Elena Ruyter, a student from the US, came back from Burkina Faso last year and shares with us how her experience has changed the way she thinks about the world....
It must have been the coldest night of the year thus far. I had just walked out of Paragon, a sporting goods store in downtown Manhattan. By now the city’s anonymous hum and come back to me, and I wandered comfortably amongst the dizzy throngs. The kid was standing just outside. It might have been 17 degrees Fahrenheit, one degree for each year of his life, and he was naked from the waist up. He had tawny black curls that stuck straight up and the bareness of his brown skin seemed almost vulgar in this weather. I was in shock. I walked past him, but kept turning back, hoping I suppose that someone else would relieve me of my guilt. I realized with dread that I was witnessing the abject suffering of another person, no ambiguities, just a naked body in the cold. And I had no idea what to do to help him.
This feeling isn’t unfamiliar to me after being in Burkina Faso for 2 years. As a Peace Corps volunteer it becomes apparent to you throughout your service that there are some kinds of suffering you don’t have the resources to alleviate. Better to focus, you tell yourself, on areas where you might actually have an impact. But perhaps more often than you want it to, that question creeps into your mind: Well… what if I did buy him a plane ticket to America, find him a job and let him stay with my family until he finds his footing and receives a green card? What if I did give you my computer, my phone, and half of my monthly stipend? What if I did sponsor all 6 of your children to go to school through university? The scariness of this thinking isn’t that you are conceiving of the impossible. What makes it frightening is that it is, indeed, thinkable. At moderate to great cost to your person, you could deliver on some of these requests. After realizing this you start to ask yourself- am I really that good of a person?
I asked myself this question while I stood dumbly on a freezing street corner in New York. I had dedicated two years of my life to what I had convinced myself was a selfless cause in a country I hadn’t been able to locate on a map. Now, here I was unable to reach into my pocket for a naked teenager in my own city. Should I take the boy home? Should I buy him a coat? Should I give him mine? Should I take him to a shelter? The paralysis ate at me. I saw a vendor selling hats, scarves and gloves a block away and quickly fell into step. I scanned the offerings and decided on a warm looking scarf. When the vendor appeared she spoke with a thick West African accent.
“How much is this scarf?” I asked her rather frantically.
“$10,” she replied quietly. I handed her the money.
“There’s a boy over there,” I said pointing, “He doesn’t have a shirt on.” I don’t know what I hoped to accomplish by telling her this. Sympathy? Confirmation of my goodness? Release? She simply nodded at me. “Bon marché tantie,” I said as I hurried away.
When I reached the boy, I held the scarf out to him. He refused it.
“No ma’am,” he said shaking his head and shivering. “I need a goose. I need someone to buy me a goose. A goose is going to keep me warm.”
“A goose?” I replied in disbelief, knowing that the brand of coat he was asking for, Canada Goose, sold for between $500 and $1000. “Listen,” I said in the most maternal voice I could muster, “No one is going to buy you a goose. Take the scarf. It won’t stop people from wanting to help you.” Still he refused, shaking his head, fixated on what he thought was going to solve his problems. After a little more arguing I finally a gave up offering, and gently, tentatively, wrapped the scarf around him. He didn’t stop me. He just stood there quaking, defiant in his goal but not so that he would resist what little help I could offer. There, I thought, though I knew it was likely that I was more relieved by the interaction than he was. As I walked away I considered my time in Burkina and the tiny bits of good I was able to accomplish. It is easy to divorce yourself from the mentality you take on in the Peace Corps. When you get back to America and so little of your way of life overseas translates to this different context, it is a simple thing to release yourself from an approach in which you are always ready to help. My lesson in the year since I have been back is not to forget that, no matter the magnitude of the problem, there is always I something I can do. In this case, I certainly hadn’t solved the boy’s problem, but if I buy him a scarf and someone else buys him a sweater or a pair of gloves, suddenly we are getting somewhere.