And There are Floods in Djibouti

I am tired.

The ‘luminous foundation’ that makes television people look so pretty can’t hide the shadows under my eyes. After a delightful Easter weekend my head aches from the traffic on the highway getting home; from listening to The Clash full blast to pass the time; from Easter candy that looks so pretty in the bowl and feels so rotten in my stomach (because I am who I am and I overindulged.) It’s an Easter Hangover – but not the sort you are supposed to have where the glory of Easter moves into the Monday beyond.

I have my head full of all kinds of petty, so hard to get rid of petty. I feel exiled and frustrated and full of – I’ll say it – first world problems.

And then I remember there are floods in Djibouti. A place where it doesn’t rain — one of the hottest places on earth. Djibouti – a country that is often forgotten when naming countries in the African continent. Djibouti – where poverty abounds and most could care less.

Djibouti – where floods, even small ones, cause massive problems.

English: Mosque in Djibouti city, January 2008

“When there is no rain for so long, drainage clogs and people set up homes in precarious places, lulled into security. We had been in Djibouti less than four months when the last flood came through and killed more than 500 people in 2004. That year we lived on the upper level of a duplex and stood with our landlord’s family downstairs, watching the water rise more than three feet inside their house. This flood isn’t as massively catastrophic, but to people who have lost everything, there is no difference.” From Djibouti Jones

I need my ‘floods in Djibouti’ moments. They bring me back to reality. They remind me to pray. They push me to flush narcissism down the toilet. They tell me this world is big and God is bigger – and it matters to him that there are floods in Djibouti. It matters to him that people who have nothing are losing even more. These moments remind me that the circles under my eyes are merely circles – that I will get a good night sleep and they will go away.

That my energy and attention had best be spent on finding my Djibouti, finding those in my area that the floods of life have overwhelmed.

“This is the week of Easter, this is the week of miracles and resurrection. For many in Djibouti, this is a week of loss and grief. Pray for those who have lost so much. May God have mercy.” Rachel Pieh Jones

Blogger’s Note: If you haven’t already made your way over to Djibouti Jones – I urge you to do so. Rachel Pieh Jones and her husband have lived in Djibouti for over 12 years and I believe her perspective on life and faith will resonate with readers of Communicating Across Boundaries. She views the world through a much-needed cross-cultural lens. More importantly she communicates this view through all her writing.

You Can’t Empower Those You Pity

“The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”~ Teju Cole

It was after we had been in Pakistan a week that I realized, despite the bleak surroundings of still present flood waters, mud and brick homes that would have to be rebuilt from the foundation up, and scarcity of basic supplies of food, that not one time had I felt pity for anyone we met.

I had come back to Pakistan after seeing my childhood home, Jacobabad, devastated by flood waters in the fall of 2010. Seeing the New York Times picture did a number on my soul and a few weeks later I was on the ground in Pakistan, and my heart was in Heaven.

IMG_4874Every day we were surrounded by women and children. Women in brightly embroidered shalwar/kameez with dupattas gracefully draped over their heads. Children of every shape and size, some picked on by older siblings; others naughty as can be, into all sorts of laughter and mischief; older teens, slightly more self-conscious but curious and eager to ask questions and observe.

Their resilience was remarkable. Their ability to withstand this devastating flood courageous. They were so much better than me – there was nothing to pity.

We laughed until our sides ached; cried until our souls felt crushed; raged at poverty and injustice; got excited at seeing a mom learning how to care for a wound; felt joy as we watched women and children gather around when we arrived; and each day at the end of a long, hot clinic, we were satisfied. We were not leading – we were being led by a dedicated and gifted team of Pakistanis. I had been on many trips to serve in the past – yet this was the first time I had been on a service trip where I was led by someone from the country where I was serving.

And not once had I felt pity for those who came into our lives.

Maybe that’s why this trip was going so well — because pity doesn’t help. You can’t empower those you pity.

Pity insults. Pity humiliates. Pity sees others as ‘less than’ not ‘equal to’ or ‘above’. While compassion is a vital part of love and moves us to action, pity looks on as a superior bystander.

In the last few years a conversation has started about what is termed the “white Saviour complex” – when people like me get on planes and go to places like Pakistan, thinking they are going to save the masses from starvation, devastation, and Hell, trips that are sometimes made of pity for the less fortunate. And there is merit to what has been said. Teju Cole wrote a challenging and provocative piece about this last year soon after the Kony 2012 video went viral. It was a piece that first made me cringe, then made me angry, and finally made me nod in agreement.

Too often we go with heads and egos held high. Too often we want to serve instead of to learn. Too often we pity those around us. Too often we decide what those around us need – instead of asking them what they need.

So what do we do – just stop going? No – I don’t think so. But asking ahead of time what is needed is imperative. Realizing that we don’t hold all the answers is critical. Humility of heart and body must be present in all we do.

If we go with pity and seeing ourselves as doing any ‘saving’ then several things happen: We burn out, unable to last long. We subconsciously want to be thanked and praised. We fail to respect the very people we have come to serve, instead seeing them as incapable of being partners and leaders. We don’t acknowledge the bigger problems behind those that are visible. We don’t acknowledge God as God – and us as human.

I know a post like this just begins the conversation about service. It’s a big topic, but as churches and other organizations around the country get ready for summer service projects, gear up to ‘go’, it behooves all of us to dig deep and ask the hard, but important question – Why, really, are we doing this?

And If we go? Our charge is to go in humility, with a heart to learn; never to go out of pity and above all, know we are not, will never be, the Saviour.

“There is much more to doing good work than “making a difference.” There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.” Teju Cole in The White Saviour Industrial Complex

Pakistan Flood – Looking Back

Just one year ago a flood devastated much of Pakistan, sending the country into crisis. It’s time to look back and remember as well as continue to understand the current needs and situation in the country.

Aid agencies continue to voice concern about the relief efforts and the rebuilding that continues to take place. With this years monsoon season beginning, there is no infrastructure in place that can handle further flooding and devastation.

Looking back, last year’s floods affected approximately 20 million people and killed over 1700. In any country, these floods would have created a crisis and a challenge, but in a country that already had multiple needs, they created a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. And now, one year later, there are still hundreds of thousands without adequate shelter, food, and work.

Oxfam produced a report “Ready or Not: Pakistan’s resilience to disasters one year on from the floods” that details the need and warns that the country is not prepared for another disaster. They urge the international community to come together in aiding Pakistan and ensuring that some of the aid go to developing measures that decrease the impact of disasters. The most urgent needs are developing flood resistant housing and “early warning systems” at the local level.

I have attached links to several excellent articles as well as a slide show below. The photographs were taken in October of 2010 when I, along with my sister-in-law, participated in medical flood relief. They remind me of the need to be aware of the situation and communicate the need to those who can help.

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Pakistan Flood Update: Webs of Protection.

It seems years ago that I returned to Pakistan to take part in flood relief. As much as I wanted to daily hold in my heart the women and children from the villages and camps as well as the images of human need from this catastrophe, life has taken over adding more urgent things to my world.

Recently, while looking at pictures and reminiscing with my parents about Pakistan in general, I was reminded again of the trip and the continued devastation faced by the people of Pakistan. It was after this conversation that I received an email via my parents from family friends. Attached to the email were pictures of trees in the Sindh area of Pakistan, the leaves and branches covered in thick webs woven by spiders. In order to escape the flood waters, spiders climbed into trees and continued to do what they do best. They wove webs with intricate patterns that are strong and sticky serving as traps for insects.  Pictures show trees that look like they’ve been decorated for a haunted house during American Halloween celebrations. They show ghostly grey webs over dusty leaves.

The unexpected and remarkable effect is that these webs seem to be assisting in the fight against malaria. Their fight is not with drugs, but with their webs, trapping the mosquitoes that would normally be breeding out of control in the still present flood waters. These flood waters are now still bodies of water, perfect disease-breeding environments.

I stand amazed at this small grace. While assisting in flood relief we gave out Fansidar, Chloroquine, and Doxycycline like it was candy. Fevers and chills were the most common symptoms, followed by skin diseases and malnutrition. Now seven and a half months later, these webs of protection are preventing malaria from becoming endemic, threatening lives and wellbeing.

The flood crisis affected 20 million people through displacement and loss of resources, including homes and crops, and 2000 lost their lives. Pakistan has slowly been rebuilding against tremendous odds. It’s into this context that these webbed trees and the tiny spiders that created them emerge as a small grace in the middle of continuing problems.

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Pictures: Trees Cocooned in Spider Webs After Flood.