All this talk about emotional toll has me wondering about what my emotional high points have been during this project. One of them has definitely been being able to make a meaningful difference in the life of one family over an extended period of time.
But, believe it or not, something actually edges that out as my emotional high point.
I actually hadn’t talked about it yet because I’m trying to leave as few spoilers on this site as possible for those who mostly follow my work through YouTube. So, if you want to be surprised when you watch my videos – don’t read the rest of this post. 🙂
It’s after the jump.
It was April 9th: my birthday. But it was the weirdest birthday ever. I had never been so far away from friends & family. What made things even weirder, was that *I* was the one giving the presents (so to speak).
With the help of some friends at the Canadian International Development Agency, I was able to take part in some Canadian tax-payer funded post-Cyclone Sidr recovery efforts. Although it had been months since Cyclone Sidr had hit, a lot of recovery has yet to be done.
Many people were left unemployed and homeless. Using funds from Canada, a local NGO was providing housing materials to rebuild homes and provide assistance for farmers to help them reseed their crops.
With permission of the local NGO, I was able to contribute to the local recovery efforts. I had brought along with me 15 of 25 the ZeroFly tarpaulins that were donated to me by Vestergaard-Frandsen. These are tough, durable, and long lasting plastic sheets that can be used to make a roof of a house waterproof.
They are also treated with a UV-resistant insecticide which helps kill mosquitoes. It’s brilliant – it’s protection against mosquitoes without the need for a bednet. [Full Disclosure: I wasn’t paid or required to endorse this product]
Among the people who came for tarpaulins was a young woman (bottom right photo). She was dressed in very immaculate clothes with very fine embroidery. Later that day, when I went into the field to oversee how some of the families were installing their tarpaulins, I bumped into her again. It turns out, this young woman is in fact one of the poorest people I’ve ever met. She works full-time and her income is zero. The fancy clothes? She didn’t want to show up “looking poor” in the aid lineup – so she put on the fanciest clothes she had.
Those clothes, she explained, she saves only for special occasions. She quickly went back to her regular outfit after returning from the NGO:
I actually noticed her because – while overseeing an installation of a ZeroFly tarpaulin in her neighborhood – I noticed she was crying. I approached her and asked her why. “People don’t normally give us nice things” she said teary-eyed. Normally, she explained, the “rich people” donate their used clothes, hand-me downs, and things they don’t want anymore. I thought I had just given her a bit of high-tech (but important) plastic – but to her it seemed like I had given her was the most beautiful thing in the world.
I later asked her a bit about herself – which is how I found out she works full-time but earns no money. “How could that be?” I asked her. It turns out – she works as a servant in exchange for food. It is with this food that she tries to raise her kids. “What about the father?” I asked. Apparently, her husband was pressured to leave her because her in-laws felt that she was “too poor” for their son. So he picked up, left, and remarried – without so much as even filing for divorce.
When the crowd of people that gathered to watch me film and photograph wasn’t looking, I secretly asked her to come visit me with at the local NGO offices. After talking it over with my friends at the Canadian International Development Agency (informally that is) and the local NGO director, I decided to give her some cash to help her get on her feet. In total I gave her 1,500 taka (or about $21 US Dollars). To put that in perspective, whenever she would get “paid” for her servant work – she usually would get 5 to 10 taka (7 to 15 cents).
The NGO Director made it clear to this lady: this wasn’t a handout. They would be checking up from time to time to make sure this was used as an investment. But that wasn’t even necessary – she already had an idea as to what she was going to use this money for. She vowed to buy some chickens and create an income for herself by selling the eggs that hatch. What gets me the most – and what I won’t forget – is the way she looked at me. It’s like I was some sort of person that she didn’t believe existed in the world.
The funny thing is – I felt the same way about her. Here is a young woman who the world had more or less told her she is worth nothing. Her in-laws basically told her she wasn’t someone worthy of marrying their son, her husband basically told her she wasn’t someone worth staying with, and they people that employed her were basically telling her she wasn’t someone worth even paying. And on top of that all, you have Mother Nature who basically said she’s not worthy of having a roof over here head.
I’m trying to write this in a way that doesn’t sound corny or cheesy – but I can’t. I think the most important impact I had on this person wasn’t the tarpaulin that will keep her home dry and free of mosquitoes – nor was it the money which I gave which might help launch her into financial independence. Rather, the biggest thing I think I did was make her realize that she was someone that had worth. Heck – when I think about it – she might be the single most important validation for every single hardship, sacrifice, and emotional toll I’ve had to take during this project.
I still get teary-eyed thinking about that.