and check on how the family, and their new baby was doing. Their older child had some developmental difficulties, but was a sweet and well-behaved kid- occasionally I gave them bus fare to the nearest hospital to go get him checked out at the doctor (and when the baby got a bit older sometimes they would go to the hospital and get him checked out as well). I brought them gifts when I went to the city on work, sometimes, and started working with them on a regular basis as well.

I worked with lots of people in the seven or so villages that I covered, in a variety of capacities. I gave presentations and 'sensibibilizations', and taught environmental education classes in the elementary school, and I also obtained materials through grants for a couple of projects- fruit tree planting, poultry raising, beekeeping, etc. But I also worked on a much more intensive basis with a few model farmers- I think about 15-20 or so- and tried to make their little plots of land demonstration areas where neighbors and other people could observe demonstrations of improved agriculture techniques, tree plantings, etc. and hopefully replicate these techniques on their own. I'm not sure why I decided to work on an intensive basis with "Norbert", "Liva", and their family, but perhaps it was because I was spending so much time over at their home anyway that I figured I should use that time for working. As it turned out, they were receptive to learning about new agricultural techniques. Planting cover crops (cowpeas, pumpkins, etc.) in between their corn, planting the corn in lines, planting soil-improving cowpeas and pigeonpeas, even planting a little bit of sorghum (a seriously under-utilized, but very well-adapted plant for that region.) At first there was some resistance, as you would expect; people like to burn their fields, partly because it saves labor and partly because it's always been done, and it took me a while to explain why it might not be a great idea. There was resistance to the idea of mulching, too, since the fear was that it might foster insects (which, often, it does), so I talked with them about this and how the problems might be overcome. "Liva", I later found out, was a migrant from the highlands (of which there are many in the West), and a member of the tribe that is widely considered be culturally the most hard-working of all the tribes in the country- and in my limited experience, they were often very open to innovation as well.

I also, of course, enjoyed hearing from them about their experiences and opinions, and often learned from them. On one occasion I remember bringing a book I was reading about Venezuela out to the field- "Liva" asked what it was, and this started a long discussion about land reform and politics. We talked about a lot of things, and I learned a lot about everything from leprosy, to folklore, to village gossip. We spent a lot of time working out in their fields, and entertaining ourselves by sharing gossip- "Liva" liked to tell tall stories about friends of her from school, how many guys they had slept with, and so forth.

I remember visiting their field a little over two years later, just about the time I left, and looking at their little plot of land. It couldn't have looked more different. Instead of a bare, dusty dry patch of red soil, there were papaya trees growing in small, well-tended circles....just about high enough to start bearing small fruit. There were pumpkins covering the ground between the corn stalks, preventing weeds from growing, and there were plenty of soil improving legumes planted that in the years to come would enrich the soil. Their home was small and modest but it was well kept and, in a way, quite pretty, with a fine fence made of tall slender tree trunks, and a loft underneath the thatched roof. They probably had more papaya trees growing, and better maintained, than any of the other families I had worked with, and quite a few people passing through from other villages commented on how beautiful and productive their garden was, and about the interesting new agricultural techniques that they were using; I believe someone even asked them to give them some papaya seeds for planting.

This wasn't the only change in their lives, interestingly enough, though it was the only change that was really due in large part to my working with them. Shortly after I began working with them, "Norbert" stopped drinking, for good. Two years later he hadn't picked it up again. I'm not sure why- he didn't talk about it much and I heard from his wife. He got a short-term job as a guardsman for a road repair project, and applied for and got title to land formerly owned by the community: for a house, and for a cornfield. He became a kind of lay official at his Lutheran church, and gradually became more and more of an important person in the congregation. He was fond of telling me about how he and his wife refused to ever go to a "medicine man", because he was a Christian. "Liva" started telling me about how she was going to send her youngest child to school, and about the big plans that they had for the future. They might start a little brick-making business (we actually tried a little abortive experiment on those lines), make papaya jam and sell it, etc. Their neighbors in the village perceptibly talked about them with more respect and admiration, and there was definitely a pride and happiness in the way that they walked and carried themselves that there hadn't been before.

That was about the time I left. I haven't heard from them since then, but I am planning to write later today, and I hope to try and go back to Madagascar in the next couple years and re-awaken my friendship with them. But I can't help wondering about what a transformation came about in the lives of this truly destitute family during the time I was there. That transformation, of course, was one that they made for themselves, through their own tremendous effort. The kind of extraordinary effort it takes to lift yourself out of suffering and despair, and to become a well-regarded free peasant with a beautiful home and field, is something I can't even imagine, and it testifies to the great strength and goodness that was in "Norbert" and perhaps even more in his wife. But I wonder, was my intervention and my obvious interest in working with them and trying to help them out, something of a catalyst? Did the fact that their company, their well-being, and their insights and experiences were obviously valued by a young foreign technician from a developed country, make them realize how valuable they were as people, in the eyes of God? Did they come to realize that if I valued them and their company, it didn't necessarily matter so much if the village looked down on them- and that truly, the condescension of some of their neighbors was something they had the power to overcome, and even to reverse? Did the fact that I showed some care and concern for them give them hope and faith that led them to truly escape destitution through their own efforts?

I don't know, truly. We never know to what extent things that happen are influenced by what we do, and we never know how much what we do is influenced by what happens to us. No one can truly separate the concatenation of causes, except for God. But this I do know. Simone Weil says somewhere that the error of too many liberals and socialists (she was, of course, a Christian socialist herself), is that they assume that what suffering people lack, most of all, is money and the things money can buy. That's true, but it's only part of the truth. People need food, and shelter, and money: but they also need respect, and love. You can't truly respect the dignity of a hungry person without giving him food, but neither can you fully respect him without trying to build a world in which he can be a productive, participatory member of society whose work, whose beliefs, and whose feelings are valued. This is what true Christian love is, I think, and we are under the obligation to show it at all times. Jesus said that faith as little as a grain of mustard seed can move mountains. Similarly, even a tiny bit of love- love as little as a grain of mustard- can have far-reaching consequences: and this is a lesson that, when I look back on my experience with "Norbert" and "Liva"- two of the truly strongest, hardest-working, and most progressive people that I remember meeting- that I can never escape from.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Nice first post (from my reading viewpoint). Thanks.

-Barry

sarcozona said...

Ah ha! I've figured out who you are! Lovely post - it makes me want to go visit. Or do something that feels more productive than working on my undergrad.

You say the error of too many liberals and socialists (she was, of course, a Christian socialist herself), is that they assume that what suffering people lack, most of all, is money and the things money can buy. That's true, but it's only part of the truth. People need food, and shelter, and money: but they also need respect, and love. You can't truly respect the dignity of a hungry person without giving him food, but neither can you fully respect him without trying to build a world in which he can be a productive, participatory member of society whose work, whose beliefs, and whose feelings are valued. This is what true Christian love is, I think, and we are under the obligation to show it at all times.

I agree with most of this, but I certainly wouldn't call it "true Christian love." Just love or goodness fit just fine or a respect for human rights and dignity. We liberal atheists aren't excluded from such feelings and actions just because we think the idea of a god is nonsense.

And I'm sure you didn't mean it that way, but you made it sound like liberals were never Christians! In my experience, liberal Christians are the most compassionate, non-judgmental Christians I know.

Hector said...

Sarcozona,

I'm glad you liked my blog! Hope your family visits are going well.

Much of my immediate family is atheist, so I totally appreciate that there are lots of atheists and agnostics (as well as Hindus, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, and whoever) who demonstrate the kind of love that I'm talking about, in their lives. I think it's an innate part of our natures, and our souls, that we find that kind of love attractive and good. I've called it Christian love because, in my opinion, it was most fully demonstrated by Jesus, and it is what Jesus commanded us to do.

I'm certainly not politically conservative, on the whole- I voted for Nader this November! and I think politically conservative Christianity in this country, which tries to use their religion as a facade for nationalism, capitalism, and things like demanding women submit to their husbands, is really absurd. I am, on most issues, a very left-wing Christian myself, and certainly don't have much time for the religious right.However this doesn't mean that left-wing Christians are without errors of their own! Simone Weil was a person of the Christian left herself- she was really respondng to a particular current of thought, of which there were many in France at the time, and many today.

Yeah you should look into Madagascar, it's a fascinating country for a botanist, although it's also been tremendously deforested (much more so than most of continental Africa). Try to look for a research grant or something to go over there! Or maybe in grad school you may get the opportunity. Or you could try to get a job in forestry there....actually a lot of the environmental organizations and things there have a lot of American staff.