This is about hope. I ask you to stay with me and I’ll get there. But first I need to recount an experience that put hope to test. It starts with this lead-in to a story in Interpreter magazine about efforts to prevent malaria:
Watching a small child die from malaria is a horrific experience.
First come the headache, tiredness, weakness in the joints and general malaise,
followed by a very high fever.
Then the fever’s effect on the brain causes the child’s muscles to jerk, just before the end.
As I read this lead, I felt my heartbeat quicken and a sense of deep sadness came over me. I’ve seen children die in too many places. Honduras. Cambodia. More places in Africa than I can recall. This story is about 8-month-old Domingos Antonic who died of malaria in Malanje, Angola. One of the thousands whose lives are stolen by a disease of poverty.
But Domingos reminds me that every death is real. A face, a family, and real tears.
As I write these words I continue to feel a mixture of fear, frustration and anger. Fear because it’s so disorienting to see a child, or anyone else, overtaken by the symptoms of malaria and to be utterly helpless to change them. To witness the inexorable, uncontrollable ebbing away of life is fearsome.
Frustration, because this is preventable and treatable if addressed early on. And anger because it’s preventable and treatable, and economically feasible to end it. It doesn’t have to happen. Children need not die from this disease, nor many of the other diseases of poverty. And that alone is enough to cause a simmering boil of frustration within.
I know that emotional reactions are easily spent and sometimes they don’t generate much in the way of real change. I know that good people are doing all they can to bring health and healing to the world. In fact, Sen. Richard Lugar writes in the same edition of Interpreter about his legislation that would increase agricultural aid to combat hunger (Senate Bill 384, The Global Food Security Act). And I know that donors want program plans, measurements and outcomes–rational, systematic and manageable responses. But the Interpreter article set aflame old frustrations.
After all these years children are still dying in the poorest nations for lack of knowledge about preventing this disease and a ten dollar bednet. How many more? For how long?
Reading the article, my mind’s eye recalled the look on the face of the young indigenous mother I met thirty years ago at a health clinic in El Paraiso, Honduras cradling her malnourished infant. Her quietness and deep, brown eyes still haunt me. The memory of the labored breathing of the tiny child lingers. Then I recall a little body wrapped in white linen and laid into the ground in an African village near a river. And the look of pain on the face of a teenage boy in Cambodia, his brain swelling, unable to resist the progression of the disease.
The death of one child, when you know about it, doesn’t fade into the mists of memory to be forgotten. It stays somewhere in the pool of life experiences and comes to the surface with a word, a sound or an image. And the pain it carries is sharp and cuts deep for you know this is not the way life has to be.
Pain and grief are part of what it means to wake up to poverty every day in the developing world, but these conditions aren’t mysteriously inevitable. We can do something about them. They are not immutable reality. Nor should we be unaffected by them, not after looking people in the face and seeing what poverty means.
Hunger and disease are not about huge numbers. They are about one face at a time. Sometimes I think we let words mask our pain or gloss it over too easily. Lubricated with sweetness, they slide from our lips. “Hope never dies. Hope springs eternal.” Stand over your dying child, unable to do anything to wrench him or her from the grips of death, and then come and talk to me about hope.
I remember sitting with a mother in Brazil in a stinking favela talking about her son who was marked for murder by a vigilante group called “justicieros.” She had moved here hoping it would be safer. She was constructing a hut with boards scavenged from a wooden piano crate. We talked of life and hope. She was trapped in poverty. With tears sliding down her cheeks Maria spoke of the fears she had for her son. As she weighed the challenges she said, “But we have a saying in Brazil. Hope is the last thing to die.”
I think Maria’s view of hope is more accurate. When neglected, hope does die. Every day. With Domingos and every other child taken by the diseases of poverty and the injustices of life. That’s why we dare not forget Domingos nor all the others and turn away from them. If we do, we will lose our own humanity and hope will die. Hope, against all odds, is one of those qualities that defines our humanity. We must not let hope die.
There are many ways to keep hope alive:
- Give to the Imagine No Malaria campaign to eradicate malaria in The United Methodist Church or the organization of your choice.
- Participate in a volunteer partnership offerred by many local churches and other groups that provide volunteer opportunities to distribute bednets and provide hands-on labor.
- Support Sen. Lugar’s Global Food Security Act, Senate Bill 384.
- Read Nicholas Kristof’s comments in which he says we might get more support for humanitarian assistance by focusing on stories of individuals and opportunities rather than mass numbers.
- Read Bono’s op-ed this morning and reflect on how we are all connected by our common DNA and consider how the death of any child is a loss to the whole human family.
It comes down to this. Hope is our responsibility. It’s not some mysterious force disconnected from hard realities. But it may, indeed, be written into our collective DNA, activated when we recognize that Domingos and every other preventable death by poverty is a call to us to be responsible for each other. When we care for each other, there is hope.
So you absorb the pain, fear and frustration and carry on. I laid the article down and walked away, collected my thoughts and re-grouped. Then I set about telling this story. I did it because Domingos is inside my brain. Look into his eyes and you cannot turn away your gaze. Domingos matters. And as long as I believe that, I can dare to hope and work to keep hope alive.
A Hopeful Postscript
: The people of The United Methodist Church have entered into a campaign to raise $75 million to eradicate malaria. They have contributed well over six million dollars so far.
An article in the NY Times reports that Pres. Obama is asking the world’s wealthiest nations to contribute $15 billion to help the world’s poorest farmers feed themselves and their countries.