Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Expatriate life - The other side of the coin.

Something seems to have happened to my sensibilities in Africa.

No, that's not a euphemism. I do actually, completely honestly, mean my sensibilities. As in 'a person's delicate sensitivity that makes them readily offended or shocked'. Not my boobs. My boobs are as fine as they've ever been. Well, there have been some visits from this unfortunate concept this Newton guy came up with, that have happened seemingly overnight, but nothing that a good bra won't sort out.

So boobs good. Sensibilities not so much.

Ever since I can remember, I have been a causes kind of a gal. Easily incensed when I feel someone or something is being wronged purely on the basis of that someone or something's accident of birth, physical being, nationality, mental attributes or state, beliefs, coat, or traditions. I have always felt strongly about equality and personal choice.  

As a teenager in Finland I hopped on the 'Fur is Murder' wagon, protested, campaigned, and went vegetarian quicker than you could say soaking lentils overnight gets tiresome quickly, but looking menacing with too much eye makeup and purple hair while holding up a sign is every teen's dream. I belonged to and campaigned for both Greenpeace and Amnesty international. When I and the Hubs first lived in Greece I used to cry at the sight of every single roadkill, and once attempted to scale the wall of a closed off cemetery to save a little pooch who I deemed was bound to die of heat exhaustion if I didn't get it out in time. I dreamt of that dog for years. In Mexico I and the Hubs stopped at the site of every car accident and even 'accident' we came across regardless of being told several times not to even drive with our car doors unlocked, and we also seriously contemplated adopting a three-year-old boy with fetal alcohol syndrome until we found out that his grandmother, regardless of having stuck him in an orphanage, would never relinquish custody.

But that was then, and this is now.

I think the eroding of my Finnish sensibilities began with the 60 'orphans' in Mexico, and their backgrounds of abandonment, physical and sexual abuse, violence, extreme poverty, and death. Amongst other things, my job was to direct and raise funds, as well as channel and train volunteers for the orphanage, and in order to do that I had to learn about the children. About how wrong someone's starting point in life could be, and what unfortunate circumstances could really signify in relation to a little life.

I couldn't save everyone, or even most, tears made absolutely no difference, and no matter how hard I tried there were always going to be new and worse cases, and that was just how it was going to be.

I had to be cold about it, and stay focused on the difference I was making instead of the difference that could have been made had we only had "a few more people", "some more funds", "a little more support", "a little less politics to deal with", "a little more time," and a "little less indifference."

And then I came to Africa.

Today, on December 1st, is World AIDS Day.

I look at the World AIDS day website and a quote jumps at me: "I was diagnosed with HIV seven months ago. It has made me more conscious about my health and made me realise what is important. No matter what - life goes on. I don't suffer with HIV, I live with it." This is Gary's story, and I'm sure he's right. He won't die of AIDS, at least not for a long time. He's in Europe, he'll be able to live with his chronic condition for many years yet.

"Good for Gary," I find myself thinking, when, really, I should be incensed, I should be livid, I should be campaigning and protesting so that World AIDS Day is never again a day when what jumps at you from their official website are success stories of lucky Europeans or Americans who are at peace with having this horrible disease, coping with having to take medication every day, and having to reconcile with always using a condom during sex.

What should jump at anyone looking at the website is the number, almost unbelievable in today's modern world, of the daily deaths of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. That number is around 4100.

Approximately 4100 people die every single day in sub-Saharan Africa of AIDS.

I should also be annoyed beyond belief and readied for some serious action by the fact that I had to go to seven different websites and actually do some math myself to come up with that number. When it should really be the first thing one sees on a HIV/ AIDS website.

And one should be driven to help out. Right away.

AIDS still kills in Africa. In Zambia selling tombstones is a lucrative business.

But AIDS is only one in the vast ocean of things that should make me cry and jump into action every single day on this continent.

Instead, I trudge on, helping, but every once in a while forgetting completely the miserable reality that for many is their complete existence here in Southern Africa. I live in the hope that the "Good job! You could be the teacher," followed by a soft pat on a little shoulder in response to a perfectly written 'Miss Extranjera's camera is black' will stay with the growing mind that thought up the sentence, and someday maybe bear fruit. I don't kid myself about making a difference, but allow for the possibility.

(Okay. So they don't actually call me Extranjera at the school, they call me by my real name. There are some people, out there in the real world, who do. Honest.)

I don't cry anymore when I find out that someone's mother died of AIDS. For a short time I'm reminded how unfair life can be, then I buy kilos and kilos of rice and beans to help tie the poor family over for a while, but quickly go onto wondering whether a new 7-iron would improve my game. The other day I drove past a cyclist on the ground who had been run over. A crowd was waiting for the ambulance to arrive. As I drove past the crowd I glanced back. Half of the cyclist's skull was gone, and I doubt he was going to make it. I didn't dream of him.

When I'm in Europe or in the States I'm often met with awkward silences or looks that clearly plead with me to shut up already, because I'm off on a monologue about the lack of improvement in the welfare situation complete with examples to make the lecture more touching, more personal, but that clearly make it unpalatable for many, or I'm making chit chat about the ubiquitousness and causes of rape in South Africa, and quickly reaching many a person's tolerance point.

It's just that there is often an overload of misery and injustice, and I'm slowly becoming numb to both. I'm becoming cold.

I am cold.

Something seems to have happened to my sensibilities in Africa.


omchelsea said...

I think the same kind of thing happens to people who stick their necks out into a community and see it for what it is. We all have vast pockets of human waste - potential that will go unachieved because of alcoholic parents, a lack of support for families/children in crisis, a crappy/nonexistent education system or active abuse - in any of a million different incarnations. It is human to cope. To do what we can, to make as much of a difference as we are able; but also to preserve the element of our selfishness that makes us able to exist without spinning in circles and clutching at our skulls at the incredible inanity of it all. Sorry. I'm on the same rant/crusade/something.

Kaotic said...

You can't really save everything can you? So doing your little bit is a big thing in itself, and yes, that makes you humane, not cold.

Lisa-Marie said...

I don't think you are becoming cold. I think you have developed coping mechanisms, which is a very different thing.

Fidgeting Gidget said...

I'm with Lisa Marie. You've gotta just figure out a way to cope, because if you let yourself get miserable and upset with every unfortunate situation you encounter in life, you'll never be happy. The world is sometimes an ugly place....you're allowed to be numb to that.

My name is Erin. said...

This post felt like I was the one writing it. I've always had a very acute sense of justice. From the time I was a wee child, much to my mother's dismay. I agree with Lisa-Marie and F.G. And maybe this is just a season. I've found that at certain times in my life, I just can't let it all in. It sounds terrible to type it, but right now, I'm much to busy with my finals in school to worry about the world. How HORRIBLE is that?! It sound incredibly shallow to me, but if I allowed myself to worry about the world (and I do) then I would absolutely explode right now.

It's clear that you've done and are continuing to do good works in the world. And you deserve a game of golf now and again to recharge you so that you can continue to go out and do good things. The world is a bit better, because you're in it. I know my world is better for it.

Esmerelda said...

Hear Hear. Your post, FG, Lisa Marie and Erin. I am echoing all of you.

We do what we can. We support and give what we can afford (time, money, energy). But we do have to reserve just a little bit for ourselves too, or what good are we in the grand scheme of things?

Erin P said...

Well, I could say something like "compassion fatigue" which is what doctors and nurses sometimes get after the 532nd sick patient comes through the door...but I would rather tell you how wonderful it is that you are in Africa, reaching out to people in critical need, doing what you can do, and that you have been doing it for years. And that you have SO much MORE compassion than the average person, it could make me teary. Right now, I'm fighting a battle just trying to get some of my colleagues to CARE enough to do a tiny thing for people in need...they ignore it, even when it's put in front of their faces. You, I'm sure, would lead the charge.
Sometimes we need a rest, a break--maybe you need one too.
Rest assured, you're amazing, and even if you feel you've become less sensitive to suffering, it's probably because you were 100 times more so in the first place.

caroldiane said...

Oh Extra (feel like we know each other well enough now for me to use a diminutive of your "name"), your blog is so timely (as usual). I have been struggling this week myself with the "so what-ness" of my life. No matter how much good work is done, there is always so much more to do. Yet, if I turn that around, and consider what the world would be like if each of us that make a difference in our own way every day, gave up - now that would be significant and noticeable. So, I move forward knowing that there are actually millions of us moving on, not deterred, not "cold", just chipping away at a world of injustice. Together we ARE changing the world!

julochka said...

maybe it happens because it's how your brain copes with it. if you took it all in all the time and could constantly feel that pain, all the time, you might never leave the house. and then that 7 iron wouldn't do you much good (unless you were aiming it at the maid as she whooshes your wine glasses into passing eddies in the space-time continuum). but i digress.

but in all seriousness. we should all be way more incensed. what the hell is the matter with us?

Sara said...

No, they can't all be saved. But the work that you do will save some of them and that matters. And each of those lives, while smaller compared to the whole now, will have the chance to make differences themselves as they grow. Thanks to you.

Your sensibilities are okay, it's simply that in response to overwhelming situations the sensitivity level has gone down. For you that's not a bad thing because you are out there continuing to help and if the level didn't change you'd go crazy and be unable to. The rest of us are the ones who need to work on the sensitivity levels so they we can make more of a difference.