Wednesday, June 19, 2013

One Death Too Many

            As I type this, I feel lightheaded from all the emotions swimming through my head because of the terrible events that happened in my community this week. Over a week ago, one of my coworkers was brutally beaten by a group of men, and he died earlier this week from head wounds. It was shocking to everyone who knew him: Phillippe was 54 years old, all of 5 foot 2 inches, maybe 120 pounds. He was the janitor and cared for the animals at my health center, and he was such a kindhearted man. He left behind 10 children. We are all still reeling from his death in my village, and no one has been held responsible for killing him. It was so sudden and shocking: one day, he was joking around with me and asking me how the soymilk cooperative was going; the next day he was in a coma in the hospital. It just seems so utterly senseless. I miss his smile--full of chipped teeth but warm and cheerful—every day I walk into the health center.

Rest in Peace, Phillippe
            And then today, I was making soymilk with the women in the cooperative outside the health center as usual. I went into our nutrition office to ask Sr. Agnes a question, and was confronted by one of the most difficult situations in my Peace Corps service. A tall, thin woman, with a few wisps of white hair slipping out of the colorful scarf covering her head, sat on a wooden chair and rocked a tiny baby in her arms. A dingy towel that smelled heavily of stale urine covered the baby. From the size of the child, I expected her to be an infant, perhaps 2 or 3 months old. Sr. Agnes’ face was stone like, and I instantly forgot what I came to ask her. Instead I asked Sr. Agnes the baby’s age, and she told me the baby was over two years old. I was shocked. With no emotion in her voice, Sr. Agnes said, “This child is going to die.”
            I almost burst into tears right then and there. I bit my tongue so hard I could taste the blood in my mouth as Sr. Agnes walked over to the old woman and picked the little girl up. The child was too weak to even hold its head up; its neck was the size of my wrist. I wanted to scream. Sr. Agnes brought the little girl close to me. The little girl wasn’t wearing any clothes underneath the dirty blanket, and I could see every single bone in her body. Her skin looked as though it was too big for minuscule frame; it stretched over her distended belly and hung off her limbs. My voice shaking, I asked my counterpart if we could do anything at all for the little girl. It couldn’t be too late, she was still breathing.
           My other counterpart, Felix, whom I had barely noticed was in the room, said that there was nothing that they could do other than transfer her to the hospital 40 minutes away. I was angry and confused, and I wanted to yell at them, “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU WAITING FOR?! DO IT NOW! LET’S GET IN THAT GODDAMN AMBULANCE OVER THOSE SHITTY ROADS TO THE HOSPITAL! LET’S PUT HER ON EVERY TREATMENT THEY HAVE THIS SECOND! EVERYTHING! ANYTHING!”
           The room was spinning, but at the same time it was so quiet you could hear everyone breathing. My voice still quivering, I asked why the baby wasn’t being taken to the hospital right now. Felix shrugged and said the ambulance was on its way back from a trip to the hospital and that there was nothing we could do for her at our health center.
           Tears started to well up in my eyes, and I asked Sr. Agnes why the little girl wasn’t in our malnutrition program. She told me that the child was born to an unmarried woman who abandoned the baby shortly after birth and ran away to Burundi with the father. The older woman in our office was the little girl’s grandmother. For some reason, the grandmother didn’t report the baby to local officials, who would have included the little girl in the mandatory growth-monitoring program used to catch and treat malnutrition in the village. I have seen severely stunted and malnourished children in our malnutrition program; none of them were even close to this little girl.
          After the ambulance came to pick her up, I went back to the nun’s convent in a daze. It was lunchtime, and I walked back to our hot little kitchen, where three pots of beans, rice, and boiled cabbage simmered on the wood-burning stove. The food that I mentally complain about almost every single day. The food I choke down, having removed any pleasure from the act of filling my stomach. The food I fantasize about while watching Top Chef. The food that I have, and have had, and have never in my life fully appreciated. The food that has enabled me to develop and thrive. The food that that little girl never had. It was just about the worst feeling in the world, seeing that food right in front of me. I felt utterly disgusted with myself. I felt like vomiting and left the kitchen to head back to my bedroom. I was alone, but I kept replaying the scene at the health center over and over in my head.
           I consider it one of the most grievous failings of humanity that we are capable of landing robots on Mars, exploring the deepest depths of the oceans, having machines to wash our clothes and to dry our hair, but we have been unable to provide even the most basic, life-saving products and services to the people who need it most: food, clean water, shelter, clothing, healthcare, and education. It boggles my mind that it’s the year 2013 and people are still dying of starvation when in the developed world we are faced with hundreds of thousands of choices and infinitely customizable options that most people in my village cannot fathom.
           Cars: SUV? Truck? Sedan? 4 wheel drive? Convertible? Manual or automatic transmission? Dental floss: Plain? Waxed? Mint waxed? Cinnamon waxed? A million different kinds of air fresheners. Snuggies. Deodorant. M&Ms. Hair colors. Painkillers. Video games. We live in this really insane world that has its priorities completely backwards. We have houses for our cars, but not for our people. Half of the world is trying desperately to lose weight, through pills and diets and exercise equipment, and the other half are desperately fighting for every pound. 

          To say that I have been sheltered from the utter brutality of the world in my life up to this point is a massive understatement. I think brutality is really the only word I can use to describe what that little girl has suffered. I will never, ever forget her face as long as I live.

            I am not sure if the little girl is going to make it or not. If she makes it through the next few days, she will likely have permanent developmental damage. But this I do know: food is a basic human right. Hunger in today’s world is a matter of power and privilege. Hunger is violence. It is brutality. And we can end it if we really want to, because even one death from starvation is far, far too many.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The More I See, the Less I Know

           I feel as though I’ve overcome so many obstacles with the women’s soymilk cooperative that I could be an Olympic hurdler right now. And the challenges continue…
            For the past month, the cooperative has been in a state of flux. We sadly lost our store before I left for Rome, when the owners of the building wanted to charge us 30,000 francs in rent per month after previously agreeing we could use the building for free (we only make 15,000 francs in profit a month, and they refused to negotiate). I was pretty bummed about it: the store was a gathering place where the community could come together. We had a steady stream of customers, and I loved interacting with them. But we had to accept it and move on. 


            For the past month, we’ve been looking into selling the soymilk to nearby schools that have a lunch program. The soymilk is the same price as tea (100 francs a cup), which many of the schools already give to their students, and cheaper than cow’s milk (300-400 francs a cup), which many of the schools want to give to their students but they can’t afford it.  

            Challenge number two billion in this project came a couple weeks ago when one of the nearby schools’ lunch program directors—I’ll call him Theophile--- asked if we could donate some soymilk for his students to try, and then if they liked it, he would give us a contract and buy the soymilk every week. There are 250 secondary school students, so we were very excited about the prospects. I discussed it with my two counterparts, and we agreed that the women would make 60 liters of the soymilk for free to give to the students as a trial-run. So we made the soymilk and lugged it all over to the school—about 45 minutes walking--- to give to the students.
            The students really loved it, and I came back to the health center excited that we would soon gain a weekly contract with the school. My counterparts exchanged uneasy glances, and one explained that Theophile is really untrustworthy. He had ordered a bunch of cow’s milk from the health center, and then refused to pay. Another time, Theophile ordered several kilos of vegetables from the health center’s garden, and after they were picked, refused to honor their contract. Sure enough, when I called Theophile to secure the soymilk contract, he backed out. I was a upset that no one told me this man was untrustworthy in our meeting before we donated 60 LITERS of soymilk to them, but we did the only thing we could do: move on, again.

           An opportunity finally came when the soymilk cooperative gained a contract with the preschool (gardienne) in my village. This means that they’ll buy soymilk for the kids every week. I met with the director, and she asked me why we didn’t bring soymilk last week, and I said that we didn’t know she wanted it the week before. After more discussion, I learned she’d ordered soymilk from my counterpart, who never bothered to tell me. Sometimes I just want to yell, “CAN SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME WHAT’S GOING ON HERE??!!?”

My brother Paul helping us carry soymilk
            And then challenge number two billion and one also came this week. I was very excited because the women in the cooperative finally earned enough money to buy each woman a pig (a decision they had all voted on). The women were ecstatic. I visited their homes to make sure that they had constructed a pen for the pig, and then gave them the money to buy a small pig, which they will then raise and sell for a profit. I didn’t see how anyone could see this as a negative thing. Well, yet again, apparently I see things differently.
            It has become more and more apparent to me in the past few months that my vision of the cooperative is very different from that of my counterparts. My two counterparts, I think, see the women's soymilk cooperative as more of a charity than a social enterprise. Rather than using the cooperative as a sustainable business to provide benefits to its members that will continue after I’ve left, my coworkers keep pushing to give the soymilk away for free, or just to give the soybeans away to members of the community.

                I don’t know if this difference is coming from my American, more business-minded mentality (and I’m saying this having studied political science and peace studies in college!) or the fact that so often international non-profits and NGOs foster a culture of dependency by donating goods and materials with no strings attached, but it’s so, so hard for me to swallow. I feel like I’m trying to do what’s best in the long term: giving people jobs rather than handouts, fostering a business that can operate without me for years to come rather than giving out soymilk for free to people that need it now, but that will quickly dry up in only a few months without more donations, leaving people in the same positions they were in before.

            So I’m left again with this terribly confused feeling: in many ways, I feel that the cooperative has been doing great things. We’ve done community soymilk demonstrations that have educated over 1,000 parents on soymilk making and nutrition, lifted every cooperative member’s child out of the red (extremely malnourished) zone, delivered a nutrient-rich product to a population frequently lacking a cheap source of protein and iron, and provided the women with a source of income (the pigs). The women are committed to the project and often walk two or three hours one-way to make the soymilk. But it kills me that there is this tension between what my counterparts want and where I see the project going. They are an integral part of my work here, and I deeply respect them. I am worried that if I continue with my vision of the project, I will burn bridges with one or both of them, which is obviously something I want to avoid at all costs.

                 And all of this honestly makes me question the whole project: am I some sort of evil capitalist who is denying soymilk to children who need it for the sake of profit for its members? I receive zero financial benefit from the cooperative, and we give away as much soymilk as we can without losing money, but I still feel guilty that there are children who need our help that we can’t give any soymilk to. I try telling myself that I can’t help or please everyone, but guilt is a feeling that I’ve never quite managed to escape, like the mosquitoes that buzz outside my mosquito net at night.