things we forget

August 7, 2010

When I first arrived in Uganda, I looked for solace in reminders that the poverty and devastation here don't belong to my world. Emails home, the occasional skype with my parents, facebook messages from friends and albums of wakeboarding at the lake and nights in my high heels keep me reminded that I don't live where people starve like this. I don't live around AIDS like this. I don't shower with a bucket, and my loo has a toilet, instead of a hole in the ground.

At night, I flip on a light switch, and I walk, eyes barely open, to sit on my porcelain toilet. If duty happens to call before sun-up, I never shine a flash light looking for roaches before I pee.

I was just telling someone yesterday - "You know, Americans have a choice. We can choose not to see things that disturb us. I could decide I never wanted to see a starving child or a person dying from AIDS."

They stared at me, "We have to see it."

But, not me. And, most likely, not you. We have a choice.

I have a choice.

I've come to realize that there is a point of no return that comes in allowing yourself to see things at their most desperate. I think that's what is so terrifying. You can't get it out of your head afterward. I cried, this week, after seeing a grandfather dying from AIDS while his grandchildren played under the banana trees outside his mud home. I bent low to go into his hut, and came out, walking briskly, till Morris grabbed my arm and turned me around so he could hug me, tears streaming down my face and all. I was thinking of my own grandfather, and suddenly the man had become a real person, with people who love him, instead of someone I'd read about in National Geographic.

He let me cry, and said "It's not your fault."

That day, I tried to get lost in thoughts of California - as if I could imagine away the problems of the people here, and they wouldn't exist anymore. They could return to being a story in Time magazine, and I could return to my life, and the way I felt about the world before Africa. 

I tried that for about two days straight, this week.

Morris ruined it for me.

He and I returned to the house around tea time yesterday. We were sitting on the twin chairs set up in the far corner of the living room when he said, "I haven't been sleeping. I can't get all these people out of my head. I just keep seeing their faces. I can't stop thinking about their lives."

He started recalling the stories I had put on layaway. "That old man with AIDS in his hut? And the deaf and mute little girl? And Maggie, with her step mother burning her?"

He interrupted my daydream about returning home to a double iced mocha and my mother's banana nut muffins.

I tried really hard to return to it, and add in a little thought or two about the new flatscreen my roommates picked up for free this month, and a hot shower. I tried the age old tactic of letting his words pass through me, without absorbing them.

I can't hear you. I can't hear you. I can't hear you.

He wasn't done.

"Even if I left, and I never came back. I would still see their faces, I would still think about them."

I glanced at him, while he paused and sipped his coffee. My mocha/shower/flatscreen thought became significantly less enjoyable.

"I know that even if I left, and I was feeling comfortable and happy somewhere else, I would think of them."

He sipped his coffee again, and went for the jugular. "Even though it hurts me, and it's uncomfortable, I have seen it, so how can I just leave them like that without doing what I can?"

I mostly just stared at him - deer in the headlights - and said, "Yeah."


angela said...

well, that little cursor has been blinking at me waiting somewhat impatiently for me to type something, but no words come. i KNOW. i truly KNOW exactly what that feels like. but i have no wisdom to add.

Aaron Klein said...

Our hearts need to be continually broken by the things that break God's heart. These are things never to forget.