Saturday, April 9, 2011

My sisters

Today, I will walk in the 4th Annual AmizadeWater Walk for Women’s Rights. It is my second year participating in this powerful event created by Pittsburgh-based Amizade Global Service and Learning. I have many kind and generous friends and was able to raise $638 (final) from donations that ranged between $5 and $100. In the course of fundraising, people often say nice things about me and what I do, which is kind, however, it is not what motivates me. 

There is an eons-long debate about whether charity should be done publicly, or whether we should do all of our good deeds as anonymously as possible. While I understand and deeply respect the former position for its emphasis on humility and keeping the focus on the deed and not what you will get from it (most particularly, praise), I feel strongly that public acts of goodness are important, even as the praise sometimes makes me feel a bit awkward. I know where my true motivation lies, so I do not worry about it too much.

This broken and hurting world needs more love, more kindness, more compassion, and more generosity. It is my belief that seeing others engaged in such acts encourages people to do join in. I believe that seeing someone else do something sweet and kind, no matter how small—going out of your way for a second to help someone on crutches with a door—makes people happy. Certainly not everyone, some will be too myopic to notice, but most who see it will feel some amount of joy and, it is my hope, be motivated to act on their own altruistic feelings. If we choose to focus on it, there is much negativity in this world and it makes people feel small and powerless. I want to spread the joy of the hummingbird.

There is an African parable about a forest fire. The trees are ablaze and the animals flee the forest ahead of the raging flames. They gather on the edge, staring at the destructive force tearing through their home. Finally, the littlest hummingbird cannot take it anymore and she flies to the stream, gets a beak full of water and flies to the fire and spits it on the flames. She goes back to the stream, bringing drop by little drop to the fire. The other animals see this and say, “Hummingbird! What are you doing!? You cannot put out this raging fire with the little drops of water from your beak!” And the hummingbird replies that they are right, but that is what she can do, and she will keep doing what she can do, however small, to help put out the fire. [Click here to hear African women’s rights activist, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and founder of the Green Belt movement, Professor Wangari Maathai recount this parable in the movie Dirt!]

The little hummingbird, on one hand, seems pitiful and hopeless, but she is the hope of the story—she will be part of the solution, no matter what the odds. I want to be the hummingbird. I want to be part of the solution, no matter how intractable the problem may be because the one thing guaranteed not to work is despair. I cannot feed everyone, but I can feed one. To that one person, the difference of a meal or not is probably a pretty big deal. 

So what does this have to do with the Water Walk? The walk and the small amount of money that I am able to bring to it is but a tiny act in the face of the daunting amount of suffering in the world from profound poverty, oppression, slavery, rape, war, greed, environmental destruction… So much devastation and the flames keep raging. I sit here in a warm apartment in a city that is not under siege. I brushed my teeth with clean water and was able to use a toilet inside, safely and sanitarily washing away the waste with potable water. I will open my refrigerator and take out a variety of food to make myself healthy meals for the day. Like many others in North America, indubitably, some of that food will not be eaten before it goes bad and will end up in my compost pile. I am writing this on a computer, itself its own little miracle, powered by electricity and connected to a global network of knowledge and resources, accessible in seconds with the click of a finger. 

I am a woman who has never been raped. I am a woman who has never been forced to marry. I am a woman more educated than most of the world’s population. Though my income is modest by US standards, it is thousands of times that of most of the women of the world. My safety, my security, my independence, my basic, inherent sense of self-worth and dignity are luxuries for most of my global sisters. I do not feel sorry that I have these things. Not in the least, but I am privileged to have them. I am blessed with great leisure and fortune. I do not feel guilty for the karma that brought me to this birth, but I also do not feel uniquely entitled to its gifts. The issue is not to feel bad about the gifts you have, but to figure out how you will use them. Will you use your privilege, your leisure and fortune, to serve others? Or to serve your own selfishness? The latter is enticing, but it is ultimately unsatisfying. Fed greed only becomes greedier—the craving never stilled. Like the delicious meal on which you overindulge, at the end of the night you will feel bloated, miserable, and sick. Feed love and it grows, filling you and everyone around you. 

I want every girl born on this planet to never know the pain of rape. I want every girl to be raised so that she believes that being a woman is not an impediment to any dream. I want every girl to have enough leisure and fortune that she may be able to explore who she is other than the property of a man or a water mule. I want every girl to be able to be educated and financially independent so that she may choose to be a wife, a mother, a neurosurgeon, engineer, teacher, diplomat, scholar, a farmer...whatever her heart leads her to be.

I have oft said that the only good use of power is the protection of others. Strength has nobility only when it is used to empower others, not to continue their oppression. I have been given a gift. I find joy in sharing my gifts. I have this bizarre idea that when we are all better off, we are all better off--that more happiness = more happiness. There is no real way to insulate myself from the suffering of others. You may feel that your toe is far from your heart, but fail to treat infection in the toe, and one day it will stop the heart--we are all connected, inextricably. Who would want to cut off their leg or allow themselves to die rather than treat the infection with antibiotics? Those who see the toe as separate from the heart are suffering from terrible delusion that will cause them great harm.

There are over a billion people without access to clean water. Tomorrow, there will still be over a billion people without access to clean water. We can despair that and stay home today or keep our wallets closed because “we really can’t make a difference!” Or, like the hummingbird, we keep putting drop by drop on the fire... I know it works. If it was just me, I would not have $638 to help the people of Karagwe. I would have only my own small contribution. But because I told you, because I chose to do this act publicly and entreat others to help, WE have raised $638. A bucket of water made from many small drops. Still a small amount in the grand scheme of things, but I prefer to think of the people of Karagwe who now have clean water, improved sanitation, and more time to devote to improving their lives in other ways now that they do not need to lug jugs of water for miles a day. I prefer to think that one girl from that village will get to go to school who would not have before. Who knows what she may grow to become? She may be the acorn that sprouts the new forest in the ashes of the old. 

In the words of my favorite poet, “Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.”

My heartfelt thanks to everyone who has made this possible. I am but the humble courier of your generosity, and I bow to you with hands in prayer. _/|\_ 

Because of the generous support our grant partner, the AllPeopleBeHappy Foundation, and Water Walkers like you, last year alone we were able to achieve the following:
  • Bring clean water to over 300 schoolchildren in the area of rural Karagwe,Tanzania;
  • Install a massive 300,000 liter water-harvesting system, including gutters, underground piping, and a solar-powered pump for a new school in the small village of Chonyoyo, read more here;
  • Complete full evaluations on the water-harvesting systems that Amizade already helped to install for 8 families that have survived gender-based human rights abuses;
  • Install 5 other rain-water harvesting tanks for families in the region;
  • Construct and connect a vital fruit-tree nursery to the Chonyoyo water tank that will provide local families with healthy food;
  • Lead workshops on the benefits of Solar Water Disinfection (SODIS) – a method to produce suitable drinking water utilizing solar rays from the sun – to several groups of community members; 
  • Hold two very successful “Water Walks”, which have had a combined total of over 600 participants, received local print and television press, and raised over $8,000 for clean-water initiatives; and
  • Install ‘tip-tap’ hand washing devices (a mechanism designed to encourage hand-washing while conserving water) at recipients’ homes using simple, local materials, assembling the contraptions on-site by way of demonstrating a simple technology that families can share with their neighbors in order to increase awareness about the importance of hygiene and sanitation.

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    Why is this place called Rough Branch?

    Rough Branch is a reference to Wendell Berry's "mad farmer" poems. Berry is an agrarian populist poet, and advocate for sustainable agricultural practices. I don't agree with every position he takes, but his reverence for the beauty and balance of the natural world, for the preciousness of the life that runs through it (including our own), and of the community that sustains both the land and each other, speaks to my heart.

    Over the past few years, I have sunk myself into the soil in my back yard, and into the community of neighbors that surrounds it, and it has begun to restore me. My garden is not just a plot of dirt providing vegetables for the salad bowl, it is an act of love, a place of profundity and awe. If you knew about the ecosystem that lives in but one gram of good earth, you would be humbled, literally, to the ground.

    Berry's poems are passionate calls to live--deeply, profoundly, fearlessly. To step out of narrow-minded egotism, to secede "[f]rom the union of self-gratification and self-annihilation, [to] secede into care for one another, and for the good gifts of Heaven and Earth."

    And so I have made my own nation small enough to walk across. I have named the small corner of the earth I steward Rough Branch. I have declared myself free of ignorant love, and I secede...

    From the union of power and money,
    from the union of power and secrecy,
    from the union of government and art,
    from the union of science and money,
    from the union of ambition and ignorance,
    from the union of genius and war,
    from the union of outer space and inner vacuity,
    the Mad Farmer walks quietly away.

    There is only one of him, but he goes.
    He returns to the small country he calls home,
    his own nation small enough to walk across.
    (From "The Mad Farmer, Flying the Flag of Rough Branch, Secedes from the Union")
    The Mad Farmer challenges us to reconnect, to resurrect our land, our communities, and our souls.
    So, friends, every day do something
    that won't compute. Love the Lord.
    Love the world. Work for nothing.
    Take all that you have and be poor.
    Love someone who does not deserve it.

    Denounce the government and embrace
    the flag. Hope to live in that free
    republic for which it stands.
    Give your approval to all you cannot
    understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
    has not encountered he has not destroyed.

    Ask the questions that have no answers.
    Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
    Say that your main crop is the forest
    that you did not plant,
    that you will not live to harvest.

    Say that the leaves are harvested
    when they have rotted into the mold.
    Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
    Put your faith in the two inches of humus
    that will build under the trees
    every thousand years.

    Listen to carrion -- put your ear
    close, and hear the faint chattering
    of the songs that are to come.
    Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
    Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
    though you have considered all the facts.
    (From "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front")
    All quotes from Wendell Berry.