Sometimes it takes people asking me questions in order for me to be able to articulate the things that I’ve learned.
Currently we have a medical student volunteer from Germany visiting the hospital. She brought along almost €300 donated to her by her family and friends to help the people of Sierra Leone. Even in just two days of working at the hospital she already can clearly see the desperate need of people. This morning she brought me the money and said “I want to give this to you so that you can help the patients who really need it.” And that prompted me to reflect on the last several months of personal growth in new ways.
I’m finding that living in Sierra Leone is challenging a lot of my cultural habits. When living in the states, I was always reticent to give to the beggars you see by the side of the road. My rationale being that I want to make sure my money goes to the people who need it most. And roadside assistance can be hit or miss with true and actual need. As I bring these habits into Africa, I find myself only wanting to help the poorest of the poor. If I think the family can scrape together enough money, call enough relatives, or sell enough of their assets, they are somehow less deserving of my help. And the more I have stopped to analyze this behavior, the more it seems like I am somehow assigning value or “worth“ to different people. This is exactly the conundrum that our volunteer came to me with this morning. She wants her money to go to where it’s “really needed.”
But today is an unusual day. A week ago we had a patient come to the hospital who couldn’t pay a single cent. He’s a 15-year-old man who for the last six months has had a massive dental abscess. The pus has drained from his face down into his neck and in multiple places he has open wounds that continually drain pus. He’s been on several courses of antibiotics and still his disfigurement remains. Our new dentist in Sierra Leone, Mel Bersaba, saw this boy and rightfully felt pity for him. So he single-handedly pulled as many strings as he could and we were able to get this man to see the top dentist and dental surgeon in the country. He got a CT scan of his face that showed the infection has been eating away at his jaw bone. The specialist recommended surgery as soon as possible. Dr. Bersaba spent hundreds of dollars to get all of this done. But today when it came time for the driver to take the patient to the hospital for a coronavirus test prior to surgery on Thursday, the patient refused to get into the car. I looked him straight in the eye and told him that if he did not have the surgery, which will cost him absolutely nothing, he would be dead in less than a year. After a long discussion I got to the root of the problem: he says both him and his mother had the same dream. During surgery at the hospital he will die.
I begged, pleaded, and explained to him why I was afraid for him. I told him that I believe these dreams are from the devil and the devil is just trying to kill him. If he does not have the surgery, he will die. I told him that I don’t fear surgery, coronavirus, or humans. But I do fear that demons are trying to harm him. I told him the only way to overcome those dark forces is with God, prayer, and courage. He declined my offer to pray for him because he’s Muslim. Just a few hours ago he left and went back to the village.
What am I to think about this? Did we spend hundreds of dollars, waste the time of top specialists in the country, and dedicate our days to a cause that wasn’t worthy? I think a year ago I would’ve thought so. This country has started to change me. If I am truly to emulate Christ, I don’t just dedicate myself to those I deem “worthy“. How often does God “waste“ his love, time, and blessings on me or other sinners like me? The idea of worth is not how Christ sees the world. And I am slowly starting to reframe my ideas around success.
I think there is value in living a life open and generous enough that some of your projects “fail“ by human standards. In the past I have been far too stingy for fear of failure. When I think about God’s continual commitment to an earth filled with failing human beings, I think that’s the kind of love I’m expected to emulate.
If an institution took this approach all the time, it would be exploited to bankruptcy. But I encouraged my volunteer to keep the money she has and continue to observe and learn for a few more days before deciding how to use it. Deciding how to use a limited amount of money is very Sierra Leonean. Do I feed the healthy children that I have, or do I spend money on the child who is sick? Feeling that tension will help her to understand the culture. But I also encouraged her to challenge the idea of that some people are more worthy than others. It’s a very American idea that I have grown up with and has only started to slowly change in the last several months. It’s hard to live an open life where your time in money ends up in “failure,” but it’s something I aspire to do. And daily I try to remind myself that the work we do might not bear fruit in this lifetime, and that’s not my problem. I’m called to live an open and generous life that runs quite counter to my American culture.