Thank God it’s over. Thank God it’s not real. And then I remember, it is real. For 3.6 billion of the earth’s population.
This week I’ve been attending an international development conference in Hong Kong for my work. The one that allows me to volunteer for Foxglove. And on the last day, we visit Crossroads International for a training. A simulation exercise to experience, in some form, for just a few hours, poverty in the Developing World.
Seventy of us enter a large room. We sit on a concrete floor, empty aside from rusty corrugated iron wall paneling and a few makeshift shops. We talk about the definition of poor. The expectations of charities. The assumptions of those looking in on the poor. And then we prepare to experience a ‘day’ in their shoes.
They divide us into family groups spread around the room on plastic mats. They tell us the average slum ‘room’ is 2m x 2m. This is the dimension of our mat for eating, sleeping and working together. We’re instructed of the living costs we need to meet today: 180 for floor space, 20 for utilities, 80 for food, 30 for sanitation. The latter is an optional extra. But we’ve got an income source. Making paper bags from old newspaper glued together by a home brew of water and flour. And the buyers are the shopkeepers. Local merchants also struggling to survive.
The next hour is a haze of noise, rejection, begging, and work that fails to meet the minimum targets. We start with intent and vigour but the desperation grows each moment. We start to offer our possessions and confront our own values and integrity in the quest for survival.
And I feel like I’m in a washing machine struggling for breath. I cannot think of tomorrow when today looks hopeless and urgent. I’ll work all day. All night. But the challenge to survive is overwhelming. And this is day one.
I’m relieved when it ends. It’s a simulation but you don’t escape the feelings of anxiety, despair and desperation. And as we sit to reflect and debrief. There’s a different atmosphere. A room full of aid workers with more questions than answers.
Apparently, during our work period, there were ‘callouts’ from charities for education. I didn’t hear them. For healthcare. I didn’t hear them. For vocational training. I didn’t hear them. All I heard was the cries of my children, the clamour of the streets and the poverty message going around and around in my mind. Driving me to do more. To do anything.
It’s a confronting exercise. And for a time during the debrief, I’m tempted to throw up my hands in my own act of despair. Until the facilitator helps the room to calm. “Thank you”, he tells us. “Thank you for coming, for feeling, for caring, for crying.” I had cried. “Thank you for putting up your hand to do what you can, give what you have and hold hands with those you reach. It’s enough for one. And the world needs you.”
And I’m reminded that though the world is broken and reeling, the light remains.
So do good.
May we never let poverty rest. May we never let poverty win.