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Thoughts on The Cruelest Journey

One of my blogging friends recently had a post reviewing the book The Cruelest Journey by Kira Salak, which you can read here at "Our Wrighting Pad".  Her review got me interested in the book, so I checked it out of the local public library.

The book relates the story of Ms. Salak's kayak trip down part of the Niger River, from Segou in Mali to Timbuktu (yes, it's a real place). In some ways I cannot relate to Ms. Salak's story as I don't go in any kind of water craft that might possibly tip over, don't like deep water, and would not travel that distance alone.  But as she interacts with parts of the culture, I find myself identifying with her.  I love to read about different cultures and people's interactions with other cultures.  I also love to read anything about West Africa.
As she travels, she often spends the night in villages.  At the beginning people are friendly and open, but the closer she draws to Timbuktu, the more demanding people become for money, probably because of the way tourists have thrown money around. Ms. Salak often feels frightened, not knowing what people will do to her.  On one level I feel like her fear is a little overdone.  Demands for money in this part of Africa don't necessarily translate into personal harm.  But I have been pick-pocketed in the market and our house has been burglarized, so it could happen.  Also, there have been kidnappings in this region, and with her traveling alone her fears may have been well-founded.

But what I find myself identifying with is the pervasiveness of the poverty. Ms. Salak writes,
·         “Yes. Poor. ....I've been to other countries just as that when I see Mali all around me, a strange numbness of familiarity comes over me. A numbness that is part acceptance, but part resignation, too. Inevitably, I become filled with this strong desire to Do Something about it, which often succumbs to feelings of futility.... The poverty greeted me on every street corner and along every road. I quickly ran out of spare change or bills to drop in all the extended palms.”

Oh yes, I can identify with those feelings of wanting to Do Something and then with the futility of it all.  I've often likened helping people there with putting a band-aid on a huge, open, surgical wound.  There are so many needs and so little I as an individual can do.

The poverty is everywhere you look, and life seems so unfair.  Why were they born into those conditions, while I was born to American parents?  Even though I am not rich by any means, why do I have enough money to buy all the clothes and food I need while they have one or two new outfits per year and don't know where their money will come from?  Why do they find themselves unable to come up with the $1.00 needed to go to the dispensary for medical help that leaves a lot to be desired while I can be medically evacuated from the country if need be to receive the latest in medical care?  Ms. Salak writes:
·         “I do have some bottles of ibuprofen that I brought to Mali to pass out as gifts and when a couple of old women with painful arthritis come forward I ask a young woman who speaks really good French to translate my instructions for taking the pills. When I hand the bottles over, the old women are so happy to receive then that they hold their hands toward me and start crying. I look down, feeling completely ashamed. Ashamed for all I have, and for all they don't. Ashamed that while American babies live, theirs must die. Mali has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world: 12 of every 100 babies die. And what to do about any of it? I know that the economy of my own country often flourishes by exploiting other countries' poverty and suffering. Sitting here in Nakri, in front of all these people, I feel a certain culpability from simply being American.”
Oh yes, I feel annoyed by being asked so often to help with this or that.  And I immediately feel guilty....culpable as Ms. Salak says.  And I believe that for Christians, it is even more complicated.  What would Jesus do?  At what point are we being compassionate and at what point are we being patronizing and colonial in our approach?  Does this person really need help to buy food or do they need to be taught better farming methods?  And anyway, I don't know the first thing about farming myself.  So how do I balance constant requests for help with the love of Jesus?  Do I respond from true love or from feelings of guilt?  

In SIM Niger we've been talking about the danger of the one story.  It is easy to label people and assign one story to them.  For me, it is easy to assign labels to see them as "poor" or "needy" and not to see each person individually with a more complicated story.  It is easy for Nigeriens to see me as "Rich White Lady" and to demand money from me rather than getting to know me as somebody who has her own story.  Ms. Salak said,
·         “People don't seem interested in me much beyond what I might be able to give them. They see my white skin and reduce me to an identity I can't shake: Rich White Woman, Bearer of Gifts, nothing more. This is an important lesson--the way people so easily label and dismiss each other. I'm dismayed by how simple it is for me to get caught in the same game, to start seeing every passing man in a canoe as a threat or as someone who only wants something from me. In this cordoning off of the people I meet, in this mistrust, I deny them their humanity. Do we ever greet people without wanting something from them? Without hoping they'll give us certain things in return--love, money, approval? Without wanting them to change, or to do what we want, or to see us the way we want to be seen? What's stopping us from simply finding joy in another's presence? I'm miffed by it all.

I think what it comes down to is that the difference comes when we build relationships. Ms. Salak didn't have the luxury of spending more than one night in a village.  Our family lived for 16 years in the same village.  We were adopted by families.  Yes, we got a lot of requests for help.  But we were also helped.  People gave us gifts.  We got to know people's stories and they got to know ours.  Yes, there was still a separation that we could never seem to bridge, a difference in culture that is always there no matter what.  But there was also a mutual respect.  That can't happen when you are in and out of a village, spending less than 10 hours there.

Ms. Salak writes:
·         “A crowd gathers nearby to stare at me, the kids asking me for money in incessant whispers. There are just too many of them to give money to. And beyond that, what would I be teaching them? Only the same lessons the other tourists have: that white people represent money and nothing more. Maybe it's foolish, wishful thinking that I want to be more to the people I meet. It seems crucial that I become more, that we understand each other, know the commonality of our existence, know how we can help one another. But here in Wameena we have only a single night together, and the women are busy patching houses and cooking, and the men are discussing plans language difficulties separating us more easily than continents ever can, and with much more finality. So here, too, is something I should probably learn to accept.”

There are no simple answers.  The only answer I can give is to not lose sight of why we are in Niger.  Simply put, it is to show the love of Christ, to know people, and to help meet their needs.  Yes, I must admit I become overwhelmed with the needs, with the demands.  I must admit that sometimes I don't respond in a God-glorifying manner.  In one village Ms. Salak gets angry with people because of the way they are crowding around her, demanding this and that, and then she regrets her reaction.  I have to admit.....been there, done that.  The best way to live in Niger is to really get to know people, to build relationships, to understand their story.

(All pictures from Kira Salak's website.)
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