Since my first trip to the orphanage on Tuesday, I have not really been able to sleep. I thought that running and playing and being jumped on by dozens of kids would wear my body right out, but it has left my mind reeling. Gorgeous smiling faces, lit with energy and hope despite separation, heartbreak, and the desolation of the surrounding area. I plan to visit this larger orphanage whenever possible, where the small, rough hands sweetly latch to mine and guide me to play.
I have since started officially volunteering in a smaller center with 3 teenage boys and one 18 year-old where my housemate Chow also volunteers. These boys are also extremely kind and well behaved with a touch of teenage cheekiness. They focus remarkably well as we review homework and learn English songs, though I refuse to teach them all the lyrics to Adam Levine’s One More Night. I just taught them the Cup Song and all three of them picked it up in half the time it took me! One boy (perhaps my favorite of the group, shhh….) is destined for music, I’m convinced. This fella, Paul, currently hobbles around on wooden crutches as a run in with a tuk-tuk left him with a broken leg several months ago. He remains the cheeriest of the group.
With no structured schedule and no real supervision, it is not difficult to draw upon the conversations of accountability and responsible volunteering discussed back at school. While the other boys attend regular school, Paul’s leg prevents him from attending regular classes so that the volunteers and two supervisors may provide him with the only instruction he receives.
Last night I could not stop thinking about chance, the luck (or lack of luck) of being born into an environment of poverty. I am well aware that there exists a history and process behind every situation- nothing can be explained by pure chance. Certainly, global and institutional factors perpetuate poverty and equip certain individuals with opportunities unavailable to others. In numerous and infinite ways, we are products of human history and centuries of interaction. These factors, however, are almost easier to study and discuss than the terrifying fact that we absolutely no control over the positions we are born into. Obviously we make choices throughout life that affect our standing in the world, as nature and nurture, choice and chance, interact to produce infinite outcomes for a single soul. But the very beginning of our lives remains completely out of our hands (mixing in a bit of philosophy and/ or religion and/or pure confusion). I can’t help but think of how my life could be so dramatically different if I had started off elsewhere- assuming that I would still exist. I could have been born just as easily into Paul’s shoes, as he could have been the daughter of two healthy, well-educated, kind and amazing North American parents.
This delicacy of chance is hypothesized by some psychologists to lay at the heart of stigma, as many may chose to avoid disadvantaged individuals due to the discomfort of realizing how little separates “us” from “them.” Interestingly, this theme was also used to inspire community action and empathy at the Suitcase Clinic’s latest Poverty Symposium. Grappling with the question of “Why me? Why them?” seems to part of the human condition, an inquiry worth chewing on even if no clear answer exists. Perhaps we are defined, in part, by how we chose to respond to the acknowledged fragility of our position in this world.