Tuesday, August 10, 2010

July 30, 2010: Peter's Final Blog: Why?

Volunteer vacations are often attacked. The reasons have much validity, but on this project they failed the test.
We were building a community centre. It could have been built sooner and faster. We each spent thousands of dollars to take part in this project, dollars which could have resulted in a better building, sooner.
The building of the centre was inefficient by our standards. We were often hanging around. Materials were sometimes not there, and builders sometimes failed to turn up.
We could be said to be fostering a dependent culture. Demands on us from so many quarters were unrelenting. The wealthy whites were here. They have the money. They can solve our financial needs, be it food to feed my family, money to build my house or put a roof on my church, materials to equip our schools, hoses to water our gardens. Is that who we are?
Some say we are the do-gooders, more interested in self gratification than doing any good to the people of this land, and anyway what difference does it make. If so many demands swamp this land, what difference will this two week stretch make? Will there not be just as many starving, just as many houses needed?
Yes, in so many ways this is all true, but then, you see, there is the singing.
As a group of us stood in front of 450 elementary children the harmonies of their voices enveloped us. The headmaster said, “We will sing...” and after a few moments one child just started, and then they all joined in, with claps and smiles. They gave us their gifts. They laughed with us. We thanked each other.
This was the final day of a long two week journey. You can see pictures of Swaziland. Just go on line. You can see pictures of the need. You can see the appeals for help. Then, perhaps you want to become closer and you go on a tour. Then you really see the people. We had one tour come through. They were taken them to a “traditional” house. This is so much closer, a more intimate experience of the people. Maybe this is not enough, and so you volunteer, like the young Americans we met, with the Peace Corp. Far beyond the reaches of paved roads they work for two years, among the people, giving and learning in the most intense setting available. Then you have us older folk, half of us retired, and all beyond the floor sleeping deprivations of the younger volunteers. It is the best we can do. We did not venture far beyond the paved roads. We slept in houses with beds, bathrooms and electricity. We bought food we wanted. But we did live among the people. We lived amidst the wonderful homes catering to the AIDS orphans to Swaziland. This is beyond pictures and beyond the tourist route.
Many years ago I was in a school in Tanzania. They were debating if people should be sent to the moon, when countries, such as theirs needed so much. Much frustration with Western countries was expressed, and then one student put up his hand. “You cannot stop exploration. Humans need to reach out and go into the unknown.” I believe we were part of that human imperative to explore and reach out. I acknowledge that guilt may have played a part, as it does in so many of our dealings with First Nations, but stronger is that need to go beyond the known and to connect. We did not pretend to be Swazis. We did not pretend to understand all their lives, conflicts, joys and hardships. But we could connect on those eternal values we all hold – the need for a roof, food, security, joy and love.

This was “Developing World Connections.” You cannot do that as well at home, through charitable giving, watching a documentary, passing resolutions, or engaging in high-minded debate. You do it best by shaking their hands, passing them bricks, talking with them, eating with them. You do it by walking down their roads and by laughing with them, by enduring the frustrations of their culture, and by agonizing over their endless hardships. We have not saved the world, or Swaziland, or even this little corner of their land. But what religious or plain moral imperative has ever been called to do that? We are only called to do the best we can to connect and work with others, to act as one individual to another, be it the shepherd saving the one lost sheep, or the little boy returning the one stranded starfish to the ocean.

We can, and should give money. It does alleviate our guilt. We can, and should, give of ourselves, for that alleviates our poverty of spirit and disconnectedness which can dominate our hectic, self-centered world.

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