I recently experienced a day and night as a Zambian refugee. My company sent a small group of us to Heifer International Ranch to consider our obligation as leaders to those in need. It worked. I drew the short straw, one of seven assigned to sleep in the urban slum. Of the dwellings Heifer has constructed to represent typical homes of those they serve, it was by far the worst. We chose to sleep in what I called “the boxcar”, one of several makeshift structures situated around a fire pit. It was an easy choice, not because of its virtues, but because of the others’ complete lack of them. The boxcar resembled one, though without as much protection from the elements. The half of the door that remained did not close, and the ends of the building were half chicken wire. The forecast for that night was upper 30’s. I stayed warm once I zipped into my zero degree mummy bag, but my exposed face validated the weatherman’s prediction.
Our “family” was given a difficult choice to make from three bad options: stay put in this crime-ridden place which the government periodically clears out; leave, and try to find a safer place to live somewhere; or move in with family whose resources would be so strained that we would all get only one meal a day. Given our lack of both heat and light, we discussed our Sophie’s Choice lying in the dark in our sleeping bags, before falling asleep on the uneven wooden floor. Our final choice doesn’t matter, as we knew we didn’t really have to live with its consequences. Still, it made me think about the millions who face equally harsh, but very real, choices that I hope I never have to make.
Mealtime was equally interesting. The quantity of food provided for our group of 14 was smaller than I’d have prepared for my family of four. I was amazed by our ability to prepare such tasty meals and be filled by them, in spite of how meager they were. I know we Americans eat too much and of the wrong things, but only then did it really hit me just how much.
Though I wasn’t sure what to expect from the experience, I was surprised by what has stayed with me. I’m fixing and eating smaller portions of food. Since I got home, my Depression-era grandmother’s aversion to wasting food resonates with me; it now feels plain wrong to overcook or to overeat. I’ve also changed my Christmas list. I’ve removed most of the trinkets I didn’t need and which now have little appeal. I’ve replaced them with a request for a batch of my favorite cookies and a trip to the local art museum with the girls, which they don’t enjoy. Those will make me happier than whatever junk was once on my list. (Don’t tell the girls, but for Christmas they’re also each going to get a choice of whether to give a family a flock of ducks, chickens, or geese…a life-changing bargain at only $20!).
As our group debriefed on the experience, we all recognized that, while insightful, our experience can’t possibly do justice to what others’ lives are really like, because we all knew we were going home: home to our big houses and warm, soft beds…home to more food choices than we need or even want. Home to safe communities, where we don’t have to look over our shoulders. None of us want, truly want, for anything we need. We have hope, and hope is a powerful thing. My lesson from this experience was a stronger desire to give others a small measure of that hope. I haven’t yet fully figured out how, but I feel compelled to try.
“Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.” –Mother Teresa