Dealing with the poverty you see on your travels is quite traumatic. It is difficult to come to terms with what you see to understand it and accept it.
Eden Riley, an Australian blogger, recently went to Niger, Africa with World Vision and has been trying to come to terms with what she saw. I thought I would write her this letter to see if I can help.
I’ve quietly listened in the background since your recent trip to Africa with World Vision. I’ve not said much because I haven’t known quite what to say, even though I understand what you are going through.
I have struggled for years with some of the things I have seen on my travels around the world. I understand the darkness, the tears, the frustration and the helplessness.
I started this travel blog because I believe that the world we live in is so beautiful and the people so amazing.Most of the time I feel as if the world has gone mad and nobody really understands this. I thought if I could just make people see that no matter the colour of our skin, the way we walk or talk, or our religious beliefs, we are so similar and this is what we should focus on.
I thought I could inspire people to travel and get to know the world. They’d then see for themselves and the world would be different. Just like that.
I could change the world and bring peace.
The Complexities of the Problem
When you witness poverty and desperation, a fire inside of you begins to burn. The ideas race in your brain as to how you can fix it. I know I could do this…. or this… if only I could just make people see the truth.
But it’s never that easy.
You return to your own life, and soon enough, even though you swore it wouldn’t, your own difficulties begin to take precedence.
You struggle to keep on top of yourself, how could you possibly change a socio-economic global imbalance and crises?
You struggle with those feelings of guilt. You struggle with dealing with how unfair life is. You struggle with fitting back into Western civilization.
You return to a world where people have boxes of crap they never use, who argue over trivial matters, complain endlessly, bitch constantly and ram you with trolleys in the supermarket because you blocked their way struggling to balance with a baby in one hand with a basket in the other.
You want to scream.
Are you kidding me? Do you not understand how bad people have it? You have fresh drinking water and you have two arms and two legs. You don’t have to steal, or worse, kill in order to make sure that your children are fed. You never have to reach that desperate point of survival instinct when you choose your own life over your child.
Wake up and be grateful.
People don’t understand because they have not had the first hand sensory experience. They hear the stories on TV and they want to make a difference and they do the best they can, but often they forget because soon their own relevant world becomes too complex and difficult.
It’s almost impossible to change people from the outside, which is why travel can bring about profound changes from within a person. The first hand experience seeps within your soul changing everything about yourself, just like you have discovered with your journey in Africa.
Our choice is: Do I let the memories haunt me or do I try to find a way to bring something positive from it?
My haunting memories
I was enjoying another glorious day on Nha Trang Beach, Vietnam. A jangling sound beside me disrupted my peace and I peered over the corner of my book.
A small man stood at the end of my beach chair squinting up at me. He was grasping a change bag with stubby fingers that protruded from his shoulder blades.
He had no arms and no legs.
I could not move or speak.
That was in 99. I saw him again in 03 doing the same thing in the same place.
He haunts me, yes. But he helps me more.
Since that day he’s been my reminder that there is ALWAYS someone worse off than me and no matter how bad I think I have it there is someone in the world DESPERATE to have my life.
After seeing the devastation the Vietnam War left behind, I swore I would never in any shape or form support a war.
How could we do this to people? What is our fucking problem? Why are we so unkind, so destructive, so uncompassionate?
Why do we fight over differences? Why is this all that we see?
I saw so many heart wrenching things on my journey through Africa.
Malawi was the fourth poorest country in the world at the time we visited. Once you see the smiles of the Malawian people and experience the warmth of a friendship they so willing extend to strangers you understand why it’s called the Warm Heart of Africa .
Being poor does not mean that your soul aches and is empty. You can choose to be happy and to make the most of the hand that has been dealt.
Lake Malawi, the third largest in Africa, borders the country. The water stretches way beyond the horizon and you swear you are standing on the coastline, not in the middle of a continent.
Gallons and gallons of available fresh water, yet I felt the tug of my shirt and the pleading eyes of a small child staring up at me asking me for water.
Are you kidding me?
We shower in drinking water for Christ sakes.
Here was a nation that lived beside a freshwater lake and had no access to clean drinking water. AND WE SHOWER IN IT. What. the. fuck. is. wrong. with. our. world?
We sat on the beach of an evening with the local beach boys. They arrived with a chicken from their home pen. They used the lake to de-feather it, gut it and clean it before roasting it over hot coals. Just a bit further down those from the village bathed in it.
Thirsty and refusing to drink our clean bottled water, the boys took their cups and filled it with water from the lake and DRANK it.
I had to hold back the vomit that threatened to come gushing out of my mouth alongside of heaving sobs.
I struggled to dredge my heart back out from the bottom of that lake. Like you Eden, I was left haunted, afraid, angry, sad, and confused.
Why is our world like this? Why do I have so much and they so little?
Why can’t it be better?
How can we fix it?
When we look at problems so large scale like these we become lost in them and so frightened because it is beyond our capacity to fix them.
So what can we do?
Take the lessons, apply them to your own life and BE THE CHANGE YOU WISH TO SEE IN THE WORLD.
I can agonize over it, get angry, frustrated, sad and fight against it, but none of this will ever help solve the problem if I am not being the solution. I can’t just be it one day a week, or a month or in relation to a particular cause, religious dogma, or charitable organization.
I have to be it always.
We can never solve all the world’s problems.
But we can make a difference. Each and every one of us has the power within us to change the world, in the easiest way possible.
That power is to be the change.
Be the change you wish to see in the world.
I can’t change the fact that I was born here in Australia, a land of plenty, and those that haunt us were born in Africa, a land of so little.
I can never understand it either.
A twist of fate? An orchestrated plan whose purpose we will never know?
The whys will haunt you and plague you.
Wasting my tears and hours on trying to find the answers to these questions is fruitless.
All I can choose to do is to be better, to live my life fully and to be so grateful.
Yes. Africa (or travel) changes you. It causes you to look deep within yourself. It makes you question everything you’ve ever known and believed in.
Take with you the lessons
From the dusty village back roads of Cambodia, to the street stalls of Thailand, and the impenetrable forests of Uganda I shared many beautiful moments with those who were so less fortunate than me.
Yet were they?
Because despite their lack they were always so kind and so happy. Despite having so little they would share with me their meals, shove friends out of the way so I could be comfortable on difficult journeys on the backs of pickups, and adopt me as their child when I was sick, healing me with their home remedies.
My skin, my backpack, my ability to roam freely told them who I was. But they didn’t care.
Their eyes never held bitterness. They never spoke to me of jealousy or hatred. They didn’t steal from me, they never hurt me.
It was always kindness and love and so much laughter.
Their eyes showed me how lucky I was. Their smiles told me to be grateful. Their gentle touch asked me to spend every day making the most of my life. For them.
They would without a doubt do anything to trade places with me, but they still wished the very best for me.
Gratitude and living your best life
Sometimes I forget and bitch and moan about my life. Sometimes it takes days, or months, or sadly years before the ghosts reappear.
I hear the jingle of the coin bag and see the dark pleading eyes of a young girl speaking to me.
“I’d do anything to have your life for a second. Anything. You are lucky only because of the nature of your birth.
If I were you I would be kissing the ground in gratitude and embracing every single second of that life that most of us can only ever dream about. Be grateful. This is the best way you can honour us.”
My ghosts help me to remember that I have two arms and two legs and fresh drinking water. My problems are so bloody small and manageable.
I have no right to complain.
So I choose to spend every moment living life the best I can for them. I know how badly they want it so how dare I abuse that privilege?
I choose to work for a better world for them every day by being a better world.
My ghosts also help me in those moments when I see those who have more than me.. My thoughts turn to jealousy, insecurity and self-pity.
Once again I see the smiles, the kind eyes wishing the best for me always and the green envy evaporates.
I wish all the best for you. I am so happy that you have all of that what I want. You are so lucky. I would do anything to have what you have, but for whatever reason life is not choosing it to be so. So please live it fully for me. Don’t take it for granted, don’t whinge and complain, don’t be ungrateful because that is disrespecting those who would do anything to have what you have.
Honour the Ghosts
Those who struggle in Africa would change places with you in a heartbeat. They would give you all their poverty, all their hunger, their thirst and their pain, just so they could have your life.
So in honour of them, it is important that you make the most of your life, that for whatever reason you have been so graciously given.
This is one small , yet powerful and positive way we can give back and spread healing energy to our world.
We MUST do this without being plagued by feelings of guilt. We CAN do this without being plagued but feelings of guilt. We can life our most beautiful life and reach out a hand to help others at the same time.
Those who suffer would want nothing more than this for you too Eden because it is so desperately what they crave.
We can never change our world by being an outside force. There are too many things working against us.
We can however change our world by being better, by loving what we have been given, and by making the most of it.
Once we do this we are in a more powerful position to create solutions to our global problems.
So take those horrible memories Eden, take those soulful eyes that taught you so much and turn it into a positive and a gift.
What have they taught you?
To be more grateful? To choose happiness? To practice peace? To reach out a hand of compassion to all people? To donate and not fight against, but work towards? To spread the message? To be the voice? To make a difference?
Be all of these things. Let others know they can be too.
Otherwise the ghosts will haunt you even more than before.
Love and Peace