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The beauty and ugliness of poverty
10 December 2003
by Lin Ching-ying

Taiwan, ROC: How do you maintain hope when your life is surrounded by poverty, disease, and injustice?

Unable to choose their living conditions, African children are disadvantaged from birth. Inadequate family conditions, disease, and poverty make children's first five years of life a severe test. Malaria accounts for 65 per cent of all the deaths of children five and under. The mosquitoes carrying the malaria virus choose their victims impartially, so the chance of infection is equal for all. Once infected, everything depends on individual constitution and on the effectiveness of medical treatment. If the patient survives then there is the hope of making it through another five years.

I can remember that when I first reached Africa, I wasn't quite used to the fact that everybody I ran into was a black-skinned local. I felt that everyone looked so much alike, even to the point that I had trouble telling people apart. After my second month, I gradually became able to distinguish everybody, and with diligence and a caring attitude was able to lessen the distance between us. What I cared about most was the glimmer of hope that I saw in the eyes of the children.

Ever curious about foreigners, the rural children were always bashful. In their eyes, in which black and white were so finely contrasted, and in their candid smiles, you could see the hope and future of their country. However, when they opened their mouths, it always made me feel uneasy, for they would always say, "Amiga! I want candy! I'm hungry! Give me money!" Not only children, but people of all ages were this way, making us sad indeed. So, whenever I had a chance I would patiently talk to the children's parents saying, "My country was also poor 30 years ago, but our parents never had us beg. The Taiwan of today is the result of sweat and labor, and of people striving diligently together. Perhaps your children can help bring a better tomorrow, but constantly begging for the help of others will lead nowhere."

Poverty in the developing countries really brings out people's humanity, in both positive and negative ways! I can remember hearing about the goodness of the wife of one of the staff members in Sao Tome and Principe. Not long after she arrived, she used to head down into the villages to hand out bread. One day the line was particularly long and supplies were not enough to go around, so in the end, she could only offer an apology and then drive away. But the folks who had waited in vain were incensed, pelting the car with stones as it drove away. Hearing of this incident saddened me, for it showed the avarice that poverty brings, and also the kind of sanctimonious help that people are so prone to give.

The incident made me wonder about the nature of caring-how should caring be understood and implemented so that regret and error may be avoided?

Only after coming to Africa did I discover that many volunteers needed to adjust their perceptions and attitudes. The locals are extremely sensitive, and they can distinguish a genuine attitude from a perfunctory one. Help transcends more than just passing out bread; in the end, we must help others to help themselves.

In Africa, providing material aid alone is not a sufficient form of caring. Were it so, then caring would consist entirely of emptying one's pockets, an incomplete form of help at best that cannot truly deal with the heart of the matter. What is important is giving them the incentive to put forth the effort necessary to earn what they need. In this kind of environment, every person may find a lot of room for growth-if you can remain sympathetic and tolerant, you will find that things aren't as bad as they seem.

In two years of volunteer life, I made sure that I lived each day to the fullest, for this was a most precious life experience. By living in such a destitute environment, I was able to get a taste of life's many possibilities. I experienced every possible form of culture shock. I learned how to lighten up and lead a simple life, how to work diligently, and how to make the best of my situation and peacefully live life one day at a time.

The definition of volunteering is to dedicate oneself willingly and joyously. To succeed in this kind of work requires unassailable enthusiasm and morale, for only then can one work without strain or regret. The primary source of this energy must be the individual; regardless of what kind of circumstances one may encounter, it is important to keep in good spirits. Those whose passion is short-lived may find themselves plagued by doubts before long, and may even consider giving up.

Full of curiosity, even little presents can make African children happy all day. Here the author presents balloons that the little kids blew up immediately after.

From: Sinorama Magazine, Taiwan, ROC