Living with the Poor
"Daniel came to my room yesterday. He looked around and said to me 'Kajoli your house is very little. My house is very big.' He speaks such good Bengali now."
My servant was interested in a three year old's mastery of a second language. I was interested in his observation. At three he had already learned about differences. Big/little, mine/yours - and also servant/'memsahib'. The words begin to unfold some of the dilemmas of living in Bangladesh.
"Hungry' is another word.
When I went out onto my veranda just now a woman pounced at me. She pinched a flap of the dry wrinkled skin of her belly. "I haven't eaten since yesterday!" I got her a cupful of rice and a few tomatoes. Then I made myself a cup of coffee, grabbed a ginger biscuit and sat down at my computer.
Here in Bangladesh poverty looks at me from many faces. I think of Fenura, the sad little prostitute; of Rohima and her girls, hungry for education; of Abdul, too old now to pull a rickshaw but struggling to support his daughters and their children; of Taz Nahar whose husband deserted her; of Fatima who can't pay the rent . . . . Needs and names could cover pages, fill books.
But at the same time I see wealth. My own wealth. I live in a large house filled with comfortable furniture, eat three good meals a day, own hundreds of books, spend money on photographs or ornaments, eat out occasionally. Never mind that I live simply compared to many expatriates and indeed many Bangladeshis. Compared to most of my neighbours, I'm rich.
Any westerner, particularly any Christian, who comes to Bangladesh encounters this situation and must find a way to cope with it. There are lots of ways. I think I've tried them all.
My first instinct was to try to remedy the differences. I gave rice to every beggar at the door. I bought medicine for anyone who showed me a doctor's prescription. I gave money to the young man who wanted to set up a little business. I paid for the education of a number of children.
Every cry for help that reached my ears produced in me a reaction compounded of guilt and pity and an utterly sincere desire to love people as Jesus loves them. The more I listened, the more I heard, the more I felt overwhelmed by the needs. I couldn't help everyone. I could give and give and give, but still I had to make choices, decisions. I had to say no. And in me the rising tide of guilt about what I was failing to do became unbearable.
My efforts to be generous were having about as much effect on the problems I was trying to solve as a cupful of water on a forest fire. It became easier not to listen. Preferable to close my eyes and ignore the needs.
So for a while, that's what I did. Choosing not to see brought peace for a time. But conscience (and certain Bible verses) prickled me like grit in my eyes. I tried a third option: to give but not to get involved.
Many people find their equilibrium that way. Through a church or some other organisation they donate generously. If they themselves work for such an organisation they will give their energies to it but protect their private lives. They haven't become hard or cynical, they're simply opting for this way of balancing between the twin chasms of paralysing despair and wilful blindness.
Don, a worker in a well-known Christian aid organisation, once asked me in genuine surprise "You don't still get upset about the beggars at your door do you?" His full time occupation was in creating and directing programmes and projects to help those beggars or people like them. But for his own mental health he had opted not to be vulnerable to their pain.
People like Don will achieve more practical benefits for the poor than I ever will. But I've discovered over the years that this option isn't for me. His gift is large scale organisation. I have slowly, fumblingly come to realise that my gift is personal involvement.
I am called every day that I live in Bangladesh to look poverty in the face. Not as the huge spectre that must be defeated by macro programmes and policies. But as the grubby face of young Arif, the weary face of Khulsuma, the discontented face of Saera, the hopeful faces of her children asking me for a biscuit.
My own particular calling is to look and listen and yes, to give, but most of all to be vulnerable to these people. There's an art in it and a discipline I never dreamed of when first I began it.
I've had to learn the discipline of time. Sometimes I find myself clenching my teeth as I tell some woman that no I won't give her any rice and no I don't know what she's going to eat tonight if I don't, and will she please leave my veranda NOW. Sometimes I pray that no one will come to me today, I just can't stand it.
How can I keep my balance here, not exhaust my reserves of serenity? I've discovered that it's not wrong to reserve my mornings for other work. I don't need to be at anyone's beck and call every minute of the day. I've rediscovered Sunday as a day of rest and re-creation. I've discovered time alone with Jesus as the essential fuel of compassion.
Then there's the discipline of the emotions. I've decided to reject guilt feelings about my own wealth. Such guilt is counter-productive. It doesn't make me any more generous; it makes me avoid thinking about the poor because I don't like to feel guilty. But I haven't lied, stolen or cheated anyone to acquire my wealth. Greed, envy and selfishness are the very real sins I have to deal with; not ownership.
I'm grateful for daily reminders of how rich I am. They defend me from one of my besetting temptations: envy of those who are far wealthier than I am.
I've learned - but I have to re-learn it on average once a week - that I'm not called to meet needs but to love people. The former is a lot easier, actually. Much easier to give some money away than to sit and listen to a tale of woe. Much quicker to briskly hand out medicine than to pray for healing.
How rarely have I had the grace to say "no" - firmly, lovingly, without any sense of guilt. But sometimes I'm able to listen, just listen, to a woman's story attentively, sympathetically. Somehow I rein in my need to solve her problems. I haven't given her the money she asked me for, but I've tried to love her.
Loving people is difficult. Over the years I've helped a woman called Khushi in a number of ways. A solo parent with one teenage son, she struggles endlessly to make ends meet and to educate her boy. Khushi was around one time when two women, mother and grandmother, arrived at my door nursing a very sick little baby boy.
They wore cheap, ragged saris; the thin, unhappy baby nothing but a vest and a string of amulets around his neck. He needed an operation, so the village doctor had sent them to the city. They had somehow found their way to the only foreigner in town (foreign equals rich and generous) to ask her to pay for his treatment.
I'm not that rich, nor that generous. I told them to go to the district hospital. It was obvious that these two weren't just poor, they were completely disoriented by the big city. They hadn't the foggiest clue how to get to hospital, nor what to do when they got there.
To my delight, Khushi took pity on them. She walked them to the hospital and guided them through the admission procedures. She helped them find out what medicine would be needed and borrowed money to buy it for them. Thanks to Khushi's shrewd common sense, and her own past experience in the hospital, this family was not cheated or put off but given the treatment due to them.
Khushi glowed as she told me how she felt she had to help. "They are so poor - I can hardly believe how poor they are. And that little baby was crying in so much pain."
Two days later Khushi came back to me, hurt and angry. "Those women! They're accusing me of cheating them! They say I must be getting money from you to help them and I'm keeping it for myself. They don't believe I'm helping them just because I felt sorry for them and the little boy."
Khushi was learning what I've had to learn and re-learn. That love and compassion don't earn gratitude and happy endings. That the best of motives will be doubted. That serving other people can leave you feeling not happy and fulfilled, but tired and used. I've been there so many times.
Khushi is poor; I am comparatively wealthy. I don't suffer as she does with the daily struggle for survival. I never wonder where tomorrow's food will come from. I never question that my children will have clothes to wear.
Khushi doesn't struggle as I do with the dilemmas of wealth, of how to share what I have been given. I want so many beautiful and useful things for myself and my children. I could afford to buy them. I struggle to keep choosing to give rather than to accumulate.
But for all our differences it seems clear to me that Khushi and I are both called to love. Not to guilt-abating magnanimity. Not to sentimental do-goodery. But to patient, committed, compassionate, generous, self-scrutinising love.
People ask me often enough how I respond to the poverty and suffering in Bangladesh. These words are a partial answer; other people have found a different way. I write them as a record of a personal journey, reflections on my own experience, lessons one woman still struggles to learn. I write out of repeated failure to do what I have been writing about. I write with a sense of incompleteness but I know my calling: not to meet needs but to love people.
October 1979 Adrienne and her husband Paul went out to Bangladesh, where
they were involved with evangelism, church planting, Christian publishing
and with official and unofficial relief projects. Adrienne got to know
a number of poor Muslim women and their children over the 20 years.
The Thompsons are now in the process of returning to New Zealand with
their four children.