I’m reading Mountains Beyond Mountains right now. It’s written by Tracy Kidder, and it’s about Paul Farmer. I have been told by several people that anyone considering or has already chosen a volunteer life - should read it.
Paul Farmer is a medical doctor as well as an anthropologist. He co-founded Partners in Health and is involved in an extensive center in one of the poorest parts of Haiti.
While I’m only a quarter through the book, much of it resonates with me. What I find particularly helpful right now is that he talks about how his worldview shifts once he spends some time in Haiti - and how he can’t see the world the same anymore.
He describes it as: “…his mind coalesced into a vision of his life’s proper work. But, he’d insist, this happened in stages, not all at once. ‘For me, it was a process, not an event. A slow awakening as opposed to an epiphany’.” (Page 79)
I feel similarly.
Before Paul is a doctor and early into his time in Haiti, there is a powerful story told about when he’s interacting with an American doctor in Haiti - who is about to go home. Paul asks the doctor if it’s going to be hard acclimating to the U.S. after everything he knows that is going on in Haiti. The doctor says, “I’m American, I’m going home.”
A little later, a story is told of a pregnant woman and how she needs a blood transplant to make it (I forget the details of the medical issue offhand). Her sister tries to get it but the blood bank is so far away and costs so much money that it can’t be resolved in time. Later, after the woman and her unborn child pass away, Paul is very moved by the sister’s words spoken through her tears again and again, “We’re all human beings.” (Page 80)
It makes the discussion about whether you’re American or not slide into focus - it doesn’t really matter. Or rather - it shouldn’t matter. Just like it shouldn’t matter whether you’re poor or what country you live in.
We’re all human beings.
It reminds me of Pope Francis’ remarks this weekend about how there needs to be more compassion toward the Syrian refugees.
Another quote from the book that has stuck with me: Paul realized that “a minor error in one setting of power and privilege could have an enormous impact on the poor in another.” (Page 78) In the poor part of Haiti where Paul’s center is, where there once was fish, water, and an abundance of wildlife, there is now an arid land with a lack thereof - due to a dam that was built by rich, powerful people (and if I’m recalling it correctly, I believe Americans helped fund it). The dam cut off the water from the rural farms and displaced people who had fertile land along the river before it became a lake.
A similar thing happened here in Thailand. Due to dams built along the Mekong River, the amount of water flowing is slowed, affecting the lives of the people here.
My husband has read many many books on social justice since we have arrived in Thailand, and I’m lucky to get the recommendations of the best of the best. Two of my favorites are The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson (about the migration of African Americans from the South to the rest of the country after the Civil War until Civil Rights) - and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (about America’s incarceration system, written by a lawyer who has worked with the criminal justice system since the 1980’s). I recommend those as two reads for any American - or anyone who wants to learn from America’s mistakes.
John and I have talked about how we can’t look at things the same way anymore - whether it’s little things like books and movies, or what celebrities or politicians say glibly, or even what I personally have said or not said in our present and past.
As a person of privilege, I feel compelled to review things a little more closely. Thus I’m grateful for this volunteer year - for the chance to explore social justice more fully, for the chance to literally make a difference in people’s lives here in Nongkhai, for the chance to share it with my husband and others who have become or are becoming interested - or already were!
These are some of the ways that I have shifted and become more involved in social justice. I hope that we can carry much of this back into our lives once we return to the states. If previous volunteers who have come here are any guide, I think we will.
On a final housekeeping note, I will not be posting a blog next week because we will be on our final big vacation for the year - in Vietnam and Cambodia - with our dear friends Aaron and Heather. See you in two weeks!