Hobbling with the Poor
Today I want to indulge in a genre of writing common to my field that we can aptly call “humble brag.” This is the type of storytelling that inspired me to follow in the footsteps of those super adventurous individuals who went to the far reaches of Earth to do impossible things, and they may or may not have edited out some of the less romantic details.
I usually relegate this genre to my Instagram account where you will notice me holding children, teaching people to read, building compost piles, and occasionally wearing a head covering so that you will be inspired by my exotic life. Thankfully, Instagram allows me to filter out all of the time it took to get to those places, how difficult it was to communicate with those people, and how little I actually did at the event.
Though it was tempting to do this again with a recent activity in which I participated, so that you would think to yourself, “Wow, what great work Jessica is doing. If only I could be as wonderful and brave and stunningly beautiful as she,” I think that would be a little short of the truth.
If I was going to be truly humble I could have just skipped telling you about this event all together, but as you will see, I didn’t really do anything, so I didn’t feel like it was un-humble to talk about a day spent not really doing anything. But I also felt that it was important to share this experience because it meant a lot to me and because it is entirely un-American.
So, on to the subject at hand –
ADEMO is an association of individuals who live with blindness, deafness, missing limbs, leprosy, and various other impairments. In Mozambique, disabled people are four times less likely to be employed, often because of a myth prevalent in Mozambique that claims disabilities are contagious. 80-90% of disabled people in the developing world are unemployed. This means that most people with physical or mental impairments are extremely poor in a community that already suffers from widespread poverty.
Because Montepuez has a large Muslim population they have carried on the common Islamic tradition of almsgiving on Friday, the special day of weekly worship for Muslims. So, every Friday ADEMO gathers and walks around town collecting gifts, mostly food, from generous community members. They usually end their day at my team’s property.
After interacting with this group several times, I had a lot of questions about them – who they are, how they operate, where they go, what kind of things they receive, and so on. So, to assuage my curiosity, I asked if I could spend the day with them. They said yes. So I went. The following is essentially me live-tweeting my day.
6:00am –Feeling simultaneously excited and anxious about the day. Just completed homework and no longer have time for the language study I was convinced would carry me through the day. Now accepting that neither the time to study nor its ability to suddenly transform my linguistic skills were realistic expectations.
6:33am – Leaving my house
6:40am – For some reason feeling very stressed about running a couple minutes late, which is irrational since people here are event-oriented – not time-oriented. Not to mention that few ever know what time it is anyway. Also very doubtful that I would miss a group of 120 crippled people walking around town.
7:01am – Arrive at meeting place, walk down alley with 2 men. I’m now wondering if I’m just gonna be walking around with these two guys all day, which I guess is fine.
7:06am – I have now achieved one of my goals regarding finding where the majority of the Pakistani community in Montepuez lives, because I’ve really been wondering for quite some time.
7:15am – The three of us turned a corner and then I saw the rest of the gang. There were about 75 people there. Now I must commence in the great Makua custom of greeting every single person.
7:25am – We’re on the move. For obvious reasons I was expecting us to be moving a little slower, but I’m definitely speed walking over some pretty treacherous terrain. Will be embarrassed if I fall.
7:27am – At the first stop the leader sticks me behind a wall because apparently there’s a possibly-but-probably-not-dangerous mentally impaired man at this stop. Waiting for him to return.
7:28am – Walking toward the market
7:35am – Not sure what led up to this, but one guy in the group, who has been quite jovial up until now, just grabbed a kid by the collar and backhanded him. Wondering if I’m now a part of some sort of gang that’s intimidating others out of bajia handouts (bajias are fried beans, similar to hush puppies).
7:37am – Now sitting inside market, literally watching the blind leading the blind through some very uneven construction areas so they can sit down.
8:04am – Older woman walking next to me is responding to all of my cat-callers as if they were calling her and it is awesome.
8:06am – Have returned to original meeting point. Just discovered I can buy fava beans here. Have been looking for fava beans for quite some time. This day of discoveries is already worth it.
8:11am – Was sitting on the side of the road when all of a sudden everyone around me – disabled and non-disabled – started running and screaming down a street. No idea what is going on.
8:13am – Apparently they were chasing a truck that was throwing out bread.
8:17am – Old man next to me just pulled out a joint. I guess when you’ve far exceeded the age expectancy and have leprosy you can do ostentatious things like drugs in broad daylight.
8:27am – Large group now in giant almost-brawl over man with bag of bread.
8:50am – Mechanic next to market is handing out lollipops as a gift. Group is eating them, but clearly a bit resentful of this shoddy attempt at gift-giving.
8:58am – Have gone to a gas station across from another bakery. Running for bread again.
9:26am – Still chillin’ at the gas station.
10:12am – Nap time has begun. Wish I had brought a capulana to lie on. Really tired and at least 60% of the crowd is now asleep in this parking lot. Currently being taught all body parts in Makua.
10:16am – Multiple people demonstrating the variety of ways tobacco can be purchased, cut, and consumed.
10:40am – So, when I asked to come with them they made this big deal about how hungry I’d be and how they’re used to being hungry and I’m not – so I just brought this handful of peanuts that I thought would save me if I was about to pass out in the heat of the day, because I knew if I brought something substantial I would need to share it with the whole group. Well – I am the only one not eating. They all have bread and snacks. A couple people had a whole meal while we were walking this morning. They are all offering me their food because they’re afraid I’m starving. Now slowly eating my peanut ration.
11:15am – One woman just unfolded her capulana and started selling little piles of peanuts to others in the group. Interesting business initiative.
12:00pm – Have now exceeded three hours at this gas station.
12:10pm – Another bread truck just pulled in. This bread distribution thing is wild.
12:33pm – Just participated in the salt distribution. I imagine that’s what celebrities feel like when they’re with the paparazzi. We ran out of salt before everyone could get some.
12:50pm – Leader said, “Let’s go,” and everyone stood up, but then everyone sat down again.
1:05pm – Another bread and bajia handout. The scarcity mindset brings out a pretty ugly side of humanity.
1:19pm – WE ARE MOVING
1:35pm – And we’re sitting again. I’m not really allowed to sit with everyone else because it bothers them when I sit in the dirt (even though everyone else is sitting in the dirt). They put me on the stoop of a church in the shade with a couple other men.
2:00pm – The chefe (boss) of ADEMO has appeared. Very nice.
2:09pm – A lot of people are yelling at a blind guy. No idea what's going on.
2:16pm – Though I typically stand out like a sore thumb that has been painted neon and put on a billboard in Times Square, I’ve discovered today that I am rarely seen when I’m in the midst of overlooked people.
2:22pm – Listening to my third conversation today about getting rid of demons.
2:30pm – We moved but I’m not sure where we are now. We're on the side of the road behind a large truck. People requesting English lessons and attempting to discern the value of the coin that someone had gotten from Uganda.
2:52pm – Getting a list of things that are good to receive (rice, flour, beans, & soap) and things that are not so good to receive (lollipops).
3:30pm – Begin walking to Smiths’ house. It has gotten real hot. A lot of sweating going on here. Learning about many different sites in Montepuez.
3:51pm – We have arrived at the Smiths’ house. It is seriously so hot.
5:15pm – It was like there was a sudden realization that no one had made a joke about marrying me today, so all of a sudden I’m everyone’s wife.
5:17pm – IT IS FREAKIN HOT OUT HERE YOU GUYS
5:21pm – It’s difficult and amazing to see some of these people getting around this uneven terrain.
5:25pm – WOMAN DOWN. She seems to be okay physically, she's more stressed about some of her rice that fell on the ground.
5:30pm – Arrive at home.
5:57pm – Everyone has received their final gift and their goodbye handshake. The day is done. Whew. I need a shower. Until next Friday, friends.
I’m definitely glad I did this for the purpose of honoring these individuals, making a lot of new friends, better understanding others, and having greater insight into this program. I was so blessed by their hospitality and their willingness to share their lives with someone who is very much an outsider and am very much inspired to continue building relationships with them and integrating the disabled community into work I'm doing in Montepuez.
But the real moral of the story, the lesson I learned that day, is this: what may seem exotic or like a great feat of service on social media is neither so exotic nor so great. It is achievable wherever you are. The truest service you can do toward anyone is to be present with them. To seek restorative justice is to understand injustice. To serve is to show solidarity with those who are overlooked. To love is to do life with people. To be Christ is to walk, and sometimes hobble, the second mile with others toward the abundant life of God.
"...the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor receive good news..." Luke 7:22