People often ask us what is the hardest thing about living where we live. Honestly, it varies day by day and season by season. Sometimes it feels like such an overwhelming privilege that it's hard to answer at all. Other days, we could give a list longer than Santa's on December 23rd. There are a few that are always hard...missing our American family and friends is usually at the top. Sometimes though, there are other things that just feel too difficult to endure.
Saturday morning, I had one of those moments. I needed to do some grocery shopping and I was trying to bring in enough for two weeks worth of meals and lunchbox goodies. For me, that usually means at least two stores, often three. Now, you have to understand that our biggest grocery store is not much bigger than a Sheetz or 7-11. I have one store where I prefer to buy my beef and cheese, another where I tend to buy "snacks," one that I prefer to use for dairy, and another where I get chicken and most of my pantry type items. Some of those things overlap, depending on where I go, but I tend to go to one or two of them where I stock up on the kinds of things I buy there and then rotate where I go every couple of weeks.
It's generally not a fun experience for many reasons. For one thing, the availability of goods varies greatly and no sooner do I think I have meals planned out than something that is often available goes missing completely and can't be found anywhere in town. Or, on the flip side, something brand new or rare appears on the scene and there is this tension on how many to buy or how far to exceed the budget because you don't know when you'll see it again.
Secondly, food is expensive here. Even with eating a lot less meat and dairy, we spend about twice as much on groceries here as we do in the States. That is partly our fault because we haven't switched to the beans and starch type diet that most Nigeriens eat and we chose to buy imported items like apples, cheese, and butter. There is a constant tension between the budget and the bellies of 5 kids, 4 of whom are teens or nearly teens. I really miss things like weekly specials and coupons, because that was a big part of how we managed our budget in the States. Those options are non-existent here. We are blessed with a fair and steady income and we make it work, but it takes a good bit of vigilance and self-disipline (as in, "I know there are Doritos on that shelf today, but they are $4 for a small bag...walk away!")
Another reason it can be tough is simply that the realities of this culture are very, ummm, real on grocery shopping day. Yesterday, that was what pushed my buttons. You see, anytime I go to the grocery, I encounter beggars. Really, any time I leave my house, I encounter beggars, but they seem to bother me most on grocery shopping day. I think it's because I know that the money I spend for the groceries that I load into my car while walking past their outstretched hands would likely feed their families for 2-3 months or more.
There is a constant tension between the fact that my family needs to eat and the reality that these people are hungry...genuinely hungry, sometimes on the brink of starvation. They often have disabilities that make finding a job impossible, especially in a country where there aren't nearly enough jobs for the healthy people. They weren't born in a country where their inability to see or hear or walk allows them to receive benefits that will insure survival. They depend on the alms they receive from their neighbors, who have been taught that they can move along the path to paradise by throwing a few coins in the begging bowls.
My Bible talks about things like having mercy and giving a cup of water in Jesus name and a host of other vignettes about compassion and generosity and I desperately want to show the love of Christ. Yet, I feel like I am walking along a sea shore filled with sand dollars, throwing them back one at a time, just like the little story you see on the flea market posters.
Every day, I have to make multiple decisions about how to deal with each person who calls out to me, begging for a coin or two. Sometimes it's okay and other times, it is just so draining. Too often, I am so envious of my friends who live in America who are heading to Target or Starbucks or to grandma's house, oblivious to the gaunt faces that I encounter everywhere I go. I get angry that I feel guilty for buying a bag of pretzels or a box of milk as a treat for my children instead of settling for the cheaper popcorn kernels and powdered milk.
Most often, when asked for money, I smile, give a kind word, and put my hands together as if I am going to pray, which is the symbol used here to communicate, "God Bless You, but I'm not going to give you money." Sometimes, something stirs in my heart and I give a coin or two. Other times, especially if they are children, I give them a piece of fruit or maybe a small pack of cookies or nuts. I really just try to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit as I go about my errands.
Yesterday, I was headed to my last stop, which was a produce stand next to a small grocery store that I had just exited. A blind man with two small boys, maybe 4 and 6 years, approached me and walked alongside me. His glazed eyes stared off into the distance as he chanted some standard Arabic greetings. His little boys just stared at me and waited for me to purchase my items, likely hoping that I would give them my coins after the transaction. I gathered all of my produce and decided to add some oranges and bananas to give to them. However, the man that was helping me got delayed and it took a long time to get everything weighed and bagged and purchased.
By the time I was finished, they had given up and walked away and I had this urgency that I needed to give this fruit to them. The rains had come during the night and the street was flooded, so I didn't relish the idea of chasing them down. Instead, I decided to follow them in my car, but by the time I was loaded up and pulling away they were out of sight. I was running late, heading to a birthday party, and yet I knew that I HAD to hand off the fruit. For some reason, I was feeling nearly frantic so I passed the road where I would normally turn off to head home in an effort to find them. Finally I spotted them up ahead, so I pulled over, rolled down my window, and handed the older boy the bag of fruit. He smiled and thanked me, and I pulled away.
A quick glance in my rearview showed them digging into the bag to see what it was. And for some reason, I just started sobbing. Sobbing because it wasn't enough. It wasn't enough for them. It wasn't enough for all of the other hungry people. It wasn't enough of a sacrifice and yet no amount of sacrifice would begin to make a dent in the overwhelming poverty in my city or even in my little corner of my city. I sobbed because it is so hard to reconcile my life with the life of these people or my faith with this kind of suffering. And yet, I know that even beyond the hunger, even beyond the horrible medical care and education systems, these people face a terrible poverty of the soul and no matter what I do, it will never.ever.be enough for all of them.
Facing that every day can be really, really exhausting my friends. If you've ever wondered why missionaries get to come home for 6 month "vacations" every few years, this is one reason you can add to the list. What does one do with this kind of reality? How does one process it and live with it every single day? I have only one coping mechanism. For me it comes from the words I find in John 15. He is the vine. I am the branches. I try to abide in him and I trust that HE, not me, will bear much fruit. I have to trust him. That's it. That is all I can do. Beg him for the strength and the wisdom and the courage to face today and to lead me as to how to respond to the needs I see. Then tomorrow, we'll face it again, together.
Often, I wonder if it will ever get any easier. Sometimes I think that would be nice. Other times the thought terrifies me. Oh Lord, may I never, ever, not be bothered by this kind of human need and suffering. May it always make my chest tight and may the tears always be near to the soul.