They were outside on a hot August day, the sky above a cloudless blue. The 30 year old international aid worker and her two colleagues from the US had been invited by a local NGO to attend a soccer match between two junior league teams in Katatura township of Windhoek, Namibia. The three Americans were in the country for a 2-week work trip, sent by their headquarter office in Washington to provide operating support to the project which services those afflicted with HIV/AIDS.
Standing nearby, also watching the soccer match, was a Namibian girl of about twelve years. The aid worker noticed the child had Down Syndrome, wearing not only a dirty set of clothes and no shoes, but a tired, unhappy face.
The middle-aged soccer coach, an American woman, tells the aid worker, “she has HIV.” She explains, “she’s been taken advantage of by men in her village. Her parents are gone, and her grandmother cannot protect her.” The aid worker stood there, dumb-founded. She was never trained for this. She was never trained to be courageous in the face of this much injustice. She was never trained to live with her heart this open to let in that much pain and suffering. So she blinked away her tears as the soccer coach walked away to continue her day’s work. Moments later, she was approached by other curious children, asking about her camera and its functions. She was saved, for now…
That was me, eight and a half years ago. I share this story now because a few months ago I realized, too late, that the child must have passed a few years back. Given the high prevalence rate of HIV/AIDS in the impoverished country of Namibia (13.3% among adults 15 to 49 years; source: UNAIDS, 2015), coupled with the child’s chromosomal condition, she would not have received the treatment she needed from the government to survive the disease’s progression. This realization saddens me deeply. Both because I did nothing for her, and because there was nothing to be done.
Life, especially when one lives in the global North, is surrounded by so much peace, safety, and economic prosperity we become removed and disconnected from the suffering of those much less fortunate then ourselves. Rarely do we encounter strangers who need our help: who need us to respond with compassion, empathy, love, and courage.
We live in a very troubled time right now in US history. And yet – we can all be thankful for it has never been more amazing to be alive. It is precisely now that we get to train our hearts to become the most compassionate, empathetic, loving, and courageous selves towards the world. To test ourselves to become the warriors we were destined to be.
It is no wonder then, that after seeing images of children’s lifeless bodies washed up on the beaches in Europe that many of us want to protect those who are able to escape the war in Syria. Indeed, very few actually make it; we in turn should respond by showing up at airports, show up against oppression. We should want to act. Because it is so rare, and for so few, that we get to, in our lifetime.
We must show up for them and for ourselves if we want to live the life we were called to live. To this day, I live with images and memory of my chance encounter eight and a half years ago: serving as a shameful memory of my inaction – what I did not show up to do. While I have come far from that 30 year old self, I have much farther to go.
And so I’ll leave you with this: in the few protests in Washington DC, New York, and Philadelphia that I have attended in the last 3 weeks, I’ve heard cries from the crowd calling out the current president’s orders as acts of “shame.” I do hope that we all can act courageously with our hearts wide open in the face of injustice and oppression. To do otherwise will not only turn our silence into personal shame, but a shame at a national scale.
*Photo credits: Marshall Maher, 2008