Friday, February 29, 2008

A girl from Moyamba

Several months ago a colleague of mine told me about a case he was working on. Four years ago a 14 year old orphan girl in Moyamba district, Sierra Leone, was offered “love” by a young man. She rejected him. Later when she was going to collect palm wine, he ambushed her, attacked her with a cutlass, and raped her. As a result of her injuries, she started bleeding through her nose and nipples during menstruation. She has to be hospitalized every month, and recently has been going into a severe fit every time.

After the initial attack, the man said he’d take medical responsibility for her. No surprise he didn’t. Instead, a year ago he attacked and assaulted her again. She’s now confined to a safehouse and a hospital every month when she menstruates. He’s living in his town, out on bail.

Since I heard about this girl in Moyamba, I haven’t gone a day without thinking about her. It’s with me wherever I go.

As someone focused on human rights issues, it’s not as if I haven’t read or seen my share of horrors. And like many people here, I almost believed, in a twisted way, optimistically and naively that I couldn’t be shocked anymore. But this was new. A way of suffering I never even knew or could have imagined possible.

Dostoyevsky commented, “We talk of bestial cruelty. But that is a cruel insult to the beasts. A beast can never be so artistically cruel as a man.” We can and should admire the amazing artistry of beauty in this world, but the darkness is just as artistic, just as creative, just as inventive.

I thought then, and I think now of Ivan Karamazov querying his brother Alyosha in the smoky tavern. He tells Alyosha about a “poor child of five.”

"(She) was subjected to every possible torture by those cultivated parents. They beat her, thrashed her, kicked her for no reason till her body was one bruise. Then, they went to greater refinements of cruelty- shut her up all night in the cold and frost in a privy, and because she didn't ask to be taken up at night (as though a child of five sleeping its angelic, sound sleep could be trained to wake and ask), they smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement, and it was her mother, her mother did this. And that mother could sleep, hearing the poor child's groans! Can you understand why a little creature, who can't even understand what's done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her?"

And he asks Alyosha, if Alyosha could create a world to guarantee man’s future happiness, where he could transform all suffering into joy and comfort, but only on the condition that “it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature - that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance - and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?”

When Dostoyevsky left the Siberia prison camp where he was exiled for six years, he commented, “If someone proved to me that Christ is outside the truth and that in reality the truth were outside of Christ, then I should prefer to remain with Christ rather than with the truth.” Like Kierkegaard, the despair of a godless world, where “everything would be permitted,” terrified him too much. So even if it meant rejecting truth, they decided to take the leap of faith, accept Pascal’s wager, and simply embrace god as a divine placebo to the hopelessness they saw facing them otherwise. There would be none of Feuerbach’s ability to find hope in the rejection of god and embrace of “the anthropological essence of religion” - god as merely a projection of man. Nor would they be able to find comfort in the Nietzschean “will to power” after the declaration of the death of god. Rather faith in god grew partially from the fertile soil of fear, fear that if they “gazed into the abyss the abyss would gaze also into them,” fear that a life without god could only be sustained by Schopenhauer’s irrational “will to live,” fear that the world may really be as dark as it often appears, and only some otherworldly power and faith could salvage the wreck.

But I’m not concerned with whether god exists or not. Stuck with my Euclidean mind, it’s an answer beyond my ability to discern. Perhaps I prefer to take the folk singer Iris Dement’s refrain and “let the mystery be,” or bear homage to Kierkegaard’s concession that he is too stupid to understand philosophy, and philosophy is too clever to understand his stupidity. I just can’t help but wonder: Dostoyevsky argued that without god, all things are permitted. But if god does exist, if god can and does act in this world, and if a girl will bleed every month through her nose and nipples, what things aren’t permitted, even with god?

My question is then like Ivan’s. If you could create an architecture guaranteeing man’s future happiness, divine justice, the conversion of all pain to joy, but one girl must be raped and have to bleed every month through her nose and nipples… would you consent? And perhaps more importantly, could you praise such an architect?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

On the road to freetown...

On Tuesday, I made my way back from Kabala in the Koinadugu District of Sierra Leone. We rolled down the windows of the 4WD, offering some relief from the heat by letting the dry, dusty, hot air rush into the car. As we pulled into Makeni for a brief stop to buy some vegetables, a woman came over. Her right arm was marred by severe burns from her hand to shoulder. The scars covered her flesh like a thick bacteria slowly crawling its way up and around her body. Her left hand was even worse. A mangled mess, her fingers wrapped around themselves and splayed off in different directions. You could only imagine what caused the injuries. Perhaps in the war she was caught in a Revolutionary United Front (RUF) attack; or perhaps the Civil Defence Force (CDF) or Kamajors suspected her of RUF complicity; or perhaps it was just a cooking or work accident. There are so many potential sources of pain and injury. It need not be as "glamorous" as civil war, genocide, slaughter, or torture. Torture comes in too many forms to narrow it down in such a way...

The woman approached our car, and shoved her disfigured hand in through the window into our faces, asking for money. Like anyone else, we recoiled, said no, and rolled up our windows. We finished our shopping and continued on our way back to Freetown.

I suppose I should try to say something profound now. But these things happen all the time here.


For reasons I may explain later, I came back from Kabala with a new sense of purpose in the choices I have made. Or at least I tell myself. I've always been good with words, laying out philosophy and principles with rhetorical and poetic flourish, but words without actions are dead, as James 2:20 reflected about faith. There's no need to write about all the new things I've learned or decided. If I really learned them, the only words that matter will be carried out through my actions, in the kingdom of the here-and-now, and anyone with eyes to see will be able to judge what really lies in my heart and in my head. For now, I depart with just one last reflection.

While climbing one of the many hills in Kabala, I thought about the great commission - the moment in the Christian story when Jesus tells the disciples to go out into the world and spread his word. Jack Miles argued in God: A Biography how, in the Jewish canon, God had been moved to silence after his argument with Job, how God never spoke again but became the silent, reclusive, tired Ancient of Days described in Daniel. What if the central narrative of the Bible is less about how God acts in the world, but how He's decided not to? Maybe the Great Commission is also a hand-off of responsibility to us, to take on the burden of the world and heal it, to become "world saviors," as the Gnostics would put it? Christian or not, maybe there will be great strength and power and compassion and love available to us if we seek it ("seek and you shall find") - whether from man's natural goodness, his ability to reason, or from the "divine spark" in each of our hearts, or whatever term of art we may use - but perhaps, at the end of the day, the only God to help us is the God within us. The responsibility is ours. And it's terrible and terrifying, and liberating...

We need not fly to Sierra Leone to find injustice and suffering. It can be found anywhere - in our cities, in our towns, in our neighborhoods, and in our day-to-day relationships, and it's just as real there as anywhere else. For human rights doesn't begin in some remote corner of the Congo, or some impoverished slum in Freetown. It begins at home - with how we treat everyone we profess to hold dear in our heart. If we can't do even that right... how can we ever talk about human rights and respect for man?

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Saving the world

The last village we visited today was Serabu in Kenema District of Sierra Leone. Our CLTS team, Kamboi, was already there implementing the strategy. While walking towards the meeting area, Kamal Kar - the pioneer of CLTS - noticed a young boy lying on the steps of a building. He asked the surrounding members of the community about the kid. The kid was clearly severely dehydrated in the dry, dusty 40 degree heat; his frail arms seeming as if they would break when we touched them. We got a water bottle from our vehicle, and gave him some salt and sugar water to rehydrate him. Our Ministry of Health and Sanitation (MoHS) escort took him to the local health center. As the kid began to vomit, the nurse reported that the village had a very high rate of diarrhea and dehydration but most didn’t come to the health center because of a local witch doctor.

While all this happened, our team worked diligently to carry out our strategy to get the community to clean up the village, unaware of the tragedy slowly unfolding steps away. How easy it is to become so focused on saving the world that you lose sight of saving one person.

(Children in the village of Serabu after they wrote and sang a song telling their community to clean up the village so they don't get sick and die)

(Children continuing through the village singing)

Saturday, February 2, 2008

The many faces of Sierra Leone

I just spent a week working on a Community Led Total Sanitation project. I head up to Kenema for a week tomorrow to continue the project. During this week, I caught a glimpse of the many faces of Sierra Leone.