Friday, August 17, 2007

It was never between us and them anyway...

Last week my mother told me that my thank you letter for the blanket project was published in the Tribune. So on Monday I went to the bank, checked my balance (damn, only N$445-- US$63-- left for the next three weeks. Bread for dinner again tonight!) and withdrew N$20 so I could go use the internet for 30 minutes. I went online, waited about 20 minutes for the website to load, and clicked on the headline “Local Efforts Help People in Africa.” Above the headline it said: 17 comments. Hmm, comments. Interesting feature, I thought to myself. I quickly skimmed my article for overlooked grammatical errors or Namlish (habits of an English major trapped in a non-English speaking country) and moved on to the comments.


I was surprised. Clearly, many readers had not understood the point of the article. The thank you article was not asking for approval. I didn’t write it to encourage people to give to Africa or to my community in Namibia, and I didn’t write it to claim that poor Africans are more deserving than the poor of America. In fact, to most people who responded, I didn’t write the article for you at all. I wrote the article to thank the young people of Onalaska and La Crosse who initiated this wonderful act of kindness. That was the point, and it’s unfortunate that people missed it.

I thought about writing a long, angry response (actually, I did write one. It was therapeutic) in defense of the innocent young students who worked so hard on the blankets. This project had value that stretched so far beyond what anyone back home can realize, and demeaning that value is shameful. However, judging by the comments, I doubt anything I say will ever get through to such people (people who know nothing of African history, or of America’s involvement in African history; people who truly believe that Africans don’t need blankets because Africa’s a hot place or that nights of 25 degrees FAHRENHEIT do not warrant blanket use). Yes, I thought about responding, but most of the comments were too ignorant to justify a response (take, for example, the suggestion to donate an ice cream-making machine instead of blankets. Yeah… send it this way… along with, um, electricity. And money to pay for the electricity. And milk and sugar. And did you know that, because of malnourishment, an estimated 70% of Namibians are lactose intolerant? So be sure to send with it medication for the many children with thin stomachs who will not be able to resist making themselves sick off the treasures produced by this new white-man’s machine. Yes… ice cream. Good idea. Forget the blankets.). Responding was tempting, but in the end it was too easy, so I decided to leave it alone.

I’ve received a fair amount of criticism since I joined Peace Corps. Initially, not everyone-- including family and friends-- understood or agreed with my intentions to volunteer overseas for two years. It was a very difficult decision for me to make and I considered all sides, but in the end I felt accepting my invitation to serve was something I had to do for me. Joining the Peace Corps and moving to Namibia has been the hardest yet most wonderful experience of my life. I’m more comfortable and confident and at peace with myself than I have ever been, and a bit of criticism could never damage that. In fact, keep it coming. What angered me about the bloggers, and what made me consider responding, was that they were judging not me, but the generous work done by those who participated in the blanket project. By belittling this project, they belittled everyone involved with it. From the school children to the Franciscan Sisters to the battered women’s shelters to the elderly and the terminally ill-- they judged these people and overshadowed their efforts with blind criticism. I am a critical person and these are people I wouldn’t dare touch. At the same time, I personally know many of those who participated in the blanket project; I know their spirits are strong and while I do feel some sort of responsibility to stand up for them, I know they are far wiser than the people who made light of their efforts. They don’t need me to defend them.

There is suffering everywhere, including the US: this is true and I’m the first person to admit this. Suffering is universal, as is poverty. Nevertheless, as anyone who has spent time in Africa (or any developing country) can tell you, poverty and suffering here cannot be compared with poverty and suffering there. Do I actually have to say that? There is no comparison… there just isn’t. Don’t pursue that argument. However, as my mother noted, while poverty and death and disease are horrible ways to suffer, it is apparent that Americans (La Crosse-ites) may be suffering from something much worse: a moral suffering of the soul.

In the end, what was most disappointing for me was that such remarks came from my hometown newspaper. I love La Crosse and will always consider it home. Part of the reason I was so impressed with the blanket project is because I know La Crosse is a small, conservative mid-western town that perhaps a few years ago didn’t know much about Namibia or Africa. Coming up with such a generous donation for disadvantaged children so far away from them is a wonderful sign that La Crosse area residents, especially the youth, are becoming more aware and considerate of the world at large. The Namibians who were involved with the blankets (teachers, children, even Peace Corps staff) are so impressed with the good deeds of the citizens of La Crosse. They admire you all and are genuinely grateful for all that you have given them. And then of course, there are my kids. My kids think La Crosse must be the greatest city in America. They are bound and determined to find someway to visit me and my “village” some day, and there isn’t a doubt in their minds that they will be welcomed with open arms by all the citizens of La Crosse. What was most disappointing for me was to realize that today, at this moment, this would not be the case.

Though I do not judge people who choose to hide in the anonymity of cyberspace, I do wonder about you-- who you are and what purpose you feel you are serving by posting anonymous and negative comments about newspaper articles that are in no way harmful or hurtful to you. If you would like to share this information with me, please do so. Additionally, as from your criticisms I assume YOU yourself are actively working within the La Crosse area to assist those who are suffering, please share with me the stories of how you are fighting the good fight; positive stories from home go a long way for me here. And if you have any further criticisms of the blanket project (or of myself), please send them my way. Defending great, humanitarian work like what these young people have done is something I will never get tired of and is definitely the easiest fight I will fight this week. Send letters to Private Bag 2017, Omaruru, Namibia, Africa. My email address is If you have a calling card you can try to get through to my phone by dialing 011264812040485. Leave the others alone.

I have the following poem taped to the wall of my bedroom. At a time when I was doubting myself it was given to me by someone I have a great deal of respect for, and I think it’s a good message to pass on to the people involved with the blanket project who may feel a bit sad by the insensitivity of some silly bloggers. Sometimes standing alone is okay when you know for sure what it is you are standing for. Because when all is said and done, it was never between you and them anyway...

People are often unreasonable,
illogical, and self-centered;
Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of
selfish, ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some
false friends and some true enemies;
Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and frank,
people may cheat you;
Be honest and frank anyway.

What you spend years building,
someone could destroy overnight;
Build anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness,
people may be jealous;
Be happy anyway.

The good you do today,
people will often forget tomorrow;
Do good anyway.

Give the world the best you’ve got,
and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.

You see, in the final analysis,
It never was between you and them anyway.

-Mother Theresa