I planted a garden in my yard by the lake. I tore up the earth, shook the soil and the worms from the roots of the grass, ran my fingers through the dirt until it was clean, and then deposited rows of vegetable seeds across the back of it. In the front of the garden I planted broccoli plants, tomato plants, and onion plants. I took water from the lake and soaked the soil until it was dark and muddy and when the mosquitoes became unbearable I went inside. The following morning I went out and discovered that all the broccoli plants had been eaten and half of the tomato plants were torn out of the ground. I was a little disappointed, but mostly amused. Half a dozen animals ran through my mind as I tried to determine the culprit. A chipmunk scurried out from beneath the steps leading down to the boathouse. I decided he was too small. I recalled the skunk that had passed through the yard a few days before. I sniffed the air. Nothing. I went back inside. The Internet told me it was slugs. I was doubtful. Later that day my partner alerted me to the presence of a deer standing contemplatively over the remaining onion plants. I ran out the door to chase it away, not mean-heartedly, and I watched it run into the neighbor’s yard where it stood, dumbfounded and innocent.
I live a privileged life. When I fail at gardening I can laugh at it, knowing that I am not at all dependent on success. I have access to nutritious food, clean water, and safe shelter. I have this every day and I never question it. In fact, I have access to such an abundance of food that I can regularly consume more calories than I even need. I can choose food that is taxing on my body and on the environment, and I can consume it in excess. I can let food spoil and then discard it. My home is large enough to shelter at least eighteen people. I live there alone with my partner. I have so much clean, drinkable water that I can fill my toilet with enough of it to keep a person alive for three to four days. I urinate in it, and then flush it away. I have so much clean water I can do this several times a day. In a week, I can use enough clean, drinkable water, just by flushing my toilet, to keep a six-year old child alive for eight months. This makes me privileged. Even before counting all the extras of luxury, pleasure, and comfort, I live a life that only a small percentage of the world will ever be able to experience.
I traveled to Malawi in November of 2013. It was not my first time in Africa. It was not my first time witnessing poverty or living within an impoverished context. I spent only three weeks in the country, during which time I traveled to several hospitals, rural villages, and urban homes to photograph, discuss, and hear stories about the effects of poverty. Malawi is ranked 170 out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index. Their GNI per capita is $320, meaning the average income is $0.88 per day. This is the average. Many live on far less and some have no income at all, surviving only on the maize that they can grow for themselves. For the 85% of Malawians living in rural areas, and for many Malawians living in urban areas, their crops keep them alive. When the rainy season is delayed or when drought replaces the rainy season all together, many Malawians do not survive. By the time the rainy season does come, the food supply is low and the hospitals fill with malnourished and starving children.
I grew up watching World Vision commercials with a sick feeling in my gut. When I turned nineteen I went to Ghana for six months where I lived in a small, rural village and did my best to experience the life of a poor man. I had a simple life and I loved it. And then I had the luxury of returning to the complications of excess wealth and living again in its familiar and comfortable context. I went back to Ghana twice in my early twenties, first to initiate a small, community development project in the village where I had lived, and later to document several stories in other parts of the country. The community development project had partly succeeded and partly failed by the time I returned in 2009. I sat in an honored place under the neem trees with everyone that had been involved and they nervously confessed their failures and expressed their fear of my return. I felt heartbroken. They feared that I would come back and see the vacant poultry farm we had built, that I would react with anger at their failure, and that I would demand the return of the money I had given them. They were relieved to know that I was not angry, that I was disappointed, but not with them. They were relieved, and my heart sunk recognizing the power they had given me, which I did not want. They owed me nothing and I owed them far more.
I have not been back to Ghana since then. I have wanted to, but have often been paralyzed by the confusion that fills my mind when I consider the word “help”. I always remember Dickens’ claim that charity serves only to further degrade the impoverished. My mind fills with all the reasons why helping others is an impossible task: handouts create dependency; NGOs are untrustworthy; money corrupts; my desire to help is actually selfish; it is arrogant to think that I can improve their lives; they are better off without our interference. These thoughts offer valid and cynical perspectives, and they fail to excuse my idleness.
I sat down at a small wooden table in a rural village in Malawi. Acts, the son of my host, sat with me. “Dear God,” he prayed, with a tone of sincerity that immediately arrested me, “We thank you for this food. We know that it comes from you and we are grateful”. His words were simple, but the depth of them went far beyond any feeling of gratitude I have ever felt. For the next three days we ate together and before every meal his prayer, and the tone with which he prayed it, was the same. Whether it was tea and bread or a roasted cob of maize, this young man prayed with an understanding of hunger that I will likely never know. His gratitude expressed an awareness of the necessity and the unparalleled value of food, which our privileged society has completely forgotten. I ate with him quietly and did my best to understand the meaning behind every bite we took, to experience it as precious life and not a means for pleasure and personal satisfaction. I tried to understand what food could mean to someone who had grown up in its scarcity.
Many of us have grown tired of poverty. The child starving in Africa has become a cliché for which we have amassed dozens of dismissive and cynical responses, which let us off the hook. We have become so involved in the dramas of our own lives and in the spiritual poverty that keeps us there, that we fail to see beyond ourselves. We fail to remember that although the poor may always be among us, the suffering of others is not something to resign to. Poverty exists and we, the privileged, exist to respond to it. The child starving in Africa is a cliché. But the actual, individual children, who are starving in Africa, are not clichés. They are real people in need of help. And our lives are inextricably connected to theirs.
I know that the clean, drinkable water in my toilet means nothing to a child dying of cholera halfway around the world. I cannot viably bottle it and send it on a plane to save her life. There is too much imagined separation, too much complication, and too much uncertainty to feel fully confident in my response to poverty. I have wondered, even in the moments when I am walking through their villages, even when I am looking at the frail body of a starving child through my camera lens, who am I to interfere? Who am I to think that I have a place here? I walk between their mud homes. I pass the night on their mud floor. I eat the food grown in their muddied fields. And I wonder what it means to help, and if that is even my place. I philosophize and theorize, plaguing myself with paralyzing doubts. I fear that I will leave an unsavory mark, or that I will make a mistake in my desire to help that is ultimately more destructive than healing, and while I remain idle and in fear their children are going hungry, or are severely malnourished, and many of them are dying.
The idea that my life is separate from the lives of Malawians, or Ghanaians, or any of the 54,000 children living below the poverty line in my own province, is a convenient and powerful illusion. It excuses me from action and responsibility. It permits me to indulge in abundance while others go without. It enables me to live my life in ignorance of the rippling effect that my life-choices are having on those around me and in far-off places. I flush my toilet here, or I do not, and still a child in Malawi is without clean water. But the fact that I have a seemingly endless source of clean water and he has none at all is a call to action that we would be careless to ignore.
Our separation is a convenient illusion. We have planted it in our minds like a hedge around our privileged lives believing that it will keep us from experiencing the poverty we have witnessed in the lives of others. But our imagined separation does not exist. We are as connected to the impoverished as we are to our own children, to our own mothers, to our own partners. Every child is our child. Every woman is our sister, and our mother, and our grandmother. Every man is our kin. So long as we continue to live under the illusion that we are responsible only for ourselves, our world will never heal. And if our world never heals, how can we expect to find peace in our own lives?
I have felt the sensation of hunger, but I have never felt afraid that it will result in my death. I have seen mothers holding their dying children, but I have not known their pain. Real hunger is something I have only ever witnessed. Real hunger is an idea that I can only imagine. When I get lost in the idea of hunger I do nothing. I become paralyzed or confused by the politics, or the potential of failure, or my own misguiding cynicism. I become paralyzed by possibilities of my own imaginings while the reality remains the same. I do not know the answer to this reality, but I do believe that it is more than idle disregard. I do believe that a real response is needed and not just by a few, but by everyone.