Two days ago, we spent a night at one of the humbler rural lodges in which I’ve ever stayed. The small town in southeastern Kenya where it’s located has no electricity after midnight, so when jetlag woke me at about 5am, I had plenty of time to lay in the dark, and my mind quickly reflected back on a moving encounter from the previous day. Then, when I remembered I could read my daily devotions on my backlit Blackberry, the pieces all came to light with the dawn.
The day before, we’d had several wonderful encounters with the poor. Bouncing for miles down dirt roads, we came to the end of the trail, to a village named “California“! Ladies in colorful dresses danced and sang for us, and I joined the dance with them as the comic relief. When the festivities gave way to speeches, we of course told them that we’d come from the “other” California and asked how they’d chosen the name. They explained they’d changed the village name a few years ago to “California” because that name represents the furthest place on earth for them (our equivalent is “Timbuktu“!), and they feel far away from anyone caring or paying attention to them. So our visit was a special grace to them, and they told as much to God when we prayed together to start and end our brief visit, as so often happens here.
The new pride of their remote hamlet was a hand-pump well which they proudly displayed. Thanks to the well, girls can now attend school instead of fetching water all morning, women can be more productive, and children are sick less frequently. When the village elder greeted us, he said that thanks to the well they now feel that they are legitimately “part of the world.”
We tried out the well for ourselves and then adjourned for warm soda under a tree, where they told us more about the impact which the well has had. That’s when things got personal.
One woman reported happily that her children are now clean, because she has enough water to bathe them. My mind flashed to a recent recounting of a woman who said that her top personal “dream” is to be able to take a bath at home.
Just then, a very brave women chimed in, and we heard the translation amid muffled snickers and giggles from others in the crowd. “Before the well, when a man and a woman would come together as a couple, they were not able to wash afterwards.”
Her words were shocking in their obvious meaning and profoundly human practicality, yet without any salacious subtext. I felt extremely honored that she would make such an intimate comment to seeming strangers… though World Vision is no stranger here, of course.
After more praying, singing and dancing we bounced off to our next stop. But that night over dinner we each spoke of our most powerful image or memory from the day, and I found myself bringing up this woman’s comment. Lucy, a Kenyan woman on our staff who’d also grown up “in the bush”, commented, “Yes, it was very brave of her to speak so frankly. But what she didn’t say, yet was really implying behind the words, was that if the woman can’t be clean, then her husband is likely to lose interest and go into town to find ‘girls’.”
My heart sank. I began to think of the helplessness these women must have felt. Women are very conscious of personal hygiene anyway and would be the first to sense any personal uncleanliness. Then for one’s husband to go consort with prostitutes would only compound one’s own inner condemnations and feelings of shame and worthlessness. The women there looked old and weathered before their years anyway, and then to feel unclean, and to be rejected as unclean, must have led to great despair.
I remember a trip somewhere where we visited a girls’ latrine at a school and learned that once they reached puberty, perhaps three-fourths of the girls had been dropping out of school because of their personal hygiene needs and the lack of gender-specific school toilets, a luxury previously beyond their means. This ridiculously simple girls’ latrine had hugely increased female enrollment and reduced dropouts. It was one of those moments where a dumb male like me can very tangibly understand the vulnerability and sensitivity of females.
Another moment for me recently was reading the fabulous book, “Half the Sky” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. The book is a compendium of riveting women’s challenges and inspirational stories of modern heroines who are overcoming their barriers and the sins visited against them by men (and at times by other women, whether those who perform genital cutting or those who hold them down so the male soldiers can gang rape them). When I closed the book, I declared myself a feminist before God.
Now enter the shamelessly honest woman from “California” as my latest ah-ha.
I was again contemplating her with increasing empathy in the pre-dawn dark of the next morning when I grabbed my Blackberry to read my daily email devotion. (Ah, the marvels of technology!) I read that two mystics from the 1100’s (Hugh of St. Victor and Richard of St. Victor) wrote that God gave humanity three sets of eyes, each building on the previous one. The first are the eyes of the body, the second are the eyes of mind, and the third, the eyes of true understanding and compassion, perhaps the eyes of the heart…
Suddenly it became clear that God has indeed given me three sets of eyes. My physical eyes saw the water well, even saw the dancing and singing. The eyes of my mind saw the brave woman explain an intimate aspect of the blessings of clean, sufficient water which I might not have considered. And finally, thanks to my colleague Lucy, the eyes of my heart broke with compassion as she explained the painful, unfair truth behind the woman’s words… unfair because women once more have the disadvantage, have special needs, have less power in relationships, and yet are the most self-aware in issues such as personal hygiene. Those who already judge themselves are further judged by their husbands’ spurning, further confirmed in their self-deprecating personal appraisal.
I told our group that morning about my devotional, about our three sets of eyes and how it perfectly fit our prior day’s experience. Because ultimately, these trips are exactly about moving from seeing to knowing to feeling. It is God’s invitation in every one of these visits with the poor.
Why? Because from the eyes of the heart comes not only heart-rending compassion but compassion-fired motivation; motivation to be the change which might just change the world, might change it into something that could be recognizable as the Kingdom of God.
Open the eyes of my heart, Lord. Open the eyes of my heart.