I’ve been slightly taken a back by all the buzz that the Ebola epidemic has created lately, and while I certainly don’t take it lightly and appreciate all precautions taken, I do find it intriguing.
When I was very young, growing up, my father would always take every opportunity to tell me how very lucky I was to be living in this particular time, and here in America. He told me stories of what his life and that of his family had to endure in China in the early 1900s. He told me the stories of losing his family during the exile in 1910 and traveling alone, left to survive at the age of 10. How early immigrants were treated and how he had to pay a head tax upon arriving to America. Like many, he also had stories from the First World War, the Great Depression, the Second World War, Vietnam War and so much more he experienced firsthand. He had survived so much long before he was able to make a life for himself and think of starting a family. Growing up I was sheltered from these kinds of experiences. As a teenager I was living in a “Material World” and I was a product of our times.
Some part of me from very young wanted to experience something much deeper, something more meaningful and something very different from what I knew. Maybe I admired so much what my father had been through that I too wanted to contribute myself to the greater good? Out of college I went to Africa, my first destination was to Harare, Zimbabwe. I spent the first year in the South central regions of Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi. Zimbabwe had just been coming off of five years of a serious drought and immense countrywide famine, the same that was killing so many people in Ethiopia at the time. The conditions were horrendous; it was then that I began to learn what real human suffering was, and what devastation looked like taking down entire populations. I continued through many more countries like South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique, Congo, Nigeria, Togo, Ivory Coast, Kenya to name a few. I witnessed death, wrongful suffering, disease of every imaginable kind, hunger, pain and a lack of the very basic needs including water and basic food. I did everything I could in the seven years I was on the continent from teaching, feeding, assisting in medical facilities, walking for hundreds of miles to carry supplies to remote villages to playing with children who had no chance of survival. When you are surrounded with this much suffering you do these things without a single thought for yourself. It was here that I began to understand what kinds of horrors my father had come through in the many years of his life.
We have different kinds of fights and struggles in our society, domestic violence, drugs and abuse, hate crimes, bullying, prejudice, discrimination, homelessness, etc. I often wonder, as I often did when I was in Africa, why we just don’t do more globally. We do so much to protect our own way of life and feel very threatened when something from the “outside” comes our way. Yet there are countries still today that live in constant threat, of terrorism, war, starvation, disease, countries where there are no schools and young girls are shot for wanting an education?
When I first started hearing about Ebola my first thought, believe it or not, was I should go there? I wondered what I could do to help. When I was in Africa people would often ask me, if I was scared? I had been held at gun point, a knife held to my throat, robbed many times, beaten a few times, I had Malaria, I went weeks without food at times but it felt scarier to do nothing than to retreat and pretend it wasn’t happening. I remember when I first went to Africa, my father went ballistic he cried, he screamed, he was so full of fear for me. “I did not suffer my whole life so that you could put yourself at such harm’s way!” he screamed. He wanted me to go to medical school! I get it now.
I have this weird oxymoron of wanting the best for my son, a good home, a great education, and abundant opportunities to sometimes wanting to pick up and move the family to the jungles of Africa so he can learn the fundamentals of compassion and servant hood. My son was sick recently, the first time in three years, I held him over the sink while he threw up, and I it pained me to see him suffer in any way. I thought how will I shelter him from pain forever? I wonder how we balance taking our kids to Disney World and also sharing with them that there are so many children without food or water. How do we tell them to aim high, achieve great things and also know that many children will never go to school or read a book? How do we change his clothes every time he makes a mess, and so many don’t have clothes to wear? How do I teach him to have universal compassion and to aid the suffering, without wanting him to suffer and know pain?
I realize the answer to this was demonstrated to me by my own father through storytelling. Tell them what is really going on in the world, educate them, inform them, let them develop their own understanding and opinions, knowledge accelerates response. While I pray that Ebola is contained and not inflict one more person here or anywhere, maybe we needed the wakeup call to remind us that we are one of billions in the world; that we need to respond to the global community at large. Every day we access the World Wide Web yet we act as if we are not a part of the global community.